September 30, 2006
Blind Lake by Robert Charles Wilson
Telescopes of surpassing power revealed to her the unrevealed depths of the cosmos on polished mirrors of floating mercury. The dead worlds of Sirius, the half-formed worlds of Arcturus, the rich but lifeless worlds whirling around vast Antares and Betelgeuse -- these she studied, without avail.
-- Polton Cross, "Wings Across the Cosmos", 1938
"Blind Lake" is an almost fable-like contemplation about First Contact. One of the basic attributes we give to sentient beings is the need for communication, and in "Blind Lake" the universe itself conspires to provide communication between far-flung sentient beings who otherwise could only passively observe each other.
The "Blind Lake" of the title is an observation station: where scientists of various types observe another sentient race many light years away. The telescopes we use to observe other stars become powerful enough to resolve high levels of detail on a planet light years away. However, there are uncomfortable questions about the technology that makes this happen. The computers that were initially programmed to improve the signal to noise ratio from the massive telescope array in space, seem to be creating data out of thin air: data that has an impossibly higher resolution than should be possible. Some question whether the data is real: but most accept that the complexity of what they are observing has to be real, since it would be unthinkable for the software to be dreaming all this up. But there are skeptics ...
Each section of the novel begins with a quote from a Golden Age (1920s-1930s) science-fiction author (e.g. the one above by John Russell Fearn, under the pseudonym of Polton Cross) that identifies with this concern of being able to observe other sentient beings without any means of communicating with them. The only quote not from a Golden Age author is from Lucian of Samosata (from Icaromenippus c. 150 AD, often cited as being arguably the first science-fiction story) which is similarly a story that is concerned about a journey for the purpose of understanding.
In this novel, Robert Charles Wilson sets up a solution that resolves this concern -- that the universe could not be this way to only allow observation of others without a means for communication. The solution turns out to be closely linked to the mysterious data being generated by the computers at Blind Lake. Characters in the novel talk about possible reasons why this solution could exist, but no particular exegesis of the solution is provided by the author himself.
In parts of the novel, through the voice of one of the scientists at Blind Lake, RCW makes an impassioned argument: that science-fiction could be relevant to the way that scientists think about their work, that trying to understand and identify with the viewpoint of what they are studying is not always a case of unwanted anthopomorphism, but could lead to insights and discoveries otherwise closed off to the conservative viewpoint: the view that only a clinical observation of the facts should be used to inform any scientific theory. RCW hopes that a connection is possible, however tenuous, between any two groups of sentient beings, and he sets up a deus-ex-machina that enables this connection to whoever is willing to pay the price. In this novel it becomes clear that some species made the choice and have vanished, while others have largely ignored this conduit of connection and continue their lives as before. It is not clear which choice humanity will take.
%T Blind Lake %A Robert Charles Wilson %I Tor %D 2003 %G ISBN: 0-765-34160-3 (pb) %P 399 %K science-fiction
Review written: 2006/9/26
August 24, 2006
The Prestige by Christopher Priest
An illusion has three stages.
First there is the setup, in which the nature of what might be attempted is hinted at, or suggested, or explained. The apparatus is seen. Volunteers from the audience sometimes participate in the preparation. As the trick is being set up, the magician will make every possible use of misdirection.
The performance is where the magicians's lifetime of practice, and his innate skill as a performer, conjoin to produce the magical display.
The third stage is sometimes called the effect, or the prestige, and this is the product of magic. If a rabbit is pulled from a hat, the rabbit which apparently did not exist before the trick was performed, can be said to be the prestige of that trick.
This novel is about magic, English magic in particular, or at least is portrayed as such for most of its length. American science makes an appearance, but by then the misdirection has already worked. It does not matter that you know this before reading this novel, the trick will work just the same. The book's main character is Andrew Westley, born Nicholas Borden, whose name changed after being adopted as a young boy. Andrew is convinced of a psychic link between him and a twin brother who cannot possibly exist, but whose possible existence has haunted Andrew. As the novel begins, he is confronted with the memoirs of his ancestor, Alfred Borden, a Victorian era magician who was famous in England at the time for his remarkable magic trick: `The New Transported Man', in which he appears to transport himself across a stage instantaneously. Alfred Borden's life, however, intertwines with another magician, Rupert Angier, with whom he begins a life-long feud and professional competition. Most of the novel is epistolary in nature (all the better to introduce unreliable narrators!) with the memoirs of Alfred Borden and the diary of Rupert Angier making up most of the novel's length.
Despite it's pretense at being historical fiction, the novel is really science-fiction, as you could imagine from Priest's previous work. A piece of ponderous historical fiction about Victorian magic: it does not really attempt to be such a thing. Think of it more as steampunk or entertaining speculative fiction. A more historically intertwined plot would have spent more time on Nikolai Tesla who appears all too briefly as a character in the novel. Perhaps as a result, even at 360 pages, the novel reads quickly and is almost novella-like in structure. It is not often that one complains that a speculative fiction novel is too short.
So what is the result? The prestige in this case is an entertaining novel which would have made a great graphic novel (it is rather to be a Hollywood movie it seems). In his more recent novels, Priest has moved towards fiction that looks at British history, but with the traditional Priest science-fiction touches. My own personal preference is still for his science-fiction work from the 1970s, like "The Inverted World".
%T The Prestige %A Christopher Priest %I Simon and Schuster, hardcover, 1995; Gollancz, paperback, 2004 %D 1995 %G ISBN: 0-575-07580-5 (pb) %P 360 %K science-fiction, historical-fiction
Review written: 2006/8/24
June 27, 2006
Spin by Robert Charles Wilson
Robert Charles Wilson is consistently good, always delivering new and sometimes old science-fiction ideas that deserve attention with characters and plotlines that never disappoint.
Spin has many old science-fiction ideas contained within it, but all of them are carefully re-considered within a storyline that is already compelling: a coming-of-age story of the main character, Tyler Dupree. But this story is set within a grand and far more painful coming-of-age for humanity itself.
Tyler, ever since he was a young child, has been close friends with twins: Diane and Jason Lawton. The class distinctions that produce a simultaneous envy, fear and affection between Tyler and the rich and powerful Lawton family is wonderfully rendered. If nothing else fantastic happened in this novel, that story would be reason enough to read it. However, fantastic things do happen: while adolescents, Tyler and the Lawton twins witness first hand the creation of a planet-spanning shield around the Earth, presumably by aliens, which blocks out the universe. Experiments quickly show that time passes slowly inside the Spin, so while 30 years pass on Earth, 300 billion years pass outside the shield. Humanity does what it can, taking advantage of the temporal difference to first terraform and then colonize Mars. There is a fateful meeting of the human-descended Martians with the Earthbound variety in the third act, which literally transforms humanity: one human at a time. Together the two groups get closer to piecing together the nature of the puzzle: why does the Spin exist? What is its ultimate purpose? Is it benign or punitive?
Lomax quoted a poem by a nineteenth-century Russian poet named F. I. Tiutchev, who couldn't have imagined the Spin but wrote as if he had:
Gone like a vision is the external world
and Man, a homeless orphan, has to face
helpless, naked and alone,
the blackness of immeasurable space.
All life and brightness seem an ancient dream,
while in the substance of the night,
unraveled, alien, he now perceives
a fateful something that is his by right
Then Lomax departed the stage, and after the prosaic business of backward counting, the first of the rockets rode its column of fire into the unraveling cosmos behind the sky. A fateful something. Ours by right.
The idea of an enforced isolation for Earth from the universe is similar to other ideas in science-fiction: like in "Quarantine" by Greg Egan, a novel in which the solar system in encased in a impenetrable Bubble. But in Spin, this isolation will turn out to be closer in spirit to what the monolith represents in "2001: A Space Odyssey". In other words, the isolation will paradoxically result in a journey for all of mankind by the end of the book.
Wun knew (or had been coached to understand) how unlikely this event seemed to the average Earthling. ... So he thanked us all for our hospitality in his best mid-Atlantic accent and talked wistfully about his home and why he had left it to come here. He painted Mars as a foreign but entirely human place, the kind of place you might like to visit, where the people were friendly and the scenery was interesting, although the winters, he admitted, were often harsh.
("Sounds like Canada," Carol said.)
Update (Sep 10, 2006): I removed the comment about RCW being underrated. Spin won the Hugo for best novel of 2006. Links to the World Science Fiction Convention: WSFS page and the 64th WSFS Convention.
%T Spin %A Robert Charles Wilson %I Tor %D 2005 %G ISBN: 0-765-34825-X (pb) %P 454 %K science-fiction
Review written: 2006/2/19
January 25, 2006
The Other Wind by Ursula K. Le Guin
Between 1968 and 1972, Le Guin published the Earthsea trilogy: "A Wizard of Earthsea", "The Tombs of Atuan" and "The Farthest Shore". The Earthsea trilogy is a widely read and well received fantasy series. In 1990 Le Guin added a fourth book to this trilogy: a novel named "Tehanu".
Now Le Guin has added a fifth full-length novel to the Earthsea setting (there have also been several short stories, also published in books). Ged and Tenar, protagonists from the earlier four novels, both appear and play key roles. In addition, Tehanu and her relationship with the dragon Kalessin forms a crucial part of this novel (which means you should probably read "Tehanu" before you read this novel).
A new character is introduced, Alder, a man who has unwittingly initiated a dangerous transformation that threatens all of Earthsea. Alder is a small-time sorceror, fixing broken pots with his magical skills. As the novel opens, he has lost his wife, Lily, and his grief seems to retain a link between them that should have been broken at death. He begins to dream of a field with a low stone wall that seems to separate the living from the dead. These dreams seem to be undoing not just his sanity but also seem to herald a transformation in the real world, in Earthsea. As the novel begins, he travels to meet the man who had been Archmage of Earthsea, Ged, to decode what is happening and why.
Rather than tell a story, this novel aims to introduce a new myth, with its own philosophy on the relationship between life and death. With each book in the Earthsea saga, Le Guin has managed to expand, almost casually it seems, the boundaries of what a work of fantasy can address, without corrupting the genre (that is, without any contemptible attempts at fusion of genres).
It is a pity that this novel has been saddled with a title that will inevitably provoke a few jokes about flatulence (perhaps an unlikely comparison with the movie "A Mighty Wind"). On the other hand, it is perhaps better not to take anything too seriously.
%T The Other Wind %A Ursula K. Le Guin %I Ace Books %P 273 %D 2001 %G ISBN: 044100993X (pb) %K science-fiction
Four For Tomorrow by Roger Zelazny
A collection of some of Zelazny's more famous short stories. It includes 'The Furies' from 1965, 'The Graveyard Heart' from 1964, 'The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth' from 1965, 'A Rose for Ecclesiastes' from 1963. It includes an introduction by Theodore Sturgeon who points out how fantasy and science-fiction interweave in the stories in this collection.
'The Furies' is probably the best story here, with an exceptional krewe of flawed geniuses in search of the anti-hero fugitive. Sandor Sandor is the most interesting of the detectives, with a PhD from the University of Brill on the planet Dombeck, a genius in the geography of all the worlds in the inhabited galaxy and missing his legs and his right arm.
'The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth' is one of Zelazny's most famous short stories about human bait for a strange leviathan in the seas of Venus.
%T Four For Tomorrow %A Roger Zelazny %I Ace Books: New York %P 216 %D 1967 %G ISBN: -- (pb) %K science-fiction
Review written: 2003/01/02
Permanence by Karl Schroeder
Permanence refers to the idea of building a civilization that could essentially support itself over vast periods of time, billions of years. A concept some have referred to as `deep time'. In this novel, it gives rise to a cult, whose efforts are directed towards this goal.
The universe in which the plot unfolds is the main attraction. Karl Schroeder has clearly put in a lot of effort to make a plausible and consistent future history in the great traditions of early sf authors such as Arthur C. Clarke. The basic idea is embellished with many scientific details on the author's website (which is what induced me to read the novel in the first place). The discovery of multitudes of brown dwarf stars littered throughout the universe finally made the promise of the expansion of humanity into the void. While previously the distances between stars without the possibility of faster than light travel meant that there could not be any coherent contact between them to maintain any kind of society, the existence of previously unseen and substantial numbers of brown dwarf stars with their own planets orbiting them meant that such a society was now possible. "Permanence" begins with such a society already extant and threatened with extinction after the new discovery of faster than light travel possible only between large masses such as the lit stars.
The plot is not particularly original, the now classic sf tale, the coming of age `young-adult' storyline made famous by Heinlein. Published not soon after his debut novel, "Ventus", Karl Schroeder has produced yet another impressive sf novel, although clearly not as accomplished as his previous effort. There are some great inventive ideas throughout the book, but the characters are not treated with the same care and many aspects seem rushed to completion.
%T Permanence %A Karl Schroeder %I Tor Books %P 447 %D 2002 %G ISBN: 076530371X %K science-fiction
Review written: 2003/01/06
A Cook's Tour by Anthony Bourdain
For a chef at a fairly well known Parisian brasserie style restaurant in New York, Anthony Bourdain sure does write a lot of books. His first novels were fiction, mostly humorous crime dramas from what I can gather (without reading them). Then came a look at Typhoid Mary from an intentionally biased point of view.
Then came the success of "Kitchen Confidential" spurred on by an earlier New Yorker article which grew to become the book. This success meant that he could suggest to his publisher that he would travel the world for this next project in search of the `perfect' meal. In a Faustian bargain, the book was linked to a Food Network show of the same name, guaranteeing for him a new and larger captive audience and providing him with adequate guilt and angst to fuel his venting on the show against other easily ridiculed Food Network stars such as Emeril and Martha Stewart. Tony has no less than five installments of `Why you don't want to be on Television' distributed throughout his book bitching about filming the show.
The first thing about this book is that while Tony's plan was to scour the world for his meals, he spends most of his time writing about Vietnam and neighbouring Cambodia with no less than six out of the sixteen chapters in his book about these two countries (Cambodia gets one chapter out of the six).
Being the modern day equivalent of the travelling journalist (like a modern Peter Fleming, for example) can only work if the personality of the author is upto the challenge of eliciting a grand experience in the travels. To some extent, Tony tries to do this by pursuing the exotic meal: still beating heart of a snake and numerous types of offal, poisonous fish and bugs. But these are mostly visual and are more readily enjoyed on the TV show. The book provides a much more tangible sense of the no-bullshit personality of the author and the contexts into which he chooses to put himself. For example, discussing Iron Chef with a group of drunk salarymen in a Tokyo bar is something that cannot be planned out (for the record, Tony's favorite is Morimoto, while the popular favorite seems to be Sakai, and Tony ends up providing the American reaction to the disgraceful Bobby Flay cutting board incident during the first Flay/Morimoto face-off).
Of course, you don't need to travel very far to get the same kind of food that Tony talks about in his visits to South-East Asia: a good bowl of Pho, even durian fruit are readily available in any big city in North America. Tony knows this, of course, but does not actually express it in his book, but what he is after is the right context for a meal: perhaps in the middle of Khmer Rouge bandit territory, which makes the meal perfect. In the end, it's eating some beach resort ribs on vacation in the French West Indies with his wife after the tour is over is what seems to be as perfect as anything else to be found in a world tour.
%T A Cook's Tour %T :in Search of the Perfect Meal %A Anthony Bourdain %I Raincoast Books, Vancouver %P 274 %D 2001 %G ISBN: 1551924293 %K non-fiction
Review written: 2002/12/20
January 03, 2006
Solaris by Stanislaw Lem
We take off into the cosmos, ready for anything ... Modesty forbids us to say so, but there are times when we think pretty well of ourselves. ... We are humanitarian and chivalrous; we don't want to enslave other races, we simply want to bequeath them our values and take over their heritage in exchange ... We think of ourselves as the Knights of the Holy Contact. This is another lie. We are only seeking Man. We have no need for other worlds. We need mirrors. We don't know what to do with other worlds. A single world, our own, suffices us; but we can't accept it for what it is. We are searching for an ideal image of our own world: we go in quest of a planet, of a civilization superior to our own but developed on the basis of a prototype of our primeval past.
"Solaris" seems to be a harsh meditation on the notion of first contact. In the various movie adaptations of this novel, the notion of humanism in this story is often hailed. `Science-fiction with a heart' the maudlin reviewers often cry out. It is this anthropomorphic viewpoint that Stanislaw Lem assails most directly in this novel. Many works of science-fiction often assume as given that humans have unlimited potential, and that given a chance we will be able to understand everything in the universe. Thinking otherwise is often treated as an affront to the often unstated assumption of humanity's limitless potential. "Solaris" offers a rarely presented point of view: even if the scientific viewpoint is accurate, it might not be enough. We might be too hard wired to a particular view to comprehend certain truths. It may be that we are selfish in a way that is so central to our makeup that science might have boundaries that we cannot truly accept as true.
This novel starts with Kris Kelvin getting a chance to visit the planet Solaris. Earth scientists have been studying this planet for over a 100 years, and even though there is clear evidence that the ocean on this planet is what we would term as sentient (in some unspecified manner), nobody has managed to come close to a theory of how humans can interact with this consciousness. Kris is also sent to the orbiting station to decide whether humanity should finally give up on contacting Solaris and shut down the station. He arrives to find his friend Gibarian dead, and the remainder of the crew Snouth and Sartorius to be at the limits of their sanity. They each seem to be undergoing a mysterious challenge that they can barely withstand.
After one night on the station, Kris is challenged in similar manner when he awakes next to his wife, Rheya. Kris immediately proceeds to kill her in a gruesome manner, unable to believe that anything but horror could be associated with the reanimation of his wife who took her own life several years ago. When Rheya reappears, Kris can contemplate his situation further and his decisions and those of the false-Rheya are what form the key to the novel. First contact, indeed.
The ending of the novel is vague but at least does not commit the abominations that are perpetrated in the final scenes of the Tarkovsky film based on this novel, as well as the later Soderbergh remake.
Man has gone out to explore other worlds and other civilizations without having explored his own labyrinth of dark passages and secret chambers, and without finding what lies behind doorways that he himself has sealed.
On the face of it, this novel looks like another sterile suggestion about the limitations of science (we cannot explain consciousness, etc.) but it is substantially different: it is about the limitations of humanity and not of science. A hopeful rebuttal within science-fiction comes from ideas like Vernor Vinge's Singularity.
%T Solaris %A Stanislaw Lem %I Harvest Book: Harcourt, Brace and Company %P 204 %D 1970 (original in Polish 1961) %G ISBN: 0156837501 %K science-fiction
Review written: 2002/12/07
A Peace To End All Peace: the Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East by David Fromkin
The Middle East became what it is today both because the European powers undertook to re-shape it and because Britain and France failed to ensure that the dynasties, the states, and the political system that they established would premanently endure. During and after the First World War, Britain and her Allies destroyed the old order in the region irrevocably; they smashed Turkish rule of the Arabic-speaking Middle East beyond repair (Which is not to deny that the Turks also played a role in the destruction of their empire, and that, in any event, there were forces within the Middle East making for change). To take its place, they created countries, nominated rulers, delineated frontiers, and introduced a state system of the sort that exists everywhere else; but they did not quell all significant opposition to those decisions.
As a result the events of 1914-22, while bringing an end Europe's Middle Eastern Question, gave birth to a Middle Eastern Question in the Middle East itself. The settlement of 1922 (as it is called here, even though some of the arrangements were arrived at earlier or a bit later) resolved, as far as Europeans were concerned, the question of what -- as well as who -- should replace the Ottoman Empire; yet even today there are powerful local forces within the Middle East that remain unreconciled to these arrangements -- and may well overthrow them.
The fall of the Ottoman Empire is a large event in history that is largely ignored in favor of the more recent history of the so-called Middle East (a term whose invention is discussed in this book), when, in fact, it provides the most insight about the politics of the region today. In particular, this book provides an invaluable perspective of the events in terms of the Great Game between Britain, Russia and France. As is usual in Great Game politics, allies morph into enemies and back again within the timespan of a scant decade from 1914-1922. See "Tournament of Shadows" for a comprehensive look at Great Game politics between Britain and Russia in the Central Asian sphere.
Apart from the Great Game perspective, Fromkin makes Winston Churchill the main central character of the book, illustrating the events through a view of his chequered career at the time. Through most of the book, Fromkin maintains a strong narrative making many jostling events of the time fairly coherent and easy to grasp. The later part of the book flounders in this respect but this complaint applied only for a chapter or two.
For those seeking historical causes of the conflict between Israel and its neighbours, for those who wonder how Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq and Syria became the political entities they are now, this book is an excellent guide. In many cases, as can be seen in this book, the long shadow of colonial thinking is still cast on the events of the 21st century.
This book manages to provide a historical perspective without much philosophical pandering and not much `clash of the civilization' style of argumentation and the fact that this approach is rare among books about the region is another reason to recommend it. It does impugn politicians from short sighted colonial powers of the 19th and early 20th centuries for much of the mess, but this much seems uncontroversial.
%T A Peace To End All Peace %T :the Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East %A David Fromkin %I An Owl Book: Henry Holt and Company %P 635 %D 1989 %G ISBN: 0805068848 %K history
Review written: 2002/12/07
Stories of your life and others by Ted Chiang
Ted Chiang has built quite a reputation since winning two Nebula awards for his short stories and also the John W. Campbell Award for best new writer in 1992. This is his first book collecting eight of his short stories.
"Tower of Babylon", Ted Chiang's first story and Nebula award winner is probably the story that built his reputation. Tom Disch called this story `Babylonian science fiction' and it clearly goes beyond what you would expect. It gives new life to the Tower of Babel parable.
"Understand" is a disappointing take on the now common `man becomes superman through techno babble' storyline. "Division by Zero" on the other hand, is quite wonderful, based on a very simple premise.
"Story of Your Life" takes on one of the hardest tasks in science fiction: that of inventing a new language without making obvious mistakes or making it too boring. While the story revolves around the decipherment of an alien language, the central idea is a novel interpretation of variational methods from statistical physics.
"Seventy-Two Letters" is a sf take on the golem and "The Evolution of Human Science" takes on the lost art of the 2 page sf story (reminds me of Asimov). Ted Chiang seems to take quite a bit of inspiration from biblical sources, as is evident from "Hell is the Absence of God", a take on angels inspired by "The Prophecy". "Liking what you see: A Documentary" is somewhat awkwardly written but carries a meditation on `look'-ism.
%T Stories of your life %T : and others %A Ted Chiang %I Tor Books %P 333 %D 2002 %G ISBN: 076530418X %K science-fiction
Review written: 2002/10/07
The Cold Six Thousand by James Ellroy
Rapid-fire, staccato writing, each sentence barely a few words long. Possibly the most original, least pandering, crime-fiction novel I've ever read. You have to meet James Ellroy more than half-way on this one, it takes quite an effort to make it through the first 100 pages or so, after which you get somewhat used to the disorienting feeling of reading this kind of prose.
Oswald stepped out. Oswald wore handcuffs. Two cops flanked him. They walked through the basement. They faced some reporters. They cleared a path fast.
A man jumped out. Dark suit / fedora. Right arm outstretched. He stepped up. He shot near point-blank.
Wayne blinked. Wayne saw it -- oh fuck.
Oswald doubled up. Oswald went "Oooh."
The cops blinked. They saw it -- oh fuck.
Commotion. Dogpile. The gunman's down. He's prone. He's disarmed. He's pinned flat.
The story is one that James Ellroy has visited before in "American Tabloid" -- it begins with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The novel follows three men sent to Dallas to take care of the aftermath. Ward Littell is sent by J. Edgar Hoover to make sure that the lone gunman theory is the most plausible one remaining. Pete Bondurant is sent in from Las Vegas to take care of the cleanup of the operation. And Wayne Tedrow, Jr. from the Las Vegas PD is sent in to find a fugitive carrying with him the cold six thousand which turns out to be the catalyst that destroys his life. Wayne does not realize that his father (a prominent Klan sympathizer) has arranged for this to ensure that his son is there in Dallas for this historical moment.
The story follows these characters from the time of the JFK assassination and it's aftermath across the entire decade of the 60s. A decade portrayed unlike it's usual reputation of revolution and flower children. This story is sordid beyond belief and makes a good case that this was the endemic nature of the decade itself, at least at the level of the government of the United States. James Ellroy turns every imagined horrible fact about the various cataclysmic events in the 60s and makes it inevitable in this story. This novel is a conspiracy theory on steroids, and most of what it considers factual has been dismissed by journalists. However, it is not so difficult to slip into the despair of this novel. When it comes to politics, it is not hard to convince yourself of the most sordid theories, whether it was the 1960s or any other time in history including the present. In this novel, Ellroy makes this conviction of ubiquitous corruption come easily to your mind.
Ward Littell is assigned to infiltrate the civil rights movement while Pete and Wayne are sent to Vietnam to set up a gun-running operation into Cuba funded by drug sales in Las Vegas (only to the African Americans, of course). Their terrible fate follows them until the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy are the only alternatives left. The arc ends there for this novel, but the same collusions have continued far past the time period of this novel. A book about Iran-Contra and Oliver North should be a natural sequel to this one.
From a computational linguistics perspective, this novel is interesting due to the predominantly mono-clausal sentences, the short average sentence length, and the heavy use of pronouns and other kinds of anaphora that are employed to keep the discourse coherent in this style of writing. Should be an interesting corpus of text for certain kinds of CL research.
Thanks to M. Osborne for lending me a book and for the kind warning not to read it which I ignored.
%T The Cold Six Thousand %A James Ellroy %I Vintage %P 672 %D 2001 %G ISBN: 037572740X (pb) %K crime-fiction
Review written: 2002/10/13
December 13, 2005
An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears
A book that has drawn several references to "The Name of the Rose" and "The Alienist" in its reviews. It has a similar ambition of exposing a period of history through a murder mystery. The particular setting of this novel is a period of great turmoil in England, a time of Civil War, from 1625 to 1688.
Perhaps the boldest stroke of this novel is the cast of characters which includes people like Robert Boyle, the `father' of chemistry, Thomas Ken, lecturer of logic and mathematics, John Locke, the great philosopher, Richard Lower, the most famous physician in London at the time, John Thurloe, secretary to Cromwell and spymaster, John Wallis, noted mathematician and cryptographer, Anthony Wood, historian of that period and Christopher Wren, astronomer and architect (famous for St. Paul's Cathedral).
The murder is that of Robert Grove, don in Oxford University. In what appears to be a cover-up, his servant girl Sarah Blundy is arrested. She confesses to the crime and is sentenced to be hanged. Unlikely as it may seem, Sarah is linked deeply to various political powers that operate under the surface in the England of the 17th century and her conviction for the murder of Robert Grove is only the start of a convoluted process behind the truth of the murder, which unfortunately for a book which is a murder mystery remains mostly beside the point for the author.
The novel is split up into four parts. Each is narrated by a different observer. The "Rashomon" series of accounts, while not novel, is certainly executed with great skill by Iain Pears. However, the mystery and the history explored in this novel cannot sustain four long narratives and its immense length. The first narrative by the Italian, da Cola, and the fourth and final one by Anthony Wood, are extremely compelling. However, the two narratives in the middle while carrying some relevant information could have been compressed substantially without affecting the book. As it stands, you might not get to the interesting last part of the novel due to its obese middle.
I'd like to thank R. Hwa for recommending this novel, and letting me "borrow" it.
%T An Instance of the Fingerpost %A Iain Pears %I Riverhead Books %P 692 %D 1998 %G ISBN: 1573220825 %K crime-fiction
Review written: 2002/09/12
Invisible Cities (Le Città invisibili) by Italo Calvino
``From now on, I'll describe the cities to you,'' the Khan had said, ``in your journeys you will see if they exist.''
But the cities visited by Marco Polo were always different from those thought of by the emperor.
``And yet I have constructed in my mind a model city from which all possible cities can be deduced,'' Kublai said. ``It contains everything, corresponding to the norm. Since the cities that exist diverge in varying degree from the norm. I need only forsee the exceptions to the norm and calculate the most probable combinations.''
``I have also thought of a model city from which I deduce all the others,'' Marco answered. ``It is a city made only of exceptions, exclusions, incongruities, contradictions. If such a city is the most improbable, by reducing the number of abnormal elements, we increase the probability that the city really exists. So I have only to subtract exceptions from my model, and in whatever direction I proceed, I will arrive at one of the cities which, always as an exception, exist. But I cannot force my operation beyond a certain limit: I would achieve cities too probable to be real.''
Such a novel is, by definition, a thought experiment. Several of them, in fact, encapsulated in one short novel. Clearly those who look up to the abstractions of Jorge Luis Borges, have to read this. Written in a similarly concise style, each chapter is either a conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan who is trying to understand the nuances of his empire through his counselor, or the story of a city in some possible world.
While many of them seem arbitrary constructions, each one has at least one central idea that is being exposed, sometimes the idea is metaphorical, sometimes not, and sometimes it is not entirely original but derived from other sources. At the end, one wishes that there were more invisible cities to be discussed.
%T Invisible Cities %T :translation of Le Città invisibili %A Italo Calvino %I Helen and Kurt Wolff Book %P 165 %D 1972 %G ISBN: 0156453800 %K fiction
Review written: 2002/08/12
December 01, 2005
Zeitgeist by Bruce Sterling
What was the core G-7 concept? Seven trashy girls, from seven famous powerful nations, singing stupid popular music, doomed to rapidly vanish.
Leggy Starlitz, a protagonist from many Sterling short stories, gets a full-length novel. Based on a bet, Starlitz has started a band called the G-7 which is set to storm the Third World, starting in Turkey, with a massive merchandising campaign centered around a phony all-girl band.
The novel while categorized as science fiction due to Sterling's previous output can be more easily described as Sterling attempting his own brand of magic realism. The result is a mixed bag. Some of the detailed multicultural research about the differences between the richer countries already deeply submerged in a marketing deluge and the emerging markets of Turkey and Eastern Europe do pay off. The attempt or even the idea of trying to capture the 20th century in various metaphors, especially when based almost exclusively on the latter half of the century, is doomed to failure.
A sometimes enjoyable read for those who like Sterling's style, which when focused on current events, as in this book, often reads like a Tom Friedman column from the New York Times.
Although the hokey use of literary criticism gets tiring really quick, the often prescient comments about friction between contemporary world cultures and its future direction is what makes some interesting reading. Bruce Sterling should get more credit for being spot on about the role of Third World terrorism in the 21st century.
%T Zeitgeist %A Bruce Sterling %I Bantam Books %P 280 %D 2000 %G ISBN: 0553576410 %K science-fiction
Review written: 2002/08/09
November 26, 2005
Road to Perdition by Max Allan Collins
Road to Perdition is a hard-boiled adaptation of the famous and influential manga series Lone Wolf and Cub (Kozure Okami) to the Depression era mobster history of the Midwest. Set in Rock Island, Illinois in 1929, it tells the story of Michael O'Sullivan, the chief hitman for John Looney, the town's Irish Godfather of crime. A particular transaction goes awry due to Connor Looney, the hotheaded son of John Looney, Michael O'Sullivan has to join him in killing several rival gangsters. When Connor sees that Michael's teenage son has witnessed the crime, it spells tragedy for the O'Sullivan family. Soon the "Angel of Death", O'Sullivan has to travel down the hellish road of revenge with his son.
The other influence mentioned in the introduction by Max Allan Collins are the Hong-Kong movies of John Woo, and the balletic scenes of gunplay drawn beautifully in black and white by Richard Piers Rayner show this cinematic influence.
Max Allan Collins is the author of several true-crime novels where historical facts are presented in a fictional setting. He also uses famous historical figures in this comic to great effect. Characters like Al Capone, Frank Nitti and Eliot Ness play important roles in the storyline. John Looney also did exist in Illinois in the late 1920s, as did a betrayed lietenant of John Looney. Many of the events portrayed in this comic actually did happen.
The art is spectacular and you can't go wrong with a story of a father and his son on the road to Hell.
%T Road to Perdition %A Max Allan Collins %A Richard Piers Rayner %I Paradox Press %D 1998 %G ISBN: 1563894491 (pb) %P 303 %K graphic-novel
Review written: 2002/07/02
November 22, 2005
The Mystery of the Aleph: Mathematics, the Kabbalah, and the Search for Infinity by Amir D. Aczel
This book is a short popular introduction to the theory of sets, the notion of an infinite set of countable numbers, and the existence of infinities greater than the infinity of the countable numbers. In addition, it also serves as a concise history of the life of Georg Cantor and his work on the continuum hypothesis, a statement that was later shown to be undecidable by Kurt Gödel.
The book also draws some parallels between ancient conceptions of infinity by the Greek mathematicians (particular the discovery of irrational numbers by the Pythagoreans) and modern ideas of mathematics. Where the comparisons become a bit frayed and sensationalistic are in comparisons of the Reimann Sphere which maps each point on a hemisphere to points on a plane with the concentric spheres that are frequently drawn in Kabbalistic texts and also the spheres of Dante in the Divine Comedy.
It seemed to me that the direct comparisons of Cantor's mental illess, and also Gödel's paranoid delusions with the madness of the Rabbis that contemplated the infinite nature of God using Kabbalistic methods are suggestive melodrama on Aczel's part, creating parallels where little evidence exists to show that such parallels should even be made. Such ideas belong to the realm of science-fiction: a similar idea was used in the movie "π" where a mathematician tries to find a single equation that describes all natural phenomena and goes mad in the process. π also picks up on the Kabbalistic idea of going mad by contemplating the word of God. ``Is it a coincidence that priests turned cryptographers and mathematicians both go mad?'', both π and Aczel seem to be indicating a deeper connection, where a superficial one will suffice.
Some mathematical ideas are expressed eloquently, while others are casually addressed, without enough information to make them sensible to an audience that is not already familiar with the ideas. In the central aspects of explaning the ideas on countable numbers, Aczel does an excellent job, while in peripheral ideas such as explaining the Reimann sphere he does displays a less then exemplary effort.
On the whole, for a layman's description of the nature of infinite sets in mathematics you can hardly find a better introduction than this book.
%T The Mystery of the Aleph %T :Mathematics, the Kabbalah, and the Search for Infinity %A Amir D. Aczel %I Pocket Books %D 2000 :trade paperback edition 2001 %G ISBN: 0743422996 (pb) %P 258 %K mathematics, religion
Review written: 2002/06/18
The Chronoliths by Robert Charles Wilson
Nothing is coincidental. I know that now.
Scott Warden is an expatriate slacker living with his family in Thailand. He has been taking a vacation from his life back in America, and also oblivious to his obligations as a parent. Everything about his life and the world changes when he is a witness to an amazing event: the violent appearance of 200-foot obelisk that is ultimately found to be made from an exotic form of matter and which carries an inscription that is in a pidgin Chinese-English commemorating a military victory by `Kuin` twenty years in the future. This event starts Scott Warden's lifetime obsession with the missives of Kuin mysteriously sent back to the past.
A few years later, a larger pillar arrives, without warning, in the center of Bangkok, destroying the city and killing thousands. Over the next few years, human society in Asia is transformed completely due to the continual arrivals of these monuments. In the meantime, Scott Warden has lost his family -- and he starts his lifetime struggle to remain relevant to his ex-wife and daughter.
But as he makes a livelihood he is obsessed with questions about the chronoliths. Is Kuin a new Alexander the Great or a new Genghis Khan sending a signal of his future victories back into time, or is he creating his own legend by sending back messages which are designed to transform human society so that it can be easily subjugated. Which of the many temporal paradoxes is Kuin exploiting in his plan? Can he be stopped? Can Kuin be stopped without knowing a priori who he is?
The Chronoliths is a story with central strong scientific idea, one that is implausible but nonetheless impacts on human society and our concepts of free will and determinism. Like his previous novel "Bios", The Chronoliths also has strong characters, each of them completely fleshed out by the end of the novel. The writing is also smooth and economical. All the revelations are rolled into the premise, so don't go into this novel expecting a big neat explication of time travel paradoxes at the end. There are some answers that are implicitly given by the end of the novel, but the casual reader might just miss them as they go by.
While entertaining, the novel does expect you to meet it half-way. While the novel uses several routine time-travel ideas (such as the many-worlds theory and time loops) it introduces some new ones, including the idea of feedback loops in time and Minkowski ice. The Chronoliths is a welcome addition to the crowded time-travel sf sub-genre.
%T The Chronoliths %A Robert Charles Wilson %I Tor Books %D 2001 :mass market edition 2002 %G ISBN: 0812545249 (pb) %P 315 %K science-fiction
Review written: 2002/06/18
Ventus by Karl Schroeder
Ventus is being terraformed continuously by a whole ecosystem of nanotech AIs called Winds. The Winds were supposed to create a Earth-like paradise out of an otherwise hostile planet for future human colonists. However, something went wrong in the years between the start of the terraforming process and the arrival of the colonists. The Winds are not hostile to the humans but neither are they subservient to them. The humans are treated like any other part of the constructed ecology of the planet. Any attempt by the humans to substantially mould their environment is brutally struck down by the Winds. The colonists have survived on Ventus, living within a feudal culture.
Jordan Mason is somewhere near the bottom of the feudal structure. He has just started working, taking his father's place, as a stone worker for the local Salt Inspector. His life seems set towards one of idyllic village life and oppressive bondage to his masters. Except he seems to be having visions of events that happen far away. Events that are verified to be true. Before he can explore his powers, he is abducted by a local member of the aristocracy, Calandria May, who seems to be hunting for something with her friend, Alex Chan. Both of them seem to be visitors from off-world, from a unknown culture alien to Ventus.
Calandria's quest is to find a certain General Armiger and to kill him. Just when Calandria and Alex meet up with Jordan, Armiger is killed in a skirmish with the Winds. However, even in death, Armiger is more powerful and unpredictable that Calandria fears him to be.
A first glance reveals few original sf ideas in this novel. Many of the basic ideas have been seen before in earlier sf, but there is still a lot of originality that clearly shines through. The combination of nano-technology and artificial intelligence towards the startling application of terraforming an alien planet might have been imagined before, but never like this.
The sensibility of the novel has drawn several favorable comparisons from other reviewers with the recent novels of Vernor Vinge. Like Vinge's work, the big scientific ideas provide the internal structure for an adventure story. It is a safe bet that if you liked "A Deepness in the Sky", that you will find this novel appealing as well.
The novel is long, but the length is just about adequate for the adventure to proceed at a natural pace. It also provides space for nine major characters to be completely fleshed out in a way that is rare in this genre. It is also an example of the young-adult sf tale done with the right sensibility.
An ancient sage held that in earlier ages, humans held the senses in different ratios, according to the media by which they communicated and expressed themselves. Hence, before writing, the ear was the royal sense. After writing, the eye.
We say that similar ratios pertain between emotions. Each civilization has its royal affect and its ignored or forgotten feelings. Or rather -- there are no distinct emotions. ...
The task of a queen is to rule her people truly. The task of the Queen of Queens is to rule truth itself. We know that the highest act of creation is to create new emotions, superior to those that, unguided, have fallen to us from Nature. And this We shall do.
As We have won new fields and towns from Nature, We shall win new feelings, superior to love and loyalty, from the field of the human heart.
%T Ventus %A Karl Schroeder %I Tor Books %D 2000 :mass market edition 2001 %G ISBN: 0812576357 (pb) %P 662 %K science-fiction
Review written: 2002/12/20
November 15, 2005
The Telling by Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula Le Guin has always explored Daoist ideas in her fantasy and science-fiction novels. In this novel, in a fictional setting she makes an attempt to realize in fiction the reality of how traditional philosophy such as Daoism became almost immediately irrelevant to the country that gave rise to these ideas and how popular thought was transformed in the space of a few years during the Cultural Revolution. Of course, there is no mention of China or the Cultural Revolution in this story, but the relevant ideas are sharply drawn in the kind of stylized anthropological science-fiction that Le Guin is famous for writing.
Sutty, the protagonist, grows up in New Vancouver (in the mountains to the north of contemporary Vancouver, which is is submerged under the Pacific ocean, presumably in the far future). She is raised in a community of Indo-Canadians and she deeply wishes to escape the overpowering reach, in her community, of religious fundamentalists into everyday life. Her independence and her sexuality drive her to seek another world to explore. She is selected to visit Aka, a recently discovered alien world, as an observer. She looks forward to exploring a strange alien culture and language, immersing herself in new skills on her trip to Aka.
However, when she actually arrives at Aka, the length of her (slower than light) journey has caused her knowledge to become obsolete. The entire planet is in the grip of a strange mixture of a centralized economy and capitalist ideals, controlled by a meritocracy/politburo, whose citizens are labeled "producer-consumers". All languages except Hainish (a language spoken outside the planet) are banned. Aka tries for several years to make contact with some Akans who live in the traditional ways, but faces several bureaucratic hurdles, until one day she is granted permission to visit a small village far away from the main cities. Here, Sutty tries to discover the culture that has all but vanished from the planet.
The plot is manipulative, and the new culture of Aka with its religion of impersonal producer-consumers is somewhat of a straw-man. Some ambiguities are presented, such as the various drawbacks of the old Akan religion vs. the new one. But it is clear from the start where Le Guin's sympathies lie. The strength of the novel is in the gradual revelation of the Telling, which in the end seems more sensible than profound. Fans of Le Guin should not miss this one, and for those who aren't, The Telling is not a bad place to start becoming one.
%T The Telling %A Ursula K. Le Guin %I Ace Books: New York %D 2000 %G ISBN: 0441008631 (pb) %P 246 %K science-fiction
Review written: 2002/06/18
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
Joe Kavalier, Sam Clay and the Escapist. In this novel, the first two are real characters and the third one is their invention: a comic-book character.
Joe Kavalier is an escape artist in training in Prague. It's 1939 and the Nazis are slowly tightening their grip on the city. When his family arranges for his departure for New York, Joe Kavalier leaves his parents and his younger brother behind, promising to arrange for their departure when he reaches America.
Sam Clay, growing up in Brooklyn, has to share his bedroom with his new refugee cousin, Joe Kavalier. Luckily, he idolizes escape artists (`Houdini was a hero to little men, city boys, and Jews. Samuel Louis Klayman was all three'). Sam Clay dreams of writing and drawing comic books, but cannot draw. Joe Kavalier apart from his talents with picking locks was also an artist in training in Prague. Sam enlists his artistic skills and together with him dreams up a get-rich-quick scheme that involves copying the new fad: comic books. Since `Superman' is making lots of money, they get hired to copy its success. They come up with the Escapist, the American hero who fights Hitler and other miscellaneous evil in Europe and the New World.
There are missteps, but only a few: the deranged German-American Nazi and the off-camera sinking of a ship by a U-boat were both cheaply manipulative. At a few places in the novel when the focus is on the personal, the book falters for a moment. And just like in "Wonder Boys", Chabon has trouble sympathizing or paying attention to the secondary characters in the novel. But the setting of post-war Jewish neighbourhoods in New York City and the personal history of the comic book industry more than makes up for those moments.
%T The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay %A Michael Chabon %I Picador USA: New York %D 2000 %G ISBN: 0312282990 (pb) %P 639 %K fiction, comic-books
Review written: 2002/06/05
To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip José Farmer
This Hugo award winning classic by Philip José Farmer is a fantasy about an ultimate Resurrection. It's also the first in what came to be known as the Riverworld series. The premise is quite stunning: all the dead humans that ever lived have been resurrected under quite strange circumstances along the banks of a river that seems to run through the entire world.
Since all the humans who ever lived in history have been resurrected all together, Farmer can pick and choose from history who he wants to be the protagonist. Farmer chooses Richard Francis Burton, the translator of the Arabian Nights, and noted English (Victorian-era) explorer of the East. He is a natural hero for such a story, and his biographical details are used quite skillfully in the service of the storyline (although a sobering reminder of reality appears at the end of this review). Farmer's eye for picking up historical figures is quite quixotic and idiosyncratic as he has Richard Burton team up with Alice Hargreaves (the real-life Alice in Wonderland), an early specimen of a modern human from prehistory, and an alien from our future who is in this Resurrection because he dies during his visit to Earth.
Richard Burton seems to be uniquely poised to discover the secrets of this Riverworld into which he has been resurrected and its peculiar but stricly defined rules (everyone has been resurrected at the prime of their youth, unless they died when they were younger; people who are killed in Riverworld are also resurrected but are spawned at arbitrary locations; and other such strange laws).
While entertaining I did not care for the treatment and the short shrift given to the character of Alice Hargreaves, and the unlikely redemption of Hermann Göring later in the novel was jarring. But, despite some missteps, Richard Burton is a rousing hero and the plot is a classic adventure tale that does not disappoint.
Update, Nov 7, 2005: Science-fiction or other authors who romanticize a Victorian-era explorer like Richard Burton in their books should be reminded of exactly what these dashing `explorers' were really doing. Warning: this is likely to be offensive to many readers, and rightly so. (from Grumpy Old Bookman):
It was Hankey's [Frederick Hankey] oft-expressed ambition to own books which were bound with human skin. ... And when the explorer Sir Richard Burton passed through Paris Hankey asked him to try to obtain the skin of a Negress (preferably torn off a live one). Burton promised to try to get him one, but failed. Burton wrote to Richard Monkton Milnes from Dahomey with the sad news: 'I have been here three days and am grievously disappointed. Not a man killed, nor a fellow tortured. The canoe floating in blood is a myth of myths. Poor Hankey must still wait for his peau de femme.'
%T To Your Scattered Bodies Go %A Philip José Farmer %I Berkeley Medallion %D 1971 %G ISBN: 0425043142 (pb) %P 222 %K science-fiction
Review written: 2002/06/05
November 11, 2005
Mapping the Deep: the Extraordinary Story of Ocean Science by Robert Kunzig
A readable introduction to ocean science, including oceanography, ocean cartography, marine biology and the effect of oceans on the environment.
What follows is a brief summary of the book by chapter:
Kunzig starts off in `Space and the Ocean' with the somewhat contentious issues surrounding exactly how Earth got its water in its formative years.
The chapters `Sounding the Depths', `The Rift in the Atlantic', `A Map of the World' and `The Seafloor at Birth' examine the history and current practice of mapping the depths of the ocean. The technical challenge of constructing a map was considerable since light does not penetrate very far into the ocean. Also interesting are the various geographical details that have been uncovered over the years. Under the seemingly flat ocean are deep-sea volcanoes, ridges, abyssal trenches and other features which in many cases dwarf their equivalents on land.
`Kingdom of the Holothurians', `Islands in the Deep', `Life on a Volcano', `Fantastic, Glistening Jellies', and `Animal Lights' covers the variety of life hidden under the ocean. Entire species were found when scientists first went looking for life under the ocean. Life which also provides a window into the evolutionary past, as well as into life that is quite unlike life anywhere else on Earth. Particularly striking are the organisms that can live off the hydrogen sulphide produced by volcanic activity with a process called chemosynthesis, just like other life on Earth uses energy from carbon dioxide with photosynthesis. They are the most alien lifeforms currently known.
`Greening the Ocean', `Twilight of the Cod' and `Where the Water Goes' provide a crucial insight into the effect humans have had on marine biology. Overfishing and the destruction of various fishing industries are given a detailed analysis here. As usual, nobody listens to the scientists and perhaps its just as well since sometimes the answers to scientific questions are not entirely clear. On the other hand, leaving the decisions in the hands of politicians seems to be definitely a bad idea and any other alternative even slightly thoughtful would be preferable.
Global warming wonks will appreciate `The Climate Switch' which is dedicated to the surprising effects on the global weather with simple weather control experiments in the ocean. A simple addition of iron into the ocean turns out to have a massive impact on the amount of plankton which in turn causes a measurable drop in carbon dioxide levels and fish populations. However, despite these seemingly easy solutions to the problems caused by carbon dioxide pollution, the risks are high. Nobody really knows what would happen, and science-fiction is full of cautionary tales about the hubris of weather control.
Robert Kunzig has several complaints about the lack of funding for ocean science and exploration as compared to the funding (not particularly extensive either) for astronomy and space exploration. It isn't surprising that this happens. Space is a much larger frontier and is mostly easily visible while remaining inaccessible at the wrong end of a gravity well, in constrast ocean science requires a greater imagination while remaining tantalizingly close at hand. This book provides a jump-start.
Perhaps someday we will be doing ocean science on a planet other than our own. When we get to Europa, as suggested in the final chapter of this book `Time and the Ocean', we don't want to wish then that we had done our homework now.
%T Mapping the Deep %T :the Extraordinary Story of Ocean Science %A Robert Kunzig %I W. W. Norton: New York, London %D 2000, 1999 %G ISBN: 0393320634 (pb) %P 345 %Z originally published under the title The Restless Sea: Exploring the World Beneath the Waves %K science, oceanography
Review written: 2002/05/17
Schild's Ladder by Greg Egan
In the beginning was a graph, more like diamond than graphite. Every node in this graph was tetravalent: connected by four edges to four other nodes. By a count of edges, the shortest path from any node back to itself was a loop six edges long. Every node belonged to twenty-four such loops, as well as forty-eight loops eight edges long, and four hundred and eighty that were ten edges long. The edges had no length or shape, the nodes no position; the graph consisted only of the fact that some nodes were connected to others. This pattern of connections, repeated endlessly, was all there was.
An ambitious beginning for a modern sense-of-wonder fable. However, rather than a dense collection of disparate ideas that is the usual staple of hard-sf, here Greg Egan concentrates on the nub of an idea, one that he has explored in previous stories like "Luminous" and even in a previous novel: "Diaspora". The existence of alternate realities that are, by his construction, far more interesting than our own.
The plot begins more than twenty thousand years in our future. Humans are cleaved in now familiar post-human terms as acorporeal virtual entities, or residing in artificial bodies (an example in this novel is a insect-like body less than a millimeter in diameter) or even those who reside in traditional flesh bodies. Even those who are flesh and blood have quantum mechanical devices called Qusps that augment their brains, backing up their consciousness to remote sites every few minutes, allowing for travel at relativistic speeds by transmission and then subsequent growth of a new body at the destination. Egan also provides a very monogamist view of sex between partners, where distinctions of male and female are dissolved (even though Egan uses gendered personal pronouns, perhaps tired of his genderless pronouns from "Permutation City").
For twenty thousand years, the grand unified theory underlying physics has been the Sarumpaet Rules that use quantum graph theory (QGT is an extrapolation by Egan based on a contemporary quantum physical theory called spin networks. He provides references as an epilog). Cass is a physicist who wants the final confirmation of the theory by creating a perfect vacuum, the conditions under which the original Big Bang occurred. While Egan's stories exists within a rigorous scientific view of the universe, he is also aware of the fallibility of scientific theories. A good theory is one that can be falsified, as Cass finds out with the Sarumpaet Rules. The vacuum that is created at Mimosa Station is not one that quickly dissipates as predicted. The result of the experiment quickly provides proof that the Sarumpaet Rules were not only wrong, they did not even consider a whole universe of possibilities. The novo vacuum produces a new universe expanding at half the speed of light from Mimosa Station, eating our universe while it expands.
Six hundred years later, a new science station skirts the edge of the new universe, while scientists try to understand the new physics that would explain both our universe and the strange new one. In its expansion, the novo vacuum has already consumed several (post)human colonies, albeit without loss of life since the inhabitants have simply faxed themselves somewhere safe. Tchicaya has arrived on the station as a Yielder, expecting that the new universe will contain the seed towards the understanding of our own universe, as well as perhaps a more vibrant universe to exist in. His childhood friend, Mariama, is on the side of the Preservationists, who believe that the human colonies, including Earth, must be saved from their encroaching fate by destroying the novo vacuum.
Apart from the construction of the novo vacuum in terms of a physics that is evolutionarily inspired, Egan populates the book with several truly novel ideas (unlike the usual inbred set of ideas in most of sf): including a solution to the social problems with travel at the speed of light called Slowdown, which makes the majority adapt to the problems of the minority (who travel at light speed).
Greg Egan is probably the most ambitious science-fiction author of hard sf to ever come along. While other authors have challenged readers with complex thoughts and ideas, most of these efforts are self-contained within the novel, and so the reader amenable to being concerted could have a chance at understanding every detail in these novels. Egan, on the other hand, goes farther and uses technical details of mathematically complex theories and then extrapolates from this point into his fiction. In the pursuit of the `pure' science-fiction, he demands from the reader the diligence to follow up on ideas such as decoherence which explain (in real-world physical theories) the absence of quantum effects in classical physics. In many cases, he has explanations along with Java applets on his web page: Greg Egan's web page.
%T Schild's Ladder %A Greg Egan %I Gollancz: London %D 2001 %G ISBN: 0575071230 (pb) %P 250 %K science-fiction
Review written: 2002/05/17
November 07, 2005
A Case of Conscience by James Blish
Jesuit missionaries have always been a favorite of science fiction authors because in popular history they have pursued a combination of science, religion and colonial intent. "A Case of Conscience" is arguably the most famous, classic novel that uses a Jesuit priest as the protagonist.
Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez is a Jesuit priest, from Peru, and a botanist and biologist. He is part of a team of four scientists that have been given the task of initial exploration of the newly discovered planet of Lithia. Of all the habitable planets discovered by humans in their expansion into space, Lithia holds a special attention because its reptilian inhabitants show every sign of being intelligent. The team is given the task of deciding whether Lithia should be quarantined or thrown open for trade (or exploitation). Ruiz-Sanchez is riveted by the question of whether then Lithians are truly conscious. Do they have free will?
The other question Ruiz-Sanchez has to deal with is an internal one: will he trust his scientific instincts or his religious ones.
Any science fiction author could learn a lot from Blish about what matters in a science fiction novel. The ideas drive everything, and the central question comes into clear focus in a remarkably clear way in just a couple of hundred pages. The ending, in my view, was a bit melodramatic, but most of the interesting speculations occur well before the end.
The most recent Jesuit in science fiction occurs in "The Sparrow" by Mary Doria Russell, which shares many aspects of its setup with this novel.
%T A Case of Conscience %A James Blish %I Ballantine Books %D 1958 %G SBN: 34524480X150 (pb) %P 188 %K science-fiction
Review written: 2002/04/11
A Million Open Doors by John Barnes
It is a common theme in science fiction to address the changes in a society (imagined or real) caused due to the introduction of technology or scientific ideas or ideals. It is less common to investigate the effects of the sudden introduction of artistic expression into a society. John Barnes explores this unlikely question in this novel. In order to do so, he invents two cultures of a human diaspora, both flawed in unique ways.
This is the first novel in a series that John Barnes has written in his Thousand Cultures universe. Humanity has colonized several habitable worlds by sending slower than light generational ships to colonize them. A process which takes thousands of years, causing each human colony to drift apart in several ways from all the others. Suddenly the invention of the springer changes all that. The springer allows instantaneous travel between distances that span light years (however the energy required grows exponentially with distance, a fact which is exploited in the plot for this novel).
Nou Occitan is one of the most isolated of the Thousand Cultures. The springer is gradually making a transformation in this world. Nou Occitan has a violently creative, chauvinistic and flamboyant culture. It is also a culture in which public service is done by lottery.
In one such selection, Aimeric, an inhabitant of Nou Occitan, is sent on a mission to Caledony, the latest human colony to be connected via springer to the rest of the human diaspora. Giraut, a close friend of Aimeric, decides to join him in his mission for all the wrong reasons. Humiliated by his `ententedora' (his mate for life), mainly because of the changes in the culture of Nou Occitan caused by the springer, Giraut decides to leave his beloved culture behind to spend a few years on Caledony. The culture shock is more than they could have imagined. But, as this experience changes each of the team that visits this new planet, the team themselves cause unforseeable consequences for the culture on Caledony. The novel is in the tradition of science fiction that is too engrossed in world building to bother with the (usually superfluous) cliffhangers in the plot. It is a worthly contribution to this genre.
The follow-up to this novel set in the same universe, but with a different sensibility, is "Earth Made of Glass".
%T A Million Open Doors %A John Barnes %I Tor %D 1992 %G ISBN: 031285210X (hc) %P 315 %K science-fiction
Review written: 2002/04/11
October 27, 2005
Evolution's Darling by Scott Westerfeld
The novel begins with a startling prologue called `The Movement of Her Eyes'. It introduces the birth of the eponymous character: Darling. Darling is a astronavigational computer who has a parallel awakening into consciousness (his Turing meter reaches 1.0) while also having a sexual awakening. The rest of the novel never reaches the heights of the prologue, but the writing and sensibility is more inventive than most cyberpunk literature out there.
The novel picks up about 200 years after the events in the prologue. Darling meets an assassin called Mira when an Iain-M.-Banks-style starship Mind decides to pair them together. Coincidentally, they are both also traveling to investigate the appearance of a new art-object created by Vaddum, a highly collectable artist (also an AI). The events play out in suitably hip cyberpunk stylistics. The novelty in otherwise predictable plot-points is the use of sex which appears in unlikely places.
If I was forced to make a list of possible influences on the writing of this book, I would venture, in no particular order: Iain M. Banks, Bruce Sterling, William Gibson and Japanese animation of the tentacle-porn variety. This is not to deny the originality of this work, which is considerable.
The plot immediately draws comparison with "Burning Chrome" by William Gibson but is far more successful. The intuitions are somewhat similar to both "Holy Fire" by Bruce Sterling and "A Thousand Open Doors" by John Barnes which also attempt to draw connecting lines between science and art. The prologue `The Movement of Her Eyes' is brilliant and by itself would be an excellent short story.
Westerfeld has an emphasis on the process of learning in his artificially sentient machines (the Turing points) but this process is never reconciled with his `ghost in the machine' metaspace that provides one of the main plot threads but remains scientifically gauche.
%T Evolution's Darling %A Scott Westerfeld %I Four Walls Eight Windows %D 1999 %G ISBN: 1568581491 (pb) %P 290 %K science-fiction
Review written: 2002/04/08
Burning Chrome by William Gibson
It was hot, the night we burned Chrome. Out in the malls and plazas, moths were batting themselves to death against the neon, but in Bobby's loft the only light came from a monitor screen and the green and red LEDs on the face of the matrix simulator.
"Burning Chrome" is a collection of early William Gibson short stories, before he hit the big time with "Neuromancer". It contains three stories that initiated the Sprawl series, the setting for his first three novels. Rather than ideas, the stories concentrate on the precise construction of a believable populated near-future, where technology imposes such a degree that the stories set in the Sprawl almost read like mail-order catalogs for high-tech devices. Rather than prominent scientists or philosophers, this sf has drop-outs and technically savvy outcasts as protagonists, lending itself to a urban-hip, noir style. The Sprawl stories are: "Johnny Mnemonic", "New Rose Hotel" and "Burning Chrome", of which only "New Rose Hotel" is really disappointing, although it almost seems like a parody of his own (future) work.
The collection also includes Gibson's first story from 1977, "Fragments of a Hologram Rose" in which already the germ of his future directions can be seen. Also intriguing is the philosophy about sf writing behind his next story published: "The Gernsback Continuum". "Hinterlands" is set in near-Earth orbit with a setting that is reminiscent of Bruce Sterling's Schismatrix universe. "The Winter Market" is remarkable for being one of the few stories by Gibson set in his native Vancouver (revealed as such only through references to Granville Island and Burnaby).
The other stories in the collection are jointly authored with other famous sf names and are quite different from the others. "Red Star, Winter Orbit" co-authored with Bruce Sterling about cosmonauts in a future where the Russian space program actually went somewhere. "The Belonging Kind" with John Shirley is a plot that has become fairly hackneyed. "Dogfight" with Michael Swanwick is the best fictional description I have read about videogaming addiction.
%T Burning Chrome %A William Gibson %I Ace Books %D 1986 %G ISBN: 0441089348 (pb) %P 191 %K science-fiction
Review written: 2002/04/02
October 23, 2005
City of Gold: the Biography of Bombay by Gillian Tindall
... the Portuguese church on the main island; its first site was just beyond the Fort where Victoria Terminus now stands and which place was already occupied by the temple to Mumba Devi ...
... Mumba or Mombai is a goddess without a mouth -- ironically, she is the Mother Goddess of Bombay, the city with no one common language but many ...
... Though an obscure local deity, an aboriginal personification of the Earth Mother, Maha Amba Aiee or `Mumba Devi' has turned out durable. The very name `Bombay' almost certainly comes from hers, for the city is called `Mumbai' in the vernacular. The British settlers assumed the name to come from `Buan Bahia', the Good Bay in Portuguese, and this theory was reiterated in most nineteenth-century books about the place, but it is now discredited: it cannot be right, since the earliest Portuguese settlers already called the place Bombain.
Bombay has a history unique among the major Indian cities: borne out of colonial wrangling, it has grown to become one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. This book illuminates at least part of the story that has lead to what is now home to around 20 million people.
However, this history, while a slim and readable introduction to Bombay's British period does not tell the whole story. The emphasis is not on the varied populations of Bombay over the years, but mostly on the architecture, the buildings, and the people (usually British) who built them. A few temples are mentioned here and there, but nowhere is there an explanation as to why all the names of places are in Marathi or Konkani (in the `vernacular' as Tindall calls it, not bothering to even find out what languages the native populations spoke and still speak).
The lack of detail outside of British history is blamed by Tindall in her preface on the lack of historical research done by Indians. Perhaps a history of Bombay will be written someday which includes original research. The rest is certainly here in this book.
By the early nineteenth century this community [of Baghdadi Jews] were coming under pressure from the Turks, the current overlords, and were turning their eyes eastwards, attracted by accounts of the religious tolerance and trading opportunities available in British India. (This fact should not be forgotten, wherever imperialism is discussed today in contemptuous terms) [emphasis added]
Gillian Tindall's prose reeks of Raj nostalgia despite several protestations to the contrary (I was under the impression that the term `heathen worship' was an anachronism; not so for Ms. Tindall). Like Peter Hopkirk, the view of history is presented as unbiased but with biases that are buried so deep that they are invisible to the author.
%T City of Gold %T :the Biography of Bombay %A Gillian Tindall %I Penguin Books %D 1982 %G ISBN: 0140095004 (pb) %P 210 %K history
Review written: 2002/05/17
Double Contact by James White
James White has been writing installments for his Sector General series since 1962 when the first novel, "Hospital Station" was published. Published in 1999, "Double Contact" is the latest in this series. The premise behind the series portrays a far future brand of medical science where many species including humans practice their surgical craft in a noble pursuit of knowledge and the extension of lives (usually of novel alien species) who might have otherwise perished due to accidents or war. James White also creates a notion of a Federation of species which is openly militarisitic but professes a search for scientific knowledge (remarkably similar to what I believe to be the later similar creation in Star Trek which also shares the same name but is less inventive about the collection of alien species)
While published in the late 90s, the book retains a golden age flavor, the pacing is languid and the writing style seems substantially dated with speculations about technology kept in rein to be consistent with the previous Sector General book. The only nod is a part mechanical and part biotech robotic `species' that is discovered in this book.
What James White does best, inventing novel alien species with carefully constructed ecologies and life-cycles is the best reason to read this book. Responding to two different distress beacons from the same planet, the fine doctors of Sector General arrive to find a human ship deorbiting slowly into the planet, and an ship from an unknown alien species which has been partially destroyed by weaponry of some kind. The plot includes a desperate attempt by this alien species to colonize a new planet into which the human ship is about to crash. The colonization plan is due to the escalating war against a hostile species termed the druul on their home planet of Trolann that has completely poisoned it for stable habitation. The plot also includes a botched first contact between the escaping aliens and the residents of the planet who are spider-like creatures that produce artifacts from their own ejecta, sort of like silk but in this case like a soft plastic which hardens after taking its shape. This `hard-silk' is used to build their tools and even their aircraft and ships. While interesting, the spiders here are less interesting than the ones in Vernor Vinge's "A Deepness in the Sky".
As you can tell from the plot, the strength of the book lies in the novel alien species that are created by the author. Everything else in the novel slavishly follows a simple formulaic adventure plot. Unlike most recent hard-sf no larger issues about science, technology or civilization are pursued. What would have made a good short story -- wears a bit thin at 300 pages. A better representative of James White's Sector General series is Major Operation published in 1971.
%T Double Contact %A James White %I Tor %D 1999 %G ISBN: 0812568605 (pb) %P 311 %K science-fiction
Review written: 2002/03/06
October 21, 2005
The Human Stain by Philip Roth
She was talking to everybody. She's part of that dopey culture. Yap, yap, yap. Part of this generation that is proud of its shallowness. The sincere performance is everything. Sincere and empty, totally empty. The sincerity that goes in all directions. The sincerity that is worse than falseness, and the innocence that is worse than corruption. All the rapacity hidden under the sincerity. And under the lingo. This wonderful language they have -- that they appear to
believe-- about their `lack of self-worth,' all the while what they actually believe is that they're entitled to everything. Their shamelessness they call lovingness, and the ruthlessness is camouflaged as lost `self-esteem'.
Philip Roth's novel is the exploration of public opinion, opinion that is often expressed by anchormen or intellectuals. The exploration is based on the life of one man: Coleman Silk, a classics professor in a liberal arts college in Massachusetts, the first Jewish man to enter the institution. Subsequently when he becomes Dean of the collge, he proceeds to ruthlessly revolutionize it, in the process making many enemies. Enemies who are naturally allied against him, when an innocent remark that he makes in class is elevated to the status of a grevious racial slur against the only two black students in his class.
Silk resigns from the college, and tries to get his friend, the author Nathan Zuckerman to write about this outrage, about how the faculty of Athena College all but caused the death of his wife. Zuckerman demurs, but does after all write his novel about Coleman Silk, only after he finds out, very much by accident, a secret that Silk has been hiding for most of his life.
The events portrayed in this book take place in 1998 during the famous Clinton impeachment trials for his having had oral sex with Monica Lewinsky in the White House. The above quote, for example, is about Lewinsky, but not just about her in the end. There are not many references to politics here, this novel is not a thinly disguised rant against Republicans or oppurtunistic attempts by politicians at smarmy `family values', it goes deeper at hits closer, all of its points are scored directly at the reader. At least, the typical sort of reader who is going to read a Philip Roth book.
Their whole language is a summation of the stupidity of the last forty years. Closure.
There'sone. My students cannot stay in that place where thinking must occur. Closure! They fix on the conventionalized narrative, with its beginning, middle, and end -- every experience, no matter how ambiguous, no matter how knotty or mysterious must lend itself to this normalizing, conventionalizing, anchorman cliché. Any kid who says `closure' I flunk. They want closure, there's their closure.
%T The Human Stain %A Philip Roth %I Vintage Books %D 2000 %G ISBN: 0375726349 (pb) %P 361 %K fiction
Review written: 2002/02/25
A Man on the Moon by Andrew Chaikin
This is the definitive history of the Apollo missions. Based on interviews with 23 Apollo astronauts along with a number of others involved in the missions, this book focuses on the actual visceral experiences of the astronauts and the scientists and engineers on the ground for what almost reads like an oral history of the entire Apollo space program.
The main advantage of reading a book focused on the Apollo missions is that the focus is not only on Apollo 11 which landed the first man on the moon or the ill-fated Apollo 13 which suffered catastrophic failures, but the entire history all the way upto the final Apollo 17 mission to the moon. The scientific exploration that was part of the final few missions is a story that is seldom told and is as compelling as any of the other stories in Apollo.
This book was also the inspiration for the HBO mini-series "From the Earth to the Moon". While the TV series faltered in a few episodes, this book never fails to hit the mark. In my experience, it was beneficial to watch the mini-series along with reading the book.
The following missions are the topic of this book:
Apollo 7 Oct 11-22, 1968
crew: Walter M. Schirra, Donn F. Eisele, R. Walter Cunningham
Apollo 8 Dec 21-27, 1968
crew: Frank Borman, James A. Lovell Jr., William A. Anders
Apollo 9 Mar 3-13, 1969
crew: James A. McDivitt, David R. Scott, Russell L. Schweickart
Apollo 10 May 18-26, 1969
crew: Thomas P. Stafford, John W. Young, Eugene A. Cernan
Apollo 11 Jul 16-24, 1969
crew: Neil A. Armstrong, Michael Collins, Edwin E. Aldrin Jr.
location: Sea of Tranquility
Apollo 12 Nov 14-24, 1969
crew: Charles Conrad Jr., Richard F. Gordon, Alan L. Bean
location: Ocean of Storms
Apollo 13 Apr 11-17, 1970
crew: James A. Lovell, John L. Swigert, Fred W. Haise Jr.
Apollo 14 Jan 31-Feb 9, 1971
crew: Alan B. Shepard Jr., Stuart A. Roosa, Edgar D. Mitchell
location: Fra Mauro
Apollo 15 Jul 26-Aug 7, 1971
crew: David R. Scott, Alfred M. Worden, James B. Irwin
Apollo 16 Apr 16-27, 1972
crew: John W. Young, T. Kenneth Mattingly II, Charles M. Duke Jr.
location: Descartes highlands
Apollo 17 Dec 7-19, 1972
crew: Eugene A. Cernan, Ronald E. Evans, Harrison H. Schmitt
%T A Man on the Moon %A Andrew Chaikin %I Penguin Books %D 1994 %G ISBN: 0140272011 (pb) %P 670 %K non-fiction
Review written: 2002/02/23
Major Operation by James White
This novel is another entry in James White's Sector General universe. The series is based on the simple and compelling premise of a hospital in space, built to deal with all manner of alien patients and doctors. The entire series is built on speculation about alien life, sentient or otherwise. In each chapter of this book there is careful thought given to the natural basis of each alien species and how each species would inhabit an scientifically plausible constructed ecology.
The premise provides a grand exploration of many of the central themes of science-fiction. In this novel, James White also provides a story of environmental collapse due to the ignorance of a sentient species on a planet which is unaware of the existence or the negative effect it has been having on the other sentient species on their planet. Sector General doctors have to step in to repair the damage before a homicide and an ecological disaster (both as a result of one action) take place. The planet that the doctors of Sector General have to pull back from the brink have wheelshaped rolling sentients without hearts, leechlike healers without brains and a 900 mile telepathic carpet of flesh. As promised in the title, the main plot of the novel revolves around a surgical operation of epic proportions.
The reader has to allow for the age of the book and to permit it to be a pleasurable read. The lack of use of many scientific ideas that would be part of this novel if it were written today make the book feel dated, a failing that is peculiar to science-fiction.
%T Major Operation %A James White %I Del Rey %D 1971 %G ISBN: 0345293819 (pb) %P 183 %K science-fiction
Review written: 2002/02/23
October 17, 2005
Look to Windward by Iain M. Banks
Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.
T. S. Eliot, `The Waste Land', IV
What should be made of this epigraph taken from `The Waste Land'. It includes a reference back to the first Culture novel by Iain M. Banks, "Consider Phlebas". It could be considered a completion, perhaps this is the final Culture novel? The plot here concerns the aftermath of the Culture's conflict with the Idirans that was the plot in "Consider Phlebas". In this novel, rather than the original swashbuckling action there is a somber reflection of the themes of war and revenge.
So, rather than a grand finale, it seems more like a return to the ideas behind the construction of the Culture, a society which lacks in nothing. Where humans live pleasurable easy lives, being looked over by sentient immortal Minds who are far from infallible but pursue a life of wisdom and a search for abstraction while tending the human flock in their care. But let us first consider what is to be made of Eliot's reference to Phlebas?
Philebus was saying that enjoyment and pleasure and delight, and the class of feelings akin to them, are a good to every living being, whereas I contend, that not these, but wisdom and intelligence and memory, and their kindred, right opinion and true reasoning, are better and more desirable than pleasure for all who are able to partake of them, and that to all such who are or ever will be they are the most advantageous of all things. Have I not given, Philebus, a fair statement of the two sides of the argument?
In `Philebus', Plato describes the discussion between Socrates, Protarchus and Philebus on the nature of happiness. If one could have all that one desires, what is it that should be asked for? Perhaps these are the questions being asked by Banks about the Culture.
This novel reminds me of the style of Iain M. Banks in his other Culture novel, "Inversions". It is measured, fabulously inventive and exposes its hidden themes with great skill.
The three main characters are the Hub mind of the Culture Orbital, Masaq' (like people, Minds have peripatetic or homely personalities), the Homomdan Ambassador to the Orbital, Kabe Ischloear and the Chelgrian composer living in exile, Mahrai Ziller. The Chelgrians don't like the Culture, for the same reasons that the protagonist of "Consider Phlebas" did not like them: for their arrogance in presuming to know what was right. However, they send a diplomat to meet the exiled composer Ziller to try and coax him back to his home. Ziller is busy composing a symphony for the Orbital Mind Masaq' to commemorate the destruction of two suns in the Idiran war at the hands of the warship it used to be before it retired to become an Orbital.
While themes are different from the usual space opera, the setting is more than worthy of the title. The descriptions of elaborate engineering and exotic alien landscapes are among the best in this genre. As John Clute says in his review of this book: ``So start here. Then explore backward to Phlebas.''
%T Look to Windward %A Iain M. Banks %I Orbit %D 2000 %G ISBN: 1841490598 (pb) %P 403 %K science-fiction
Review written: 2002/02/23
True Names: and other dangers by Vernor Vinge
A collection of short stories from one the best science-fiction novelists around. As with his novels, most of the stories here deal with the notion of the Singularity: a phase transition that occurs when technology and human behaviour combine to create something unforseen.
The first story, "Bookworm, Run!" is about such a kid (the actual nature of the child is also important to the story), who has been given the gift of Intelligence Amplification (IA). He escapes his restraints and becomes involved in cold war hijinks. For a story written in the early 60s, and being Vinge's first story, it is quite an accomplishment.
The next story, "True Names" introduces several notions that are now cliches in the cyberpunk literature. The main theme is the close relationship between good programming and the wizards from fantasy literature. This close and true melding of fantasy themes with hard science-fiction has only been successful in a few stories. This is one of those stories.
"The Peddler's Apprentice" (with Joan D. Vinge) is a time travel parable which is passable reading. "The Ungoverned" is a story set in the period between two other Vinge novels, "The Peace War" and "Marooned in Realtime". The final story, "Long Shot" is the story of the smallest interplanetary mission possible (at the time, now some sf authors have come up with even smaller mission plans).
%T True Names %T :... and other dangers %A Vernor Vinge %I Baen Books %D 1987 %G ISBN: 0671653636 (pb) %P 275 %K science-fiction
Review written: 2002/02/23
October 14, 2005
Count Zero by William Gibson
Bobby Newmark's handle is `Count Zero' named after the count zero interrupt -- on receiving an interrupt, decrement the counter to zero. He's a low-level dilettante in the art of breaking into places in the Matrix. His story is part of a triptych of stories that make up the plot of this novel.
The other two main characters are Turner and Marly. Turner is a hot-shot cowboy just like the hero of "Neuromancer", Case. Turner's speciality is to extract employees of powerful multinationals who want to defect to a new company. Marly is a failed art dealer who is hired by a fabulously wealthy person Josef Virek (it isn't clear if he is even alive) to procure an obscure art object.
Bobby Newmark gets into trouble while trying to steal some porn. His story is tied in with the latest defector being extracted by Turner and the mysterious artist that Marly is after. It all ties up neatly at the end. While reading this book does bring back the pleasant memories of reading "Neuromancer", it remains a stale pleasure.
Gibson's style of grittiness involves the painstaking brand-name minutae of all the objects in the sight of the characters. At times, reading this novel is like reading a computer catalog, and as pleasurable (sometimes, reading a catalog can stand in for enjoyment).
Some characters from "Neuromancer" like the Finn make a cameo appearance. This, like in other things, makes "Count Zero" a strictly derivative experience to the earlier novel. This might be an unfair comment, since this novel is a sequel of sorts, and part of a cycle of novels. Still, if you have to read one Gibson book, read "Neuromancer" instead.
%T Count Zero %A William Gibson %I Ace Books, New York %D 1986 %G ISBN: 0441117732 (pb) %P 246 %K science-fiction
Review written: 2002/02/23
The Hacker and the Ants by Rudy Rucker
Jerzy Rugby (an ugly name for a protagonist if there ever was one) is the eponymous hacker, engrossed in his "Great Work" of creating sentient artificial lifeforms (or at least robots that are safe to be around humans) in the Enlightenment Era of Silicon Valley. Meanwhile, his life is falling apart around him. All Jerzy wants, however, is to hack on his robot software and score a bag of pot.
The entire plot revolves around artificial life organisms that appear within the virtual reality of his `cyberspace' deck. They resemble ants but have an uncanny knack of duplicating themselves, manipulating the surrounding environment and disappearing into bugs and glitches in the graphics programming that render the virtual world.
Through his journey, Jerzy is screwed over by everybody: his employers, his many girlfrieds, his ex-wife but triumphs against the ants in the end thanks to good old human ingenuity. Rudy Rucker seems to have imbibed far too much chemical stimulation while writing this book, which might explain the inconsistent philosophical stances that are taken by the author as the book progresses. One moment, Rudy Rucker champions the experimentation that would produce sentient machines, and a few hundred pages later, through the main character he preaches about how we have to get back to nature and forget this obsession with artifice, man.
If you have yet to read a Rudy Rucker book, the more trenchant "Software" might be a better introduction to his inimitable style. This one is strictly for the Rucker-junkies.
%T The Hacker and the Ants %A Rudy Rucker %I Avon Books %D 1994 %G ISBN: 0380718448 (pb) %P 307 %K science-fiction
Review written: 2002/02/23
October 11, 2005
Mortal Engines by Stanislaw Lem
The first thing the potential buyer of this volume must be aware of is that this is not an original collection of stories. Rather it is a collection put together by the translator of this volume, Michael Kandel. Kandel is also the translator of several other Lem translations into English. Nowhere on the book jacket or the blurbs does it state that this is the case, so the reader be aware. However, for a Lem fan, this book is still a must-read.
The publication history of the stories in this collection is as follows: the first eleven stories are part of the "Cyberiad", and the last three stories `The Sanatorium of Dr. Vliperdius', `The Hunt' (from "Tales of Pirx the Pilot") and `The Mask' are each taken from previously published short story collections of Lem.
This collection starts with a well-written Introduction by the translator and editor of this volume, Michael Kandel. It focuses on the literary discussions of artificial intelligence and the appreciation of this science in fiction over the years, from the Romantics to the cyberneticists. Kandel provides a brief history of Lem's own fiction in this area and tries to give a meta-level description to Lem's work.
The stories themselves are marvelous although the reader has to stare beyond the fabulist construction of the plots to get at the central ideas. Anyone who has pondered sentience, both human and artificial should read what Lem has to say on the philosophy of the subject.
%T Mortal Engines %A Stanislaw Lem %I Avon Books %D 1977 %G ISBN: 0380574063 (pb) %P 239 %K science-fiction
Review written: 2002/02/22
The Man Who Loved Only Numbers: the Story of Paul Erdös and the Search for Mathematical Truth by Paul Hoffmann
Paul Erdös was easily the most prolific mathematician of the 20th century. Part of this reason was that he did almost nothing else: he spent all his time engrossed in mathematics. He ingested the strongest coffee and addictive levels of amphetamines to ensure that he was continually alert to the possibility of a new theorem even with only three hours of sleep every day. He never married or even had to the best of anybody's knowledge any romantic feelings for anything other than prime numbers and graph theory. In a field of strange geniuses, Erdös was stranger and more of a genius than most.
He wrote or co-authored 1,475 academic papers, many of them monumental, and all of them substantial.
While Erdös' life and his work are fascinating, only the former gets adequate attention in this book. His curious behaviour and his homeland Hungary get a lot of attention by Hoffmann. The history of Hungary in the early 20th century provides a backdrop to the story of Erdös and his family who were Hungarian Jews during a time (as everyone knows) when it not so convenient to be Jewish in Europe.
While Hoffmann selects prime number theory and goes into its history and Erdös' contributions to this field in great depth, Hoffmann all but ignores the tremendous contributions of Erdös to random graphs and Ramsey theory. The latter is mentioned and discussed in the book, but is not covered in the depth that it deserved.
Instead, Hoffmann gets distracted by the colorful personalities of many of Erdös' academic collaborators. Even historical figures in mathematics that formed some of the foundations of the field are covered even though they have but tangential connections to the work of Erdös (their work might have deep connections, but they do so to the work of all mathematicians, and so their selection here is simply opportunistic). The work of Gauss is covered suitably for his proof of the Prime Number Theorem (a theorem about the log-like distribution of prime numbers). This was a theorem for which Erdös and Selberg gave a simpler proof than the original by Gauss. Other mathematicians such as Cantor get a lot of coverage in this book, sometimes not for very good reasons.
Despite these shortcomings, Hoffmann does a good job in introducing the intuitions behind the practice of number theory in mathematics.
It should be noted that the reviewer has an Erdös number of 4.
%T The Man Who Loved Only Numbers %T :the Story of Paul Erdös and the Search for Mathematical Truth %A Paul Hoffmann %I Fourth Estate, London %D 1998 %G ISBN: 1857028112 (pb) %P 302 %K mathematics, biography
Review written: 2002/02/22
October 04, 2005
A Perfect Vacuum by Stanislaw Lem
Reviewing non-existent books is not Lem's invention; we find such experiments not only in a contemporary writer, Jorge Luis Borges (for example, his `Investigations of the Writings of Herbert Quaine') but the idea goes further back -- and even Rabelais was not the first to make use of it. `A Perfect Vacuum' is unusual in that it purports to be an anthology made up entirely of such critiques. Pedantry or joke, this methodicalness?
So starts Stanislaw Lem's book. The Introduction is a review of the book, a book full of reviews of books that should have been written for the most part. Thus there is a sneaky implication that this book should have been written as well. Since it was, is it worth reading as well?
This question is easy: unless you have a deep hatred for Stanislaw Lem's work you must read this book. To summarize the interesting parts of this book would be to reproduce it in its entirety.
Like Borges, Lem packs a compact punch, squeezing in large ideas in the compressed form of a short story. By attempting to create the fiction of a book which contains these ideas, every aspect of some philosophy of science is explored in a few pages.
Fans of Greg Egan's work in hard-sf might find interesting parallels between Lem's review of `Non Serviam' in this book with Egan's novels "Permutation City" and "Diaspora". Also compelling is the similarity between Lem's `The New Cosmogony' with Egan's short story "Axiomatic".
An example of the mental gymastics Lem can achieve in this collection is the description and review of the book called `Gruppenführer Louis XVI': the story of a murderous SS officer who escapes the fall of the Third Reich by escaping to Argentina where he sets up a perfect recreation of the court of Louis the sixteenth. A recreation which becomes reality in his mind.
%T A Perfect Vacuum %T :translation of Doskonala próznia %A Stanislaw Lem %I Harcourt Brace Jovanovich %D 1971 %G ISBN: 0156716860 (pb) %P 229 %K science-fiction
Review written: 2002/02/22
Startup by Jerry Kaplan
There is a notion of capitalism involving a competition between companies and the best, most innovative products lead to profits. Even before Microsoft publicists bastardized the term 'innovation' there was little novelty tolerated in the computer industry.
Jerry Kaplan tells his story of a high-tech Silicon Valley startup from the inception of the idea to the final gasps when the venture capital dries up and bigger fish in the fond swallow up parts of their company. The book chronicles the rise and fall of his startup company, Go Inc. This was a company that wanted to produce the first handheld computer that would be entirely operated by a pen device. While the company failed, the idea of a pen-based device and the actual technology that was developed at Go found it's way into a future generation of successful devices like the Palm from 3COM and the Microsoft rival WinCe (or the Pocket PC).
The story begins with Kaplan's weekly visit to his PhD advisor Aravind Joshi at the University of Pennsylvania. It sets the tone for the rest of the book, which is told in a similar light-hearted vein (for a tragedy, which is what this is). Some personal details creep in as is common in this kind of autobiographical business story.
The story is told in such a good-hearted manner with little greed in evidence (apart from the usual ambition to succeed) that even those who hate the genre of CEO hagiography and myth will find things to like in this book.
%T Startup %A Jerry Kaplan %I Penguin Books %D 1994 %G ISBN: 0140257314 (pb) %P 322 %K business, computer-science
Review written: 2002/02/22
Adiamante by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.
Power without morality is disaster; morality without power is useless.
Military sf brings with it many tropes. Here at last, standing above the majority is a belletrist military sf novel that brings with it a complex philosophical stance. Modesitt creates a conflict between two military powers. One starting out and beginning to flex their strength, the other has lived with military power for centuries and has been forced to find a society that will sustain it.
There are many surprises, and even though the reader might be skeptical about the rules of the society depicted here, it will at least prompt a discussion or perhaps a visit to the social philosophy section of the library.
Since in many ways, it is a depiction of an 'ideal' society, the final outcome is bound to be disappointing for many reasons. The pacing however is brilliant and sustains the book until the end. The important aspects of the novel are already done by the time you get to the deus-ex machina finale.
The attention to environmental concerns is particularly refreshing in a genre mil-sf book.
%T Adiamante %A L. E. Modesitt, Jr. %I Tor Books %D 1996 %G ISBN: 0812545583 %P 312 %K science-fiction
Review written: 2002/02/22
October 03, 2005
Mission Child by Maureen F. McHugh
In her last sf novel "China Mountain Zhang", there is one thread that involves human colonists on Mars. In that novel, it seemed as if the author did not have enough space to complete the stories of the lives of those colonists. In this novel, Maureen McHugh gets a chance to explore an entire story arc about a planet colonized by humans.
Most sf novels about human exploration use a wide-angle lens. From an extreme perspective the lives of an entire colony are described, usually by an external observer. In some cases, since a novel with living, breathing characters is far more compelling the sf author cheats and makes them immortal as in the "Red Mars" series by Kim Stanley Robinson. In this novel, Maureen McHugh doesn't take either way out, keeping a tight focus on one character and her travels through a culture alien to us, and one which grows increasingly alien to the main character.
This novel is the story of Janna. The novel begins with her with her family as a young girl. She is fated to travel long distances on a planet colonized by her ancestors where survival is hard, almost nothing found on the planet is nutritious to humans. While she transitions between being a girl to being a woman, Janna also transitions from being womanly to being more like a man. Since it is now trendy to play with "gender issues" in sf, it takes considerable skill to say something new in this area. While not particularly novel, the approach here at least is not dishonest. It works perhaps because it is not limited to a particular agenda or a single idea.
The real skill is not in the plot of the novel, but rather in the construction of the character and the scenery. This is a far tougher thing to pull off. Like writing a joke: either it's funny or it isn't, there is no middle ground, it cannot be sort-of funny. In this case, if you forego the standard tropes of a plot either at the end you have a fully realized world with interesting characters or you fail and there is no novel to pick up and read.
The colony planet is particularly well thought out -- a human habitat in a truly alien place. The novel is also about issues of appropriate levels of technology needed for human existence and the mixing of very advanced technology even in well-intentioned humane hands with a culture that is experimenting with sustainable development. The latter is an idea that is of tremendous concern to contemporary scientists in developing countries and is an idea that is seldom explored in science-fiction terms. Somewhere between familiar and alien, science and superstition, the main character Janna (sometimes Jan) lives her life. And the novel follows her journey.
In the end, it is an even more tightly constructed and rewarding novel by Maureen McHugh than her previous "China Mountain Zhang".
%T Mission Child %A Maureen F. McHugh %I Avon Books %D 1998 %G ISBN: 0380791226 (pb) %P 347 %K science-fiction
Review written: 2002/02/14
Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
Online reviews written by readers of this book are usually filled with words gratuitously capitalized: 'I still laugh EVERY SINGLE TIME I read it'. This book, however, lives up to the occasional immoderate capitalization by its enthusiasts.
This might be one book that is better on audiotape. Listeners of "This American Life" on NPR have already heard David Sedaris speak out many of these short essays, to great effect. The spread of the book is autobiographical starting with a North Carolina childhood and moving on to adult life in Chicago, New York and Paris.
Quickly read and enjoyed, the book is easy to digest and apart from a few well-deserved cases does not depend on making fun of people for its humor. The essays hover between 'sprint humor' of the kind in Woody Allen's "Without Feathers", "Getting Even" or "Side Effects" (and other New Yorker authors that I'm ignorant about) but often cross over towards being truly autobiographical while still delivering the requisite punchline in regular intervals.
The second half of the book is about David Sedaris' adventures in France. The title of the book refers to the English gloss of his aspirations to master the French language. Nothing is funnier than the French.
It's funny. Laugh.
%T Me Talk Pretty One Day %A David Sedaris %I Little Brown & Co %D 2001 %G ISBN: 0316776963 (pb) %P 272 %K humor, autobiography
Review written: 2001/10/23
The Jazz by Melissa Scott
Seth Halford wants to make it big in the world of jazz. Jazz is a word to describe what happens already in several forms on the internet: the creation of a shared reality which sometimes spills over into real life. Creative hoaxes perpetrated, sometimes illegally, to introduce some creativity into what is presented as truth on electronic media. The modern-day equivalent of a rumor that spreads exponentially through the population by word of mouth. Only recently (in September 2001), a cracker managed to get access to the Yahoo newsfeeds and add some creative edits to stories being published on that website. Melissa Scott takes this idea and imagines a world in the near future where these actions are unified under a single concept named the jazz and the main revenue for various jazz web sites (the latter-day Drudge Reports).
Seth Halford, unfortunately, is not talented enough to create good jazz by himself. He has accumulated a couple of rejections from the good jazz websites. To give him an edge, he enlists the help of a software program that he liberates using his parent's user accounts. Unfortunately, the CEO of the company that owns the program, Gardner Gerretty, is a vindictive and influential man who believes that crackers and jazz artists should be imprisoned for the longest time that he can provide under the laws that he routinely bends with his financial power. He's portrayed as a somewhat kinder, gentler version of Steve Ballmer.
Tin Lizzy, the programmer hired to do the back-tech for Seth's jazz, has run into Gardner Gerretty's wrath before and so takes it upon herself to make sure that Seth will not end up in the kind of trouble she did. The plot is a simple chase where Gerretty's hired goons try to keep up with Tin Lizzy and Seth Halford and all the rest of people they pick up during their flight. The plot is like the events in "Takedown" (a non-fiction account of how Kevin Mitnick, a famous cracker, was apprehended) except as if told sympathetically from the point of view of Kevin Mitnick. There are not many surprises and the plot plays itself out pretty much by the numbers. After the initial sense-of-wonder that Melissa Scott injects by her well thought out future vision of the internet, there are few revelations for the reader later in the book.
The most interesting thing for me was that the software program that was stolen was a text-processing program -- based on the descriptions of the author, a statistical parser of text that analyzes text into its grammatical elements and extracts meaning from entire texts and relates various texts to each other. Almost exactly the field in which I do my research. It was gratifying to finally see it reach the pages of science-fiction.
Melissa Scott manages to revitalize the dying cyberpunk genre by converting the usual fantastic noir elements into a more realistic, view of the power of the internet. She is no stranger to cyberpunk, with her earlier "Trouble and her Friends" being one of the few reasonably good novels in the cyberpunk genre written after "Neuromancer". Some people follow the cyberpunk genre quite closely, and for them this novel is a must-read. Others will have little other than the first few chapters to reward their effort: the rest of the book has a plain good vs. evil plotline and a large number of coincidences to drive it.
While there is much to like about this novel, it is fatter than it deserves to be. There is this empirical distribution one observes about science-fiction books: since the early 1990s they are inevitably longer than 300 pages, unless they're part of a six-part series about a completely derivative universe filled with tedious characters. Thankfully, this book lies within the former category, but it could easily have been dieted down to 200 pages or less. Losing the bloat would have made it a far more appealing read.
%T The Jazz %A Melissa Scott %I Tor Books %D 2000 %G ISBN: 0312868022 (pb) %P 316 %K science-fiction
Review written: 2001/10/05
September 29, 2005
Neutron Star by Larry Niven
Reading this classic collection of short stories is a bit like watching the Marx Brothers. You know that the contributions were seminal and shaped the future in the genre, but everything is dated, implausibly created and hokey in comparison to modern examples of the genre.
Many of the stories, while hard sf in spirit are too caught up in the Apollo era which glorified astronauts over scientists. Scientific facts that should be obvious within the context of each story are `discovered' by astronaut flyboys in many stories in this volume.
The most compelling aspect of this collection of stories is that it fleshes out a single imagined universe constructed by Niven -- the so-called Known Space series of stories that form the basis of many of his short stories and novels. Many future sf worlds, including those imagined by Iain M. Banks, Bruce Sterling among others show their roots in Niven's fiction.
`Neutron Star' (published in Worlds of If, October 1966) is perhaps Niven's most famous short story. It won the Hugo award in the year it was published. In retrospect, the plot seems ludicrous. Today, you can find Java applets that show you how light bends around neutron stars -- making it quite implausible that astronauts going to visit a neutron star would not be aware of the basic unsurprising physical facts that they would encounter well before they would reach their destination.
`A Relic of the Empire' is a good old sense-of-wonder story with a good invention (starseeds) in a stale plot.
`At the Core' is an attempt to recreate his success with Neutron Star. It also strains credulity -- read "Diaspora" by Greg Egan which has a similar plot twist but in a much better constructed setting.
`Flatlander' is also about discovering a strange natural phenomenon. The story is well constructed and the twist is quite good. Subsequently, however, the central idea has been used in far too many stories for there to be any novelty left in the idea.
`The Ethics of Madness' and `The Handicapped' are the best stories in the collection. `The Handicapped' promises to be the best hard sf story here but is spoiled somewhat by taking recourse to telepathy and other pseudo-science. It's still a good sf story, however.
`Grendel' closes the collection with the story of an alien abduction of very different kind.
%T Neutron Star %A Larry Niven %I Ballantine Books %D 1968 %G ISBN: 0356026523 (pb) %P 285 %K science-fiction
Review written: 2001/08/22
The Engines of God by Jack McDevitt
The Engines of God ultimately is a space opera novel posing as hard-sf, all the time promising to become a really interesting novel, until the pages run out and disappointment sets in.
The thought of first contact with an alien race only through their artifacts is one that is close to the heart of science fiction. Surprisingly, this kind of plot has rarely been handled well in the sf literature. The best known example in my experience still remains "Rendezvous with Rama".
The premise is a great one: after the discovery of superluminal travel, humans discover several alien artifacts, most of them works of art. One of them is even found on Saturn's moon Iapetus. Humans seem to have temporally missed these alien Monument Makers by tens of thousands of years, but archaeologists search for clues to their disappearance in their monuments and in the excavated cities of other missing alien races found on planets that orbit stars in the neighbourhood of our solar system.
The book sets up this grand mystery of the ultimate fate of these aliens, and there is adequate sense-of-wonder about the painstaking setup of the entire universe and the archeological details of these dead civilizations. Unfortunately, this means that the entire novel depends on a brilliant resolution of this mystery that is interesting but also accounting for the numerous clues that were collected during the length of the book. And there is no such brilliant resolution. The answer when it comes is strained, incomplete and uninteresting, the worst kind of outcome for a novel longer than 400 pages.
The plotting attempts to have it both ways with the sensibility of hard-sf permeating the presentation of the archeology of alien artifacts, but with pointless capers and life-threatening adventures thrown into the storyline for no reason other than to get rid of some of the characters and to make the survivors seem somewhat heroic. The glue between these varieties of plot does not hold together.
Strangely, in this novel, while technology has advanced, the political situation seems to have remained exactly the same. This fact is puzzling but never explained.
Also strange is the similarity of all the other worlds discovered by humans to the life that arose on Earth. Only after about 300 pages, McDevitt offers an explanation: `Nature chooses the simplest way'. There are so many things wrong with such a statement that one barely knows where to begin. One suspects that it is not nature's limitation so much as it is the author's lack of imagination.
%T The Engines of God %A Jack McDevitt %I New York: Ace Books %D 1994 %G ISBN: 0441002846 (pb) %P 419 %K science-fiction
Review written: 2001/04/01
The Salaryman's Wife by Sujata Massey
Rei Shimura stumbles into a murder during her New Year vacation to Shiroyama. She has a dead-end job as an English teacher for a corporation that makes kitchen appliances. She would rather be an antiques dealer, but instead she lives in a Tokyo slum. Her vacation was going to be her time to be alone and browse around for antiques in picturesque old Japanese towns. Instead, she is a suspect in a murder investigation.
Rei is Japanese-American and while she can speak fluently, albeit with an accent, she has a tough time with reading kanji. She seems to be living in Tokyo, dealing with the close-minded clannish nature of the Japanese people, only because she wants to be independent and far away from her parents who live in California.
The high profile murder and her close involvement in it has now made Rei a target for both the police detectives and the paparazzi. Rei struggles with her alienation in trying to find the true reason behind the original murder.
While the arc of the story sustains interest, the prose is workmanlike and at times is outright awkward. There is almost no creation of suspense in the writing. Crucial or violent events happen in the same flow as the rest of the novel. Events never almost happen, they simply transpire.
Rather than have a glossary in the back for those terminally lacking in general knowledge, the text explains each occurence of fairly obvious concepts like the `yakuza', or who directed The Seven Samurai. At the same time, terms like `Ranma' go unexplained. Perhaps this was because of compulsive editing caused by the publisher's low opinion in the intelligence of their target demographic.
This book won the Agatha award for best first novel in 1998.
Related to the events described in this book: there was a series on hostessing in Tokyo that ran on salon.com that is worth reading before or after reading this novel.
%T The Salaryman's Wife %A Sujata Massey %I Harper Paperbacks %D 1997 %G ISBN: 0061044431 (pb) %P 424 %K crime-fiction
Review written: 2001/06/13
September 28, 2005
The Code Book: The Evolution of Secrecy from Mary, Queen of Scots to Quantum Cryptography by Simon Singh
There have been many books that have explored the history, the scientific and engineering contributions and the mathematics behind cryptography. One of the most comprehensive early books on the topic was "Secret and Urgent, the story of codes and ciphers" by Fletcher Pratt (Blue Ribbon Books, 1942). More recently, "The Codebreakers; The Comprehensive History of Secret Communication from Ancient Times to the Internet" by David Kahn attempted a detailed history of cryptography. The emphasis in Kahn's book was on the historical details, more or less assuming a familiarity with the mathematics behind the algorithms.
Of late, popular writing about mathematics is better than ever. Many subjects previously thought too obscure have had skilled writers tackle the exposition of these subjects for a layperson audience. As a result, Simon Singh can attempt to explain in somewhat more detail the development of crypographic methods including all the math and the details of the ingenuity behind these methods. But one should keep in mind that this is a book for popular consumption -- those deeply interested in cryptography should pick up one of the many textbooks on the matter and read David Kahn's book for the history. This book is for those who want to read a compelling and important story.
Singh's book is a welcome addition to the selection of books about cryptography. You'll find some stories in Fletcher Pratt's book which don't make it into "The Code Book". And while David Kahn's book attempts to be far more comprehensive by being more than a 1000 pages long, Singh's narrative is trimmer and will inform you about the techniques and the history in a smaller dose.
Rather than concentrating on telling all the stories in the history of cryptography, Singh chooses a few important ones and tells them with their context and without sacrificing details (at least until the last chapters of the book). Many details are relegated to appendices which should not be skipped.
Singh describes the development of cryptographic methods as a result of co-evolutionary behaviour of those who encrypt messages to secure them (usually in a war with lives at stake) and those who are equally compelled to decrypt these messages. At some point, encryption methods seem to be unbreakable and induces a sense of security for the codemakers who think that their ciphers are unbreakable, until new methods are invented for their decipherment rendering the old encryption methods extinct and making way for a search for new forms of encryption and cycle repeats itself.
Singh also includes a chapter about the decipherment of ancient scripts which is unusual for a book on cryptography. But as the name suggests, such methods of de-cipher-ment have a lot in common with the methods of cryptography. Singh picks the examples of the decipherment of the ancient Egyptian script and that of the Linear B script from Crete. Singh avoids the uncomfortable example of the Mayan script to which various cryptographic techniques were applied to no avail, until the linguistic insight of the Russian philologist Knorosov provided success in decipherment.
The narrative also includes the story of the Navajo code talkers. And to drive home the wartime nature of cryptography the narrative includes stories like the following:
If you so much as held up your head six inches you were gone, the fire was so intense. And then in the wee hours, with no relief on our side or theirs, there was a dead standstill. It must have gotten so that this one Japanese couldn't take it anymore. He got up and yelled and screamed at the top of his voice and dashed over our trench, swinging a long samurai sword. I imagine he was shot from 25 to 40 times before he fell.
There was a buddy with me in the trench. But that Japanese had cut him across the throat, clear through to the cords on the back of his neck. He was still gasping through his windpipe. And the sound of him trying to breathe was horrible. He died, of course. When the Jap struck, warm blood spattered all over my hand that was holding the microphone. I was calling in code for help. They tell me that in spite of what happened, every syllable of my message came through.
From Doris Paul's book, The Navajo Code Talkers
The book also includes a detailed chapter on quantum cryptography. Since it is still in its budding stages, it is mostly a description of the pioneers in the field. The descriptions of quantum decryption are admirably done, but the explanations that accompany the story of quantum encryption methods are somewhat rushed and should've been presented as carefully as the earlier methods were.
The most admirable thing about Singh's writing is the attention to detail in the explanation of the various methods. He does not hurry through explanations of the Enigma or even the RSA algorithm. He provides several examples, works through them, and also provides metaphors and analogues to help understanding the algorithm. With this three-fold presentation, almost everyone should find something to keep them interested in the presentation.
There are some missteps in the writing. The descriptions of cryptographic techniques earlier in the book are longer and more lucid while those towards the end of the book seem rushed. Many historical details, especially about Mary, Queen of Scots are included at length, while details of events towards the end of the book from the near future are shortened drastically. There are several typographic errors to do with missing fonts and a few cases of lousy editing -- unforgivable lapses in a book that costs US $25. Also, a quick search on amazon provides several editions of "The Code Book" all of them written by Simon Singh but each with a different subtitle, some of them with 'Mary, Queen of Scots' and other citing 'Ancient Egypt'.
%T The Code Book %T :The Evolution of Secrecy from Mary, Queen of Scots to Quantum Cryptography %A Simon Singh %I Doubleday %D 1999 %G ISBN: 0385495315 (hc) %P 402 %K science, computer-science, cryptography, linguistics
Review written: 2001/10/16
The Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China, 221 BC to AD 1757 by Thomas Barfield
The nomads of Inner Asia have remained a subject of fascination and controversy into modern times: the stereotype of barbarians who were both feared and despised, or romantically portrayed as wild and free by those who admired them. However, most histories fail to make the region and its people comprehensible. These accounts consist of seemingly random events presented chronologically, with one obscure tribe following another. When the nomads did make an appearance on the stage of world history by invading their neighbours, such events were treated as a form of natural history, like a plague of locusts.
Barfield's thesis is simple, and its basic premise is laid out in the introduction itself: the creation of a powerful state by the seeming consolidation of the steppe tribes was a result of a natural opposition to its sedentary neighbours, particularly China, with whom they had a complex relationship of extracted tributes and mutual distrust. In their long shared history, a collapse of the Chinese dynasty usually resulted in the collapse of the nomadic one. The great expansion by Chinggis Khan in the 13th century is explained by Barfield within the framework laid out by this theory. However this is not a popular history book -- far from it. The prose is terse and assumes a lot of the reader.
However, if you have ever despaired at the simplistic or harebrained documentaries about Chinggis Khan, or if you want to get further insight into how nomadic cultures in Central Asia were organized and the complex history of the region, then this book is a must-read. While it takes quite a bit of effort to read, the finely textured detail of history will shine through and dazzle the patient reader.
Other notable books in this topic are: Owen Lattimore's classic "Inner Asian Frontiers of China".
- Introduction: The Steppe Nomadic World (Nomadic Pastoralism, Tribal Organization)
- The Steppe Tribes United: The Hsiung-nu Empire (Foreign Affairs - the Han connection, Hsiung-nu Civil Wars)
- The Collapse of Central Order: The Rise of Foreign Dynasties (Hsien-pi ``Empire'', Ch'in and Liang, the T'o-pa, the Jou-jan, the Sinification of the T'o-pa Wei)
- The Turkish Empires and T'ang China (A Chinese Khagan, the Uighur Empire)
- The Manchurian Candidates (The Khitan Liao Dynasty, the Jurchen Chin Dynasty conquers China)
- The Mongol Empire (The Rise of Chinggis Khan, the Yüan Dynasty)
- Steppe Wolves and Forest Tigers: The Ming, Mongols and Manchus (Mongolia in Post-Yüan Era, the Oirats and the Ming, Altan Khan and the Ming Capitulation, the Rise of the Manchus, the Early Ch'ing state)
- The Last of the Nomad Empires: The Ch'ing Incorporation of Mongolia and Zungharia (Manchu conquest of China, the Zunghars -- last of the Steppe Empires)
- Epilogue: On the Decline of the Mongols
%T The Perilous Frontier %T :Nomadic Empires and China, 221 BC to AD 1757 %A Thomas J. Barfield %I Blackwell %D 1989 %G ISBN: 1557863245 (pb) %P 325 %K history, anthropology
Review written: 2002/02/23
September 07, 2005
River Beneath The River by Alu Basu
... I have become aware of the many dangers that lurk behind the writer of fiction. The worst of them are:
- The idea that the writer must be a sociologist and a politician, adjusting himself to what are called social dialectics.
- Greed for money and quick recognition.
- Forced originality -- namely, the illusion that pretentious rhetoric, precious innovations in style, and playing with artificial symbols can express the basic and ever-changing nature of human relations, or reflect the combinations and complications of heredity and environment.
These verbal pitfalls of so-called ``experimental'' writing have done damage even to genuine talent ... Literature can very well describe the absurd, but it should never become absurd itself.
-- Issac Bashevis Singer, In the Author's note to The Collected Stories, a selection of his best stories
This novel is a strange tour de force. Part dirge for the future of India, and part fictionalized and thinly disguised history of the violent Naxalite communist movement of West Bengal from the mid-1960s.
The plot of this novel, such as it is, moves between one storyline set in 2050 in the village of Phansijhora, where Malvik Beriya is an over-educated consultant trying to manage his employment problems in a strange economic landscape, in an India colonized by multinational companies. The other storyline is set in 1965, not far from Phansijhora, where the Prince of Arambari loses his kingdom to a violent Marxist-Leninist movement that is populated by the oppressed lower-caste inhabitants of Arambari and young Bengali intellectuals from Calcutta who cross over to China hoping for military aid.
Apart from the free rein afforded by a fictional account of the Naxalite movement, it isn't clear what Alu Basu is driving at. It could be a complex exploration of heredity, or it could simply be a refutation of each of the tenets laid out by Isaac Bashevis Singer in the quote (reproduced above) that appears at the beginning of the book. There is no easy answer, at least for me, to the structure of this novel. If the scenes of incest between Malvik Beriya and his daughter, 12 year old, Neenia are not disturbing enough, the recurring rape and torture scenes might be.
At least one statement is true about this book: it is entirely original. It is apparently entirely alienated from every philosophy and is distant and unsympathetic towards almost every character in this novel. Alu Basu has a particular knack for nihilism and cynicism and this novel seems to address philosophical concerns of the present through the creation of a dystopian future for India. However, in this philosophy, almost no viewpoint is left unexcoriated.
%T River Beneath The River %A Alu Basu %I Magna Publishing %D 1996 %G ISBN: unknown-1996 (pb) %P 296 %K science-fiction
Review written: 2001/07/28
Bios by Robert Charles Wilson
Computer hardware fetishists should not pick up this title under the impression that Bios is in any way about the exciting world of Basic Input/Output Systems (also BIOS) -- the software which runs just before the operating system loads on your computer. Bios here is a contraction of the word biosphere.
And biology permeates this book, from the close, almost fetishist descriptions of an alien ecology to the close attention paid to the bio-technology: intrinsic to every character in this novel.
In the 22nd century, while traversing interstellar distances is possible, it is extremely expensive. The current program of extrasolar exploration is as expensive in terms of costs and political impact as the Apollo/Soyuz programs. The Solar System is a dystopic authoritarian place ruled by corporation Families. Personnel and Devices and the Works Trust are the anonymously named arms of the bureaucracy that runs the Solar System. The only real free humans have taken up residence in the Kuiper Belt in kibbutzims of various political persuasions. The Works Trust and P&D have picked Isis, a green and Earth-like world, as the single candidate for exploration.
Isis has had a different evolutionary history from Earth due to a complete lack of disastrous cometary or asteroid strikes in its history. All life on Isis, including bacterial, has evolved based on an escalating arms race of attack and counter-attack to the point. Life is so hostile on Isis that any humans that travel without elaborate contagion protection on its surface would be liquefied within minutes by a combination of bacteria, prions and other lethal micro-organisms.
Zoe Fisher is a human engineered by the P&D to be able to withstand anything that Isis can throw at her. The novel is her story of discovery -- both of her past, and of the secrets that await her on the surface of Isis.
The plot is the standard sf adventure fare: a group of scientists in a hostile environment risking their lives in the cause of Science. When properly done this can be entertaining, and thankfully, Robert Charles Wilson manages to keep the plot moving and trades verbosity for a quick moving storyline.
The book would have been mediocre if it wasn't for the ending with which it truly breaks out of the usual mold of sf adventure novels primarily written for a teenage audience. It has a truly scientific speculation at its core and it includes what is perhaps the only reasonable extrapolation of Penrose's "theory" of consciousness ever to be used in an sf novel.
** minor spoiler **
In a collection of essays edited by Penrose, Stephen Hawking raises the point that if consciousness is due to the quantum mechanics that arises within `tubules' in human neural cells, then why doesn't a caterpillar endowed with the same set of cells possess consciousness as well? In this book, Robert Charles Wilson manages to build his speculations on a possible answer to this question, which also answers the famous Fermi paradox: "So, where are they?" that haunts SETI.
%T Bios %A Robert Charles Wilson %I Tor %D 1999 %G ISBN: 0812575741 (pb) %P 214 %K science-fiction
Review written: 2001/07/17
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
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?''
``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
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
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
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
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
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
August 02, 2005
Infinite in All Directions by Freeman Dyson
© Image from
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
July 23, 2005
All of an Instant by Richard Garfinkle
Time is earth and water.
The lower half of time where most people live is solid stone, a hard mass of cause and effect confining human life in walls of inevitability; the stone of time has many strata with gems and metals and a thousand varied riches buried in the multitude of layers that comprise the hard crust of prisoning/treasured temporality.
The upper half of time is an ocean of clear water, rippling with tides of action and change, created wave upon wave by those few people who live in that eternal sea. The waters of atemporality follow the tides from past to future, rippling and crashing with the surf of man-made change. The ocean is varied in calm and storm with neap tide and riptide, with safe swimming currents of alternation and killing whirlpools of transformation, but everywhere from the shallows of time to the deeps the ocean is one and the same water.
No one is born into the waters of time; each ocean dweller lived first in the earth of time, before either pulling himself or being pulled out of the hard strata, yanked away from the prison of causality into the freedom of change.
This is one book that has little hope of being the next summer sci-fi blockbuster. For one thing, most of this book is impossible to visualize.
Let me try. Sometimes on a computer screen, if you're having problems with the video card that's refreshing your monitor, you can see the mouse pointer leave traces as you move it across, leaving a solid imprint that reflects a timeline.
Now imagine you can similarly extract ten minutes of your life or ten years and construct a single entity just like the trail of the mouse pointer on the screen. Such human entities form the characters in this book inhabiting a space that is outside of the natural flow of time. A place called the Instant.
The novel begins with a full chapter of exposition without the introduction of any of the main characters. Only after the strange universe is described can the author populate it with his characters.
The world we inhabit where time flows inextricably is called the Flux. The Instant is outside of the Flux, where changes can be made to the Flux with a little skill. The first human to enter the Instant was Dhritirashta, taking a year of his life with him. Soon there were tribes of four-dimensional humans fighting for control of the Instant, for the power to control all that could be in the Flux. Each tribe with its own intuition about utopia.
Three inhabitants of the Instant come together to investigate a strange anomaly. One unlike ever seen before in the Instant. The first is Nir, the War Chief of the Ghosts that guard the first humans. They inhabit the Now, a place which if changed could result in the retroactive extinction of all humans. The second is Quillithé, the largest inhabitant of the Instant, a monster who came into the instant with a 100 years of her life. She is the strategist for the only army in the Instant which controls the far future in the deeps of time. The triune is completed with Kookatchi who only has a minute of his timeline making him so small in the Instant that he is impossible to detect, which suits his profession as the Thief perfectly. As human consciousness and memory cycles through their timeline brought into the Instant, Kookatchi loses all of his memory every minute causing his life to be about the constant acquisition of the experience of beauty. This unlikely group bands together to understand the anomalous and perhaps dangerous changes occurring in the Instant.
In a book like this, one would expect to discover some allegorical message or a hidden cryptogram. However, this book seems to me to be a straightforward story. While some of the character names are clearly taken from different mythological sources, notably from Hindu mythology, the plot stands by itself as a story with no gimmicks (other than the premise itself). I found this the most satisfying part of reading this book.
Be warned that this is not an easy book to get into. While the story combines hard-sf and a fantasy-like atmosphere in a compact unapologetic way, this book is not a sequel machine like the usual sf fare. You will have to meet it more than halfway. Occasionally, the use of metaphor to illustrate the Instant sometimes makes the prose inscrutable. But the skill of the author in holding this novel together is remarkable.
Update, Oct 21, 2005, I found on the author's web site, a quote about the book which contradicts one of the assertions I made in my review:
Some critics were a little puzzled by this one. It helps if you know that this is a Buddhism-based allegory for putting the mind in order.
However, I stick by my claim that you should not read this book expecting an allegory. Despite the author's best efforts, the allegory is inscrutable (maybe that is what was intended), but the book is rewarding enough without this angle.
%T All of an Instant %A Richard Garfinkle %I Tor Books %D 1999 %G ISBN: 0312866178 (hc) %P 383 %K science-fiction
Review written: 2001/02/25
July 22, 2005
The Collapsium by Wil McCarthy
Collapsium is an artificial material made of atoms with their binding energy reduced so they sort of collapse in upon themselves and are dense and heavy and that sort of thing.
Harry Harrison, Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers, page 103
Wil McCarthy writes a science column for an online magazine, Science Fiction Weekly. His descriptions of scientific discoveries or phenomena are cogent, short and well-written (a collection of these essays would make a good book). Unfortunately, with this sf work, by my count, he fails to deliver the same kind of punchy, readable and interesting material.
Bruno de Towaji lives in the Kuiper belt trying to produce an absolute vacuum using his own invention, `collapsium'. Collapsium has made him the richest man in the solar system and he spends it on his solitude and expensive building materials for his project (di-clad neutronium spheres weighing one billion metric tons called neubles and semiconductive fibers that can transform into any kind of material called wellstones). In the first section (previously published as a novella, see below), he is called in to save the ring made of collapsium that the Queendom of Sol is constructing to encircle the Sun and provide a the most optimal communication channel possible between the human colonies on the various inner planets. This first part is very entertaining. However, this part is followed by two other sections in which de Towaji is called in again to save the same collapsium ring from ever increasing threats. This kind of plot recycling could have worked if the sections were published as separate novellas, but in the same book?
McCarthy commits two other cardinal sins: each section repeats information from previous ones as if our memories will have been selectively erased while reading this novel, and he puts information in the appendix for no reason other than some notion of idiosyncratic play with the form of the presentation. Despite this, and you may even like the repetitions and the appendices, the novel does contain some interesting infodumps about high energy physics.
The part about the Queen of Tonga being the last remaining monarch when it is scientifically proven that the best type of government is a constitutional monarchy is a good parody of a common sf trope (cf. "Dune" by Frank Herbert) but causes all types of plot holes as well: is the Queen powerful or not?
McCarthy tries to adopt the fabulist style used by Stanislaw Lem in the "Cyberiad". The style works perhaps in the first chapter, but degrades rapidly after that.
I would suggest reading only the first chapter, which was previously published as a novella, "Once Upon a Matter Crushed" (first published in SF Age, May 1999 and quite possibly will be published part of some collection). The remaining science that you can imbibe from this book is more easily found in the Popular Articles section at the California Institute for Physics and Astrophysics.
This novel was even more of a disappointment as it follows after Wil McCarthy's earlier, more successful novel, "Bloom",
%T The Collapsium %A Wil McCarthy %I Del Rey %D 2000 %G ISBN: 034540856X (hc) %P 325 %K science-fiction
Review written: 2001/06/20
July 19, 2005
Not the Only Planet: Science Fiction Travel Stories, ed. by Damien Broderick
Once in a while, an anthology of science fiction gets published that does not have Gardner Dozois' name on the cover. This is one of those times. Lonely Planet Publications, known for their travel guides, decided to have a book of science-fiction travel stories that their readers can carry along with them to presumably exotic locales to compensate for any boring bits in their journey.
It is a surprisingly eclectic collection which collects stories from the 1970s upto the 1990s. The first story is a remarkably constructed "Tourists" by Lisa Goldstein (from 1985) about the karma of an arrogant tourist jaded from his many visits to poor countries. Next in line is "Yeyuka" by Greg Egan (from 1997) which is about a doctor visiting Uganda: the sf plot is a thinly veiled condemnation of drug companies making unfair profits on the supply of AIDS medications to Africa.
"The Difficulties Involved in Photographing Nix Olympica" by Brian Aldiss (from 1986) is an old school sf short story about a trip by an American soldier on a war-ravaged Mars to photograph Olympus Mons, the tallest volcano in the solar system. "Seven American Nights" by Gene Wolfe (from 1978) is a novella length story with the same complex characteristics of his novels. There is always the doubt of whether what is being portrayed is the truth or if you being lead on by the ungoverned unfaithfulness of the narrator. The story arc follows the descent of a rich Iranian tourist to a post-apocalyptic America coming out of a nuclear winter.
"Tourist Trade" by Stephen Dedman (from 1996) is a short, well executed piece about an android with a guest personality risking a visit to the theme park of New York City for some thrills in an Earth ruled by aliens. "In the Bowl" by John Varley (from 1975) is a minor effort about a Martian amateur geologist visiting a terraformed Venus to gather some interesting rocks.
"Useful Phrases for the Tourist" by Joanna Russ (from 1972) is an amusing collection of phrases for the savvy tourist to The Locrine. "Trips" by Robert Silverberg (from 1974) is the story of an obsessive traveler searching for things that he never lost in the first place in the infinite space of parallel worlds where all possible branches of time are played out. Finally, "All Tomorrow's Parties" by Paul J. McAuley (from 1997) is not to be confused with the novel by William Gibson published in the year 2000. McAuley's story invents at breakneck speed the story of a celebration being held to commemorate five million years of human Galactic colonization. Separately and artificially evolved clades of immortal transhumans gather for this celebration on a theme park constructed on a grand scale: a re-created Earth and Moon orbiting a distant G2 star.
%T Not the Only Planet %T :Science Fiction Travel Stories %A Damien Broderick (ed.) %I Lonely Planet Publications %D 1998 %G ISBN: 0864425821 (pb) %P 250 %K science-fiction
Review written: 2001/02/14
The Giants Novels by James P. Hogan
All three Giants novels were published in one convenient paperback for a reasonable price, and not having read James Hogan during my teens at the same time as I was devouring Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, I thought I should see what I missed. Unfortunately, these novels have dated considerably. Many aspects of the writing concentrate on technology which is hopelessy anachronistic now.
The plot of the first novel "Inherit the Stars" presents a speculative story about the origins of man and a missing tenth planet. The story-telling is straightforward and tries to be pedagogical about the scientific method. "Inherit the Stars" is interesting and well-written enough to hold one's attention for its short 188 pages. The other two novels however have not aged as well and are tedious enough not to be worth the effort.
%S The Giants Novels %A James P. Hogan %T Inherit the Stars %D 1977 %T The Gentle Giants of Ganymede %D 1978 %T Giant's Star %D 1981 %I Del Rey Books %G ISBN: 0345388852 (pb) %P 696 %K science-fiction
Review written: 1999/11/03
July 17, 2005
A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge
A Fire Upon the Deep is a careful meditation on the idea of intelligence and the varying power it can yield based purely on varying substrates and different implementations. It is an examination of the impact of technology on augmenting the intelligence of a species. In explaining this idea, Vinge coined a term: The Singularity. It is loosely defined as the instant beyond which the species changes so radically due to augmentation by its technology that any attempts to predict the future beyond that point is impossible.
Vernor Vinge has written about the Singularity in other works such as "Marooned in Realtime" and "The Peace War". Vernor Vinge's academic paper on the notion of Singularity explores this idea on a more literal level than is available in his fiction.
**many spoilers below**
Like many space opera novels, Vinge needs to invent a method for superluminal travel. He uses an ingenious device where the laws of physics change drastically in the various regions of the galaxy. On the rim of the galaxy is the Slow Zone (in the neighbourhood of our Solar System) where faster than light travel is impossible and there are inherent limits to machine and biological sentience. Closer to the galactic center is The Unthinking Depths where any kind of automation or sentience is impossible. Above the galactic plane in a vast space is the Beyond. Here is where FTL travel is possible and sentience can accumulate to become great Powers.
Humans have successfully managed to get a foothold in the Beyond, but they are relative newcomers in a crowded field of transcendent species and sentient machines that are so powerful that they are considered to to have god-like Powers. One group of human scientists from Sjandra Kei have founded a lab called the Straumli Realm to investigate an archeological dig of great significance.
The human inhabitants of Sjandra Kei and Straumli Realm are brown-skinned and are organized as a matriarchy. Apart from their Scandinavian-sounding names and the name of their language, Samnorsk, they could be from any matrilineal society, like for instance the one in Kerala, India.
They attempt to awaken from an ancient data library the remnants of a once-great Power. Things go wrong quickly, and they discover that they have awakened a Blight, a sentience of such great potential for dominance of all others that it could affect the entire Beyond.
A few humans survive the Blight and escape the Lab only to crash onto a backwater planet near the edge of the Beyond where the only sentient inhabitants have only medieval levels of technology and a brutal feudal political system in place. The aliens in this world, ultimately called the Tines, are one of the best realized aliens ever created in science-fiction. They resemble packs of wolves but look vaguely rat-like. Each member of the pack has a low-frequency purring noise which coordinates the pack and creates a sentient group-mind in the entire pack. Upto six members of the pack act as one. (Incidentally, as a measure of Vinge's attention to detail: The Tines also have a base-four notation.)
Only two humans survive the landing on the planet: fourteen year old Johanna Olsndot and her eight year old brother Jefri. Johanna ends up with the Woodcarver nation while Jefri is trapped in the Flenser empire (run by Steel, a thinly disguised version of Stalin), each unaware of the others survival. The cold war between these two nations heats up because of the injection of space-age technology.
The pack-minds of the Tines not only give a feeling of a completely alien sentience, but also serve to illustrate the transcendence possible even with simple technology: the defining moment of the book.
Meanwhile, the Blight rages on in the High Beyond and it seems as if the only solution to the Blight is in the crashed spaceship on the Tines world. A rescue mission is mounted by the Relay. The Relay is the corporation which provides the physical layer for the Beyond communication network. Due to the vast distances, the messages are mostly text and Vinge uses this to create a far-future parody of the contemporary nntp netnews system, where alien civilizations flame each other via series of automatic translations.
The Relay assigns the sole human under their employ: Ravna Bergsndot and a couple of mercenary Skroderiders, another species who have passed the Singularity due to the incorporation of technology. Skrodes are sentient frond-like plants who have been merged with an artificial means of transport by a benevolent alien species called Riders. The fourth member of their team is Pham Nuwen, who is a human that appears to have been created by a Power interested in stopping the Blight.
This unlikely team has to rescue the two humans and extract the solution to the Blight which is rumored to be on the spaceship stranded on the Tines world.
As you can see from even the simplest of plot summaries, this book is dense and richly rewarding. You might have to read it twice to appreciate its detailed construction.
There is one small continuity error in the plot: one of the characters stranded on the Tines world, Johanna picks the name Tines in her language to describe her saviors/captors. In the next chapter, the other human also trapped on the same planet but with a different group altogether uses the term Tines as well. It's a subtle mistake, of course.
In 1999, Vernor Vinge published a prequel to this book (the return of Pham Nuwen!) called "A Deepness in the Sky" set 10,000 years before the events in this book. Like this book, it also won the Hugo award for best novel.
%T A Fire Upon the Deep %A Vernor Vinge %I New York: Tom Doherty Associates %D 1992 %G ISBN: 0312851820 (hc) %P 391 %K science-fiction
Review written: 2001/05/21
July 14, 2005
Entering Space: Creating a Spacefaring Civilization by Robert Zubrin
Robert Zubrin is a plasma physicist and rocket scientist and a well known advocate for the human exploration of Mars. He is the president of the Mars Society that has the above purpose. He has written a previous book on this subject (with Richard Wagner) called "The Case for Mars".
This book is a more general attempt at advocacy laying out the various arguments for converting a (perhaps evanescent) global society into a spacefaring one. In the first section of the book: "Type I: Completing Global Civilization" Zubrin concentrates on various details of the space program run by NASA in the U.S. giving fascinating details on the development of the Space Shuttle and its potential replacement, and the International Space Station. He says little about the title of the section, assuming perhaps that global civilization is inevitable or that U.S. itself can be taken to be a global power and thus represent mankind. There are two good reasons to colonize Earth orbit and the nearby Solar System: one is business and the other science. A lucrative space business is difficult to come by as Zubrin himself points out in great detail. Science undertaken by a major superpower or a world at peace is the remaining reason. But when will this happen. On this point, Zubrin is silent.
The first section does have a detailed description of the various scientific and engineering aspects of spaceflight. This helps set the tone of the book which could easily drift into pie-in-the-sky speculation. Zubrin grounds all discussion in what is really feasible.
In the second section "Type II: Creating a Spacefaring Civilization", Zubrin lays out the various possibilities of human settlements on the Moon, Mars, the asteroid belt and the Outer Solar System. The focus is on creating economical conditions where these settlements can be self-sustaining, usually by trading with Earth the local mineral resources unavailable elsewhere. Zubrin gives detailed information about chemical reactions that can be industrialized on the Moon and on Mars to produce valuable raw materials. These industries are also crucial to produce oxygen, nitrogen and water for sustaining these human settlements without constant supplies from the Earth. For many of these reasons, Mars seems to be the most likely candidate for a self-sustaining human settlement. Zubrin spends little time on a detailed Mars settlement plan since that is the topic of his earlier book. But the general arguments are well presented.
Once Mars is settled, Zubrin makes the case for the industrial exploitation of the Outer Solar System. The main reason to care about asteroids, of course, is because they are projectiles that can occasionally impact on the Earth. The only feasible solution to defend ourselves from these impacts is to catalog the asteroids exhaustively and to have a human presence in space which is capable of diverting them early at a point when the force needed for the change of orbit is feasible.
The third section: "Type III: Entering Galactic Civilization" gets increasingly speculative. Zubrin reviews the various techniques that would permit interstellar travel. As in other chapters, Zubrin debunks many ideas that are still commonplace in hard-sf. An interesting method for interstellar travel that Zubrin himself was involved with is one that merges the idea of a solar-wind or laser-pushed light sails with the Bussard ramjet to give a mode of transport called the magsail which seems a practical alternative to fusion-powered rockets for interstellar travel.
The last few chapters talk about terraforming and other extraordinary engineering projects (spending some time debunking the impossible-to-construct Dyson sphere), the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and spends the last few pages on unabashed speculations. Zubrin does give a good description of the Drake equation and a discussion of Fermi's famous question: ``Where are they?''
In the end, at the very least, you will come away with an appreciation of the delta-V required for launching rockets into space, a notion of the kinds of chemical processes we could sustain on the Moon and on Mars and perhaps elsewhere in the Solar System, and just perhaps you could end up sharing Zubrin's dream that humans will settle another world in our lifetime.
%T Entering Space %T :Creating a Spacefaring Civilization %A Robert Zubrin %I New York: Penguin Putnam %D 1999 %G ISBN: 0874779758 (hc) %P 305 %K astronautics, space-travel, science
Review written: 2001/05/07
Software by Rudy Rucker
Haf'N'Haf seemed to be having some trouble starting the little cutting machine up. It was a variable head blade. They were going to cut off the top of Sta-Hi's skull and eat his brain with those cheap steel spoons. He would be able to watch them ... at first.
This novel is the story of two characters: Cobb Anderson and Sta-Hi. They both go the moon and they come back to Earth. That's the basic plotline. However, the plot is used to make a few well-chosen points about consciousness, politics and robotics. Rudy Rucker hits these high points clearly and does it in a sometimes overbearing and inconsistent trippy writing style.
Cobb Anderson is the scientist who managed to create the first sentient machine by evolving them into existence in 2001 at which point they promptly revolted and set up their own independent existence on the moon. In 2020, Cobb Anderson is a pheezer, old and decrepit, living on a financially depressed Earth which survives on special trading relations with the boppers on the moon. Cobb gets a call from his first creation, Ralph Numbers, with an offer of immortality. It could be the answer to his physical ailments Or it could be a bopper trick.
Sta-Hi, on the other hand is a lot like his name. A name he has chosen because it `wiggles' better than his real name, Stanley Hilary Mooney, Jr. Sta-Hi accompanies Cobb to the Moon to get away from some people who are intent on eating his brain. And what is the deal with the Mr. Frostee icecream truck, anyway.
The novel has dated since its publication. On the other hand, it is a short and sometimes thought-provoking read about the nature of anarchy and the injustice of the Asimov laws of robotics.
%T Software %A Rudy Rucker %I Avon Eos %D 1982 %G ISBN: 0380701774 (pb) %P 167 %K science-fiction
Review written: 2001/04/25
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
`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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
%T Quarantine %A Greg Egan %I London: Millenium %D 1992 %G ISBN: 1857985907 (pb) %P 248 %K science-fiction
Review written: 2000/12/06
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
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
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.
%T Teranesia %A Greg Egan %I Victor Gollancz %D 1999 %G ISBN: 0575068558 (pb) %P 249 %K science-fiction
Review written: 2000/11/24
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
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
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
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
March 07, 2005
Celestial Matters by Richard Garfinkle
A successful combination of an alternative history with hard sf ideas, in particular a vividly detailed invented cosmology makes this a remarkable first novel for Richard Garfinkle.
The novel begins in the 935th year since the founding of the Delian League (should be about 500 AD). In this novel, Alexander the Great managed to keep his empire united and he did not turn back at India but kept going until he met with the Middle Kingdom. As the novel begins, there are two superpowers in the world: the Delian League, which consists of Persia, India and the rest of Europe united under the banner of Athens and Sparta and the Middle Kingdom which rules over the Far East and which has established colonies in North and South America.
The one thing that makes this particular alternative history remarkable is the notion that Aristotle's Laws of Physics are exactly right. All of them: so the Earth is stationary at the center of the universe and all the celestial objects rotate about the earth on their own individual "crystalline spheres". Furthermore, the Chinese notions regarding Chi and the functioning of universe is also exactly correct. These rival scientific notions of the universe co-exist in this novel but the science of each side is mysterious to the other. The novel is set in this convoluted cosmology and the success of this book is that it makes it come alive in your mind.
The plot of the novel involves Project Sunthief, the Greek plan to steal a bit of sun's fire itself to use as a weapon against the Middle Kingdom. The essence of a star extracted from the Sun is the fifth element (the quintessence) which is distinct from four elements: earth, wind, air and fire. The fifth element will be the secret weapon the Delian League can use to turn the tide in the long-running cold war against the Middle Kingdom. The head of the project is a Spartan, Aias. His team includes his second-in-command the Persian, Mihradarius and his science officer, the Indian, Ramanojon (sic) along with his navigator, another Spartan, Kleon and his bodyguard, the Stoic, Captain Yellow Hare. The novel follows their trip to the Sun on the airship "Chandra's Tear" with the constant danger of Chinese sabotage and the knowledge that one of the crew is a traitor.
The end result is a rare novel that might appeal equally to fantasy and hard-sf readers. There are some similarities between this alternate history and one published years later: "The Years of Rice and Salt" by Kim Stanley Robinson, but while they both come up with somewhat similar geopolitical settings, each novel speculates about very different outcomes.
%T Celestial Matters %A Richard Garfinkle %I Tor Books %D 1996 %G ISBN: 0312859341 (hc) %P 348 %K science-fiction
Review written: 2001/02/20
China Mountain Zhang by Maureen F. McHugh
The quote from Camus that starts this book is illustrative about its goals:
A simple way to get to know about a town is to see how the people work, how they love and how they die.
The `town' in this case is a future world which is admirably rendered, gradually taking on depth as the novel proceeds. There have been quite a few sf novels that have the People's Republic of China as the dominant world power. But this speculation hasn't been as written into an sf novel as carefully as is done here. Here McHugh attempts to write about the contemporary relationship between America and China within the context of a science fiction novel about China as the only global superpower.
The future as depicted here is seen through the lives of several characters. One of the main characters is Zhang Zhong Shan or China Mountain Zhang. He's an engineer in training who at the start of the novel cannot afford to go to China to study engineering. He also happens to be gay, in a society where everything is expected to be straight and according to the rules set down by the Party.
The novel changes its first person view to several characters throughout the novel. This style is reminiscent of "Stones in the Wall" which is a non-sf novel written in Chinese by Dai Houying, available in an English translation (since I have not read many Chinese novels I'm not sure if this is a common device). Supposedly secondary characters reappear later with chapters of their own. The novel opens in an economically depressed America which has gone through a Communist revolution (called the Great Cleaning Wind -- insert scatological reference here). It moves later to China which now has the dominant universities and technology and which influences culture in the rest of the world.
Apart from the story of Zhang, there is a parallel thread of a small commune of colonists in Mars. This is the weaker part of this novel. While this part of the book is interesting it has little to do with the rest of the story arc. The story of Martine and Alexi struggling on a farm in Mars is left hanging without a resolution to their ongoing problems. Perhaps this was a point that McHugh wanted to make about their life, but it comes across as if she just ran out of pages to satisfactorily tell their story.
About halfway through this book, you might wonder if there is a plot hiding behind all of these vignettes. This is probably the wrong question to ask of the author. Think of this book as the kind of anthropological sf made famous by Ursula Le Guin. However, The final result is not as skillful as a Le Guin novel; this novel ends quite abruptly. While Zhang's story-arc is resolved, the other characters are suddenly shifted to the background. This is probably just as well, since if the book was any longer than it is, it would just be tedious.
The other misstep is a strangely monotonous lecture on political theory given towards the end of the book by Zhang. However, the combination of feng shui, architecture and engineering that Zhang learns in China, which she dubs Daoist Engineering, seems like one of those nonsensical pursuits that could just become widely popular.
While McHugh is good at explaining the Chinese spoken occasionally by the characters, in a few places there are some words used without an adequate translation nearby. Here are those words:
zhongguo ren: Chinese person
%T China Mountain Zhang %A Maureen F. McHugh %I Orb Book, Tom Doherty Associates %D 1992 %G ISBN: 0312860986 (pb) %P 313 %K science-fiction
Review written: 2001/02/09
February 27, 2005
Ceres Storm by David Herter
Daric is a clone. One of many of a great Leader who ruled the Solar System, thousands of years before he was born. He is a child, taught daily by his pillow and chaperoned by his Shade, who lives in his mind. He lives with Jonas and Grandpapa, both of whom are himself: older clones. As the novel opens, Daric's journey begins. Before the end of it, he will uncover his ancestors' history, the strange future he inhabits, all while meeting new forms of himself along the way.
There are many science-fiction books set on Mars, ranging from pure fantasy to hard science-fiction. David Herter's first novel, "Ceres Storm" starts off in Mars, but it is not as easy to characterize. It is a startling debut attempt to create an original universe for a space opera. Herter takes the reader to a richly textured far future, thousands of years from now, where terms like human are not easily applied to the characters in the novel, and where descendents of man, sometimes transformed by strange symbiotic relationships with aliens, interact with those who remain in our Solar System. The main populations remaining in Mars and Triton and other smaller groups spread out in the outer planets and asteroids. One of the few easily recognizable plot elements in this novel involves an Earth that has been ravaged by nanotech storms and remains inhabited only by the artificial sentience abandoned there.
Herter does not provide overt explanations for an environment that has to be strange to be interesting. Concepts like century roses, starlines, cusps, Myiepan spores, among others which become clear by the end of the novel. One has to pay close attention to the writing and pick up on cues that are far from obvious to discover the underlying workings of the devices used, and the hidden politics of the realms that are traversed. There are no shining flags for the heroic (indeed it could be said that there are no heroes at all in this novel) neither is it obvious who the `bad guys' are. The plot is a clever mixture of a coming of age for the main character, Daric, as well as a caper (participated in non-volitionally by Daric).
A word of warning is that this book is probably one of a series since several loose ends are kept as such in the end. Although, even without a sequel, the novel would remain a rewarding read.
%T Ceres Storm %A David Herter %I Tor %D 2000 %G ISBN: 081257110X (pb) %P 255 %K science-fiction
Review written: 2002/04/08
February 24, 2005
Crystal Express by Bruce Sterling
This is an assorted collection of short fiction by Sterling. The stories are organized into three groups based on a loosely unifying themes.
The first five stories are set in the Shaper/Mechanist science-fiction universe created by Sterling which was also the setting for his long novella "Schismatrix". In this universe, humanity has divided into two factions: The Shapers have "reshaped" themselves through genetic engineering, adopting such enhancements as superior intelligence, longevity and odor-free perspiration. The Mechanists, on the other hand, prefer to gradually replace their mortal flesh with prosthetic limbs and artificial organs. Both factions have colonized the solar system and most of the actions takes place off-earth on the various orbital conglomerates.
These stories were recently published along with this novella in a single collection called "Schismatrix Plus", so if you are only interested in the Shaper/Mechanist stories that is a better value. In this set of stories, "Swarm" and "Spider Rose" are the most ingenious and are placed right in the beginning (you might find more a more detailed description of these stories in the separate review of "Schismatrix Plus"). "Cicada Queen", "Sunken Gardens" and "Twenty Evocations" gain value by being placed in a thematic collection like this one. By themselves, they would not be as interesting to read.
The next three stories are not in set in the Shaper/Mechanist universe: "Green Days in Brunei" is the most successful as a slice of life adventure based in the future of an isolated, monarchist and not-so-rich-anymore Brunei. "Spook" has some fun with futuristic assassination devices but is a bit too trite to be interesting. "The Beautiful and the Sublime" has some half-hearted ideas about the end of science wrapped in a comedy of manners set in a future aristocratic society which mostly missed its mark for me.
The three fantasy stories that close out the collection are not as compelling (Bruce Sterling never really wholeheartedly branched out into fantasy writing. Update: but his recent "The Blemmye's Strategy" is quite appealing). In fact, while they are labeled as such, they are not really fantasy stories in the genre sense. "Telliamed" could have been entirely a science-fiction story in terms of the ideas it represents, but the devices used are clearly fantastic. "The Little Magic Shop" contains a common device of eternal youth and adds little new to the old ideas. "Flowers of Edo" refers to the various fires that devastated parts of Tokyo (back when it was called Edo) and it is successful as an amusing and insightful look at some intriguing characters including a look at early pulp `manga' illustrations like `Kasamori Osen Carved Alive by Her Stepfather'. And finally, "Dinner in Audoghast" is a well-written slice of life set in a doomed city in North Africa which is visited by an unlikely soothsayer.
%T Crystal Express %A Bruce Sterling %I Ace Books %D 1989 %G ISBN: 0441124232 (pb) %P 278 %K science-fiction
Date written: 2000/09/11
February 15, 2005
The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson
He had not noticed, before, the sheer maddening profusion of the place, each person seemingly an ethnic group of one, each with his or her own costume, dialect, sect, and pedigree. It was as if, sooner or later, every part of the world became India and thus ceased to function in any sense meaningful to straight-arrow Cartesian rationalists like John Percival Hackworth, his family and friends.
The Diamond Age of the title refers to the widespread use of nanotechnology that has transformed society, making the use of diamonds as a building material as common as wood. This is a complex book with at least three intertwined plots which unfold in a South China of the next century where a neo-Victorian society is at the forefront of the science of nanotechnology. Each plot is very deliberately paced to interact in a rousing finale. One plot involves the use of technology in the upbringing of an otherwise disadvantaged girl, Nell. The second plot follows the journey of a gifted nanotech engineer, John Percival Hackworth. He does not know his own role in the construction of the most powerful distributed computing device which will result in the further transformation of a society already remade by nanotechnology. The third plot while without a central focal character is the most important thread: the coming of the Second Boxer Rebellion in China.
When it comes to eloquent descriptions of future technology and unabashed head-candy, Stephenson is in his element. This skill is enough to recommend this novel. However, when it comes to deeper ideas about culture and science and their interaction, the ideas are unsatisfying. Like any good sf book, however, there are so many ideas sprinkled throughout the book that even if a fraction are new and interesting, which is certainly true in this case, the book becomes worth reading.
While "Snow Crash" seemed to be a caricature of previous cyberpunk novels, in this novel Neal Stephenson succeeds in inventing a new future universe with special idiosyncrasies. While it still uses stock sf extrapolations like nanotechnology, virtual reality and an ubiquitous computational network, the particular devices are realized in great detail and consistency with the knack of someone who cares about the future growth of such technology. The story, the plotting and the characters all fall behind this primary goal.
Without giving too much away, if you happen to read through to the end of the book, you will get a glimpse of the strangest computing device that Stephenson, or anyone in recent memory, has had the audacity to invent. It's strangely repulsive (or perhaps titillating to some tastes) and compelling at the same time.
The writing style is wildly uneven and changes throughout the novel, sometimes intentionally, but not always. Stephenson introduces important characters, follows them for a few hundred pages and discards them without ever returning to them. Certain ideas are described but Stephenson hedges on the details (which is the forte of a good hard-sf novel), especially in the case of the Drummers. A section about Turing machines and the Turing test goes by without any mention of the concept of the Universal Turing Machine (perhaps too much to expect). There are many other nitpicks, but these are the ones that mystified me the most.
There are several parts of this book that prefigure portions of his later work, "Cryptonomicon".
%T The Diamond Age %T :or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer %A Neal Stephenson %I Bantam Books %D 1995 %G ISBN: 0553573314 (pb) %P 499 %K science-fiction
Date written: 2000/09/11
February 07, 2005
The Tarim Mummies by J. P. Mallory and Victor H. Mair
Early European explorers of the Silk Road like Aurel Stein and Sven Hedin found some astonishing mummified corpses buried in an elaborate ritual style in the Tarim Basin. The ancient oasis cities that skirt the Taklamakan desert have such dry weather that ancient bodies buried in the desert have preserved perfectly for thousands of years.
In later years, Chinese archaeologists have discovered many such burial sites and recovered an amazingly large number of mummies from various sites. For example, the Qizilchoqa cemetery was discovered by Wang Binhua in 1978. Victor Mair, on noticing the strangely Caucasoid appearance of the well-preseved bodies embarked on the pursuit of an answer to their origins and whether they had any contact with prehistoric Chinese civilizations, a topic close to his academic life. The search would be most effective if it involved the fields of archaeology, historical linguistics and genetics. To this end, he enlisted the efforts of J. P. Mallory, a noted scholar in the study of the hypothesized Proto Indo-European language and Paolo Francalacci who assisted in the DNA analysis of the mummies. In the end, the most promising clues of DNA analysis could not be applied since they were able only to analyse and report results on a single specimen. Hence, the focus of the book is mainly on the archaeological and linguistic facts.
The astonishing Chinese discovery of wonderfully preserved four-thousand-year-old human bodies with clothing in perfect condition in the Tarim Basin of western China is fully described by Mair and Mallory in this fascinating and well-researched account. They reach the daring, and perhaps provocative conclusion that these were `the first Europeans in China' -- a view certain to prove controversial.
I'm not aware if the authors had anything to do with this quote being at the back of this book. But this blurb encapsulates the kind of writing style that made the first half of this book exasperating for me. This notion of `the first Europeans in China' is belied by the conclusions they they reach as the most plausible at the end of the book (reproduced below):
- The earliest Bronze Age settlers of the Tarim and Turpan basins originated from the steppelands and highlands immediately north of East Central Asia.
- These colonists were related to the Afanasevo culture which exploited both open steppelands and upland environments employing a mixed agricultural economy.
- The Afanasevo culture formed the eastern linguistic periphery of the Indo-European continuum of languages whose centre of expansion lay much farther to the west, north of the Black and Caspian seas. This periphery was ancestral to the historical Tocharian languages.
- By about 2000 BC the Afanasevo culture, which was at the time being absorbed by the Andronovo culture from its west and other cultures in the Yenisei region, pushed southwards and came into contact with settled Indo-Iranians to the northwest of the Tarim Basin. ...
- Many of the Bronze Age mummies preserved in the archaeological record of East Central Asia may be assigned a probable (Proto-) Tocharian identity.
There are few more conclusions that are drawn, but even from these points it can be seen how incorrect the blurb at the back of the book is and it shows the hype used to promote this book is mostly misplaced. It does not detract from the actual findings, but it seems that even in academic writings the notion of truth in advertising is slipping away.
By `Europe' (when used with or without quotes in this book), they mean the European (sometimes called Eurasian) Steppe, and usually the easternmost part of the so-called Western steppe which forms one part of the overall plain. The Western steppe extends from the grassy plains at the mouth of the Danube River along the north shore of the Black Sea, across the lower Volga, and eastward as far as the Altai Mountains. In this book they seem to place the origins of the mummies as the north-west shore of the Black Sea. In other words, hardly `Europe' as most laypersons would understand the word.
In fact, from the above conclusions the truth is actually even more complicated. The origin of the Caucasoid mummies is placed most plausibly in the steppes immediately north of East Central Asia. Hardly Europe, but despite their own conclusions the first half of this book is littered with hints that the origin of the mummies has to be European.
And here we must face the frequently ignored asymmetry of the Indo-European space-time continuum.
And then there's the goofy style of presentation. For a book aimed at the pedantic audience the authors far too cavalier at several points where you reasonably expect some precision in the writing. The authors spend interminable amounts of text explaining historical details which in the final analysis are completely irrelevant to final conclusions. They take us through their (understandably) tangential thought processes in their search for an answer to the puzzle of the origin of the mummies. They include discussion of Herodotus and ancient Chinese legends. Inspite of this, they fail to introduce to the reader in the earlier chapters the prehistoric Afanasevo and Andronovo cultures from the northern part of East Central Asia which forms a crucial part in their final answer. Also, they change the focus partway through the book to only the prehistoric mummies, ignoring the mummies from later periods (4 B.C to 400 A.D.). However, in earlier chapters they take great pains to explain the environment of the entire known history of the Tarim Basin, even the complex history during which it served as part of the Silk Road.
%A J. P. Mallory %A Victor H. Mair %T The Tarim Mummies %T :Ancient China and the Mystery of the Earliest Peoples from the West %I London: Thames and Hudson Ltd %P 352 %D 2000 %G ISBN: 0500051011 (hc) %K history, archaeology, linguistics
Date written: 2001/02/09
February 06, 2005
Starfish by Peter Watts
She floods the airlock.
By now the feeling is almost sensual; her insides folding flat, the ocean rushing into her, cold and unstoppable as a lover. At 4 deg C the Pacific slides into the plumbing in her chest, anesthetizing the parts of her that can still feel. The water rises over her head; her eyecaps show her the submerged walls of the lock with crystal precision.
At the bottom of the Pacific Ocean is a daisy chain of volcanoes, faults and crustal fractures. One of these segments is the Juan de Fuca Ridge. Near an undersea volcano at the southern tip of this ridge is Beebe Station, a manned maintenance station for a power station that taps the energy produced by hydrothermal vents. This is the setting for this hard-sf novel.
As can be seen in the above quote, humans have to be bio-engineered to live in this hostile environments. They have only one lung used only when breathing air in the station. Outside the station, while swimming on the ocean floor, their lungs deflate and the machines loaded into the rest of their chest cavity take over and convert water into oxygen. Speech is artificially synthesized directly from the larynx, and they wear skin and eyes that are adjusted to life under the crushing depth of the ocean.
In early hard-sf stories about space-faring by humans, there was a lot of discussion about the ideal crew to travel for long periods of time in a small enclosed environment that fosters on its inhabitants feelings of paranoia, guilt, fear, rage and other anti-social feelings. Peter Watts has a new take on this problem, in which the corporation which owns this claustrophobic power station on the ocean floor uses individuals that already display all of these traits, and for whom there will be little adjustment required for a long-term stay in this environment. The crew consists of various perpetrators of domestic violence, child abuse victims and paranoid schizophrenic pedophiles for good measure. It seemed at the beginning, that this tactic would be misused by the author and the characters would remain caricatures, but as the story progresses I was repeatedly surprised at the plotting and characterization. While they are not truly post-human, the characters stay interesting long enough for the hard science part to catch on.
It is difficult to talk about the hard-sf backbone of the story without giving too much away. But rest assured, there is more than just atmosphere and interesting characters in this story (as it should be in a hard-sf novel).
Being a hard-sf purist, I would have preferred the story to be without the marginal use of ESP and the usual Penrose-inspired nonsense about consciousness. Penrose's worst legacy is his corruption of otherwise discriminating science-fiction authors. But this is a minor annoyance, and your mileage will vary.
To top off a successful hard-sf endeavour, Peter Watts has an excellent section at the end of this book which points out all the scientific references for the ideas that were used in this book. As he says, `you might be surprised at how much of this stuff I *didn't* make up.' A couple of the more interesting references are: the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA's) web pages on oceanic vents and an article about an alternative genetic template using pyranosal RNA called `The Origin of Life on Earth' by L. E. Orgel (Scientific American, October 1994). Also visit Peter Watts' web page which has more background details and pictures about this novel.
Update: Peter Watts has written a few sequels to this book. The first sequel called "Maelstrom", I found to be disappointing.
%T Starfish %A Peter Watts %I Tor Books %D 1999 %G ISBN: 0812575857 (pb) %P 374 %K science-fiction
Date written: 2000/08/26
February 01, 2005
Tournament of Shadows: the Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia by Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac
In the light of history, I think the Game really was a game, with scores but no substantial prizes.
H. V. Hodson, editor (1950-61) of the London Sunday Times
This book is a recent addition to a short list of books that survey the history of the Great Game. The Game pitted Russia against Britain (especially the Indian Raj) for the control of Central Asia including areas now part of China such as Chinese Turkestan (Xinjiang) and Tibet. The Game started in the late 1700s after the British secured a foothold in India and when Russia expanded eastwards and finally concluded when the British Empire disintegrated and when Russia's empire collapsed from internal causes for the second time in the same century.
Comparisions of this book with the many works of Peter Hopkirk on this topic are inevitable. This book is both greater and smaller in the number of topics covered than the several books published by Peter Hopkirk on this period of history (like "The Great Game", "Trespassers on the roof of the world", "Like Hidden Fire" and "Setting the East Ablaze"). Some additional topics to be found here are:
- The strange case of Duleep Singh, Victoria's favorite Maharaja: a ruler without any subjects. He spent his life in Britain after the British annexed the Sikh kingdom founded by his father, Ranjit Singh.
- The stories of people like Madam Blavatsky and Nicolas Roerich who exerted a strong mystical influence on people who determined the foreign policy of many Western nations including Britain, Germany and America.
- The story of the American `Panda hunters', Suydam Cutting, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. and Kermit Roosevelt.
- The 1943 OSS mission to Tibet lead by Major Ilia Tolstoy (the grandson of the famous Russian author) and Captain Brooke Nolan. They formed Lhasa's first offical contact with Washinton.
- The secret Nazi mission to Tibet under the direction of Himmler's Ahnenerbe, the SS's `Ancestral Heritage' office.
- The American camp in 1961 located in the Colorado Rockies set up to train eastern Tibetan Khampa warriors to fight a guerrilla war against the Chinese Communists. The Khampas were routed by the Chinese and as is common in such cases were soon abandoned by the Americans.
- The Indian attempt under Prime Minister Nehru to annex the Aksai Chin glacier as an attempt at a `forward policy' which lead to a disastrous defeat at the hands of the Chinese in 1962.
- The last chapter is full of subsequent modern repurcussions of the Great Game as it was played out before the Second World War with a parade of interesting characters who all fancied themselves still playing the Game in the post-colonial era.
This is, of course, far from being an exhaustive list of the many historical facts related to the control of Central Asia which are covered in this book. The most important point is that while other books perceive the events mostly as being a power struggle between the British and the Russian empires, this book includes other global players of the Game including Germany, America and Indians (distinct from the Indians who served under the Raj).
One major attraction for Great Game enthusiasts is also the citation of a fairly large number of recently published facts about the Great Game cited in this book. Some published sources are as recent as 1999 (published the same year this book was).
The other major strength of this book is the detail of the research into the historical fact and a more in-depth analysis of the events than what has been previously attempted.
Sometimes the details can change your entire opinion: after reading so much about the daring exploits of Colonel Younghusband in Peter Hopkirk's book "The Great Game", I was quite disappointed to read his `Kit List' reproduced in this book uncovered by his biographer Patrick French. His kit included sixty-seven shirts as well as nineteen coats (a full dress coat, a morning coat, an Assam silk coat, two jaeger coats, a Chesterfield coat, a poshteen long coat, a Chinese fur coat, etc.) plus a shikar hat, a khaki helmet, a white panama, a thick solar topi, and the imperial cocked hat. This sartorial spendor along with tents, a bath, beds, rifles, swords, were crammed into twenty-nine containers and hauled by locally employed porters (most probably Indian) through `mountain passes, through forests and icy rivers, over dry plains where your eyeballs could freeze in the sockets'.
Other differences with Hopkirk's book are also telling. While the story of Stoddart and Connolly and the infamous Pit of Bokhara forms the centerpiece of Hopkirk's book, their story gets a small mention and more surprisingly in this book the motivations and thoughts behind the actions of the Emir of Bokhara get a larger analysis where others like Hopkirk usually explain the Emir's actions as those consistent with the stereotypical corrupt, evil and parochial Oriental potentate. This far more reasoned telling of this story while not as romantic is far more interesting.
%T Tournament of Shadows %T :the Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia %A Karl E. Meyer %A Shareen Blair Brysac %I Washington D.C.: Counterpoint %D 1999 %G ISBN: 1582430284 (hc) %P 646 %K history
Date written: 2000/08/18
January 30, 2005
Bloom by Wil McCarthy
In the year 2000, Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, famed techno-guru and recent media hound aired publicly his prediction that the new century will have to deal with the dangers and benefits of nanotechnology as the last century had to deal with nuclear fission. He must have finally caught up with his sf reading list, since this particular area of scientific research has fueled famous disasters in hard-sf stories since the 60s. Novels like "The Invincible" by Stanislaw Lem, for example, prefigures this notion of microscopic automatons acting on simple rules which combine to form complex forms of emergent behaviour (usually deadly to humans).
For Lem, this was an oppurtunity to tear down human hubris towards scientific understanding, but since that novel appeared the mathematical understanding of cellular automata has grown so much that it is a ripe time to explore these issues again. Wil McCarthy's "Bloom" is an excellent hard-sf treatment of nanotechnology, chaos, cellular automata and emergent behaviour.
The story deals with the sudden explosion of nanotech entities called mycora in the near future, the exponential self-replication of this fungus forces the evacuation of the entire inner solar system by humans to the moons of Jupiter and the asteroid belt where it is too cold for the mycora to take hold.
The plot follows the usual hard-sf disaster/adventure story arc, but for once the ending in this type of a novel is not intellectually bankrupt. The ideas used in this book are informed by a lot of science that has explored these technological issues. The post-human societies are well-realized and Wil McCarthy pays close attention to the engineering of human habitats in strange places.
You will need a German-English dictionary to understand the recurrent use of German words in this book. For example, rather than use the word reporter, Wil McCarthy uses the word berichter and some of the nanotech beings are termed `schlädlings'. It was serendipitous that I happened to read this novel on a flight over to Germany.
Some interactive java programs that might be interesting after reading this book are: Exploring emergence using the Game of Life, Avida and Tierra are computational environments for exploring artificial life.
Related to: "The Invincible" by Stanislaw Lem and "Permutation City" by Greg Egan.
%T Bloom %A Wil McCarthy %I Del Rey %D 1998 %G ISBN: 034542654 (pb) %P 303 %K science-fiction
Date written: 2000/08/15
January 27, 2005
History of India by Hermann Kulke and Dietmar Rothermund
A serious single volume history of India that covers within 400 pages a time-span that includes the Indus Valley Civilization from 3000 BCE and the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 is so ambitious that it is bound to fall short of expectations. Surprisingly, it succeeds in its primary mission to provide the grand sweep of Indian history. In particular, to highlight the large ancient empires and the various regional kingdoms in medieval India. These parts of Indian history get lost in most published books on the history of India which either concentrate on the later period of the Mughal or British empires or dwell only on pre-Buddhist India mostly for jingoistic rhetoric.
The book starts off strongly with two well-written chapters: `Early Civilizations of the Northwest' and `The Great Ancient Empires'. The first chapter discusses the Aryan migration into India, with a precise discussion of the evidence and why certain things are generally believed by contemporary historians about this topic. There is also a nuanced discussion of the Aryan `invasion' and a modern view on that topic.
The next two chapters on medieval India and the Middle Ages are more muddled, perhaps due the the confusing morass of the actual history of the period. The only interesting part was the discussion on the reasons for the spread of Indian religion and culture to Southeast Asia in this period.
While the Central Asian invasion of India and the subsequent Mughal empire in India are more familiar historical topics, the struggle for power between the various Indian parties during the fall of the Mughals are detailed here. Particularly interesting was the relationship between Shivaji and the sultan of Golconda, his Muslim ally, who supported his campaign in South India and the future negotiations between the chief minister (vezir) of the Mughal empire, Nizam-ul-Mulk and Baji Rao of the Marathas (Shivaji's grandson). Baji Rao, in the mid-1700s captured Delhi in a surprise cavalry attack, but left within a few days showing that while the Marathas could have defeated the Mughal empire, they were unable to hold it on their own.
The remainder of the book is a quick look at the colonial rule of the British and the subsequent formation of the Indian republic. This period has been the topic of many history books. The discussion of the Bombay Presidency and the Madras Presidency was a useful counterweight to the usual discussion of Oudh as an example of the rise of British influence in India. The overview of the politics of the freedom movement was particularly well represented even though many of the details were necessarily left out.
There are minor issues that were inconsistently represented in the book. For example, there is no discussion of India before the Aryans and Dravidians when there is ample linguistic evidence of such a previous people (there is book on the topic called "Pre-Aryan and pre-Dravidian in India" by Sylvain LÈvi). Also, the exclusion of the history of Pakistan, Bangladesh after the Partition except where they intersect with events in India was jarring but expedient.
Table of Contents:
- Early Civilizations of the Northwest
- Prehistory and the Indus Civilization
- Immigration and settlement of the Indo-Aryans
- The Great Ancient Empires
- The rise of the Gangetic culture and the great empires of the east
- The end of the Maurya empire and the northern invaders
- The classical age of the Guptas
- The rise of South India
- The Regional Kingdoms of Early Medieval India
- The rise and conflicts of regional kingdoms
- Kings, princes and priests: the structure of Hindu realms
- Gods, temples and poets: the growth of regional cultures
- India's impact on Southeast Asia: causes and consequences
- Religious Communities and Military Feudalism in the Late Middle Ages
- The Islamic conquest of northern India and the sultanate of Delhi
- The states of central and southern India in the period of the sultanate of Delhi
- The Rise and Fall of the Mughal Empire
- The Great Mughals and their adversaries
- Indian landpower and European seapower
- The struggle for supremacy in India
- The Period of Colonial Rule
- Company Bahadur: trader and ruler
- Imperial structure and the regional impact
- The pattern of constitutional reform
- The Freedom Movement and the Partition of India
- The Indian freedom movement
- The partition of India
- The Republic
- Internal affairs: political and economic development
- External affairs: global and regional dimensions
%T History of India %A Hermann Kulke %A Dietmar Rothermund %I Routledge (first published in 1986 by Croom Helm: Australia) %D 1998 %G ISBN: 0415154820 (pb) %G ISBN: 0415154822 (hc) %P 395 %K history
Date written: 2000/10/12
January 26, 2005
Across Realtime by Vernor Vinge
`Across Realtime' is a bound edition of two Vernor Vinge novels: `The Peace War' and `Marooned in Realtime'. Each is discussed below in turn.
The Peace War
If you ripped off the cover of `The Peace War' and asked me to guess the author after reading it, I would not hesitate to say Clifford D. Simak. The style of writing and some of the themes explored in this novel are strongly reminiscent of Simak. However, there is a lot of material that is also particular to Vernor Vinge. In part, it is a war story, but one that is smart enough to know that wars are won because of superior technology and with codes and cryptographs. The accent is on the software rather than the heroics. There is action as well, particularly in the fast and furious endgame.
It is also a Cold War novel, and the plot deals with the abolition of nuclear weapons and biological warfare from the world by a `benevolent' dictatorship called the Peace Authority establised to prevent humans from destroying themselves. The Peace Authority gains its dominance due to a weapon that is even more powerful than nuclear weapons and uses it to enforce a peace based on ignorance of technology. Anyone outside the Authority is forbidden to develop any technology that is large enough to be detected. The Authority also impose the status quo on themselves since they have little need for further research. They already have the most advanced weapon ever created.
On the other side are the Tinkers: who are planning the forcible obsolesence of the Peace Authority. They depend on a cottage industry of low power electronics and the mathematical abilities of a young recruit called Wili W\`achendon and his aging mentor Paul Naismith. The post-apocalyptic West coast is realized nicely, as are the well-planned plot twists. Definitely a must-read for Vinge enthusiasts.
I'm positive that the computer game Celest that is described in this game was a tribute to the game "Space Travel" which was written by Ken Thompson in 1969 in his spare time. The game simulated the motion of planets in the solar system. A player could cruise between the planets and land his/her ship on the planets and moons. Thompson wrote this game on Multics (the precursor to Unix).
Marooned in Realtime
This book is not a sequel of `The Peace War' but rather set in the same conceptual universe and with some characters from the previous novel making surprise entrances into the plot.
How far into the future can a science-fiction author reasonably go before you cannot reasonably predict the future anymore? The answer to this question is directly related to the amount of progress humans can reasonably make without hitting some hard limits. The answer to such questions are explored in this novel. Using the technology of bobbling (a bubble where time stands still) introduced in `The Peace War', Vinge can put his characters arbitrarily far into the future, even exploring time in the span of geological changes to the Earth, directly observing evolutionary changes to life on the planet.
The plot involves a detective and an unsolved murder in the far future. The murder itself was perpetrated by intentionally leaving behind a single person while the rest of the human population bobbles up as part of a mass-migration to the future (hence the title). The detective himself was a victim of a similar crime which transported him into the far future by an unknown criminal.
The denouement itself is not particularly interesting. If you want a murder mystery, don't read this book. What is interesting is the depth of the scientific speculation. Of particular interest is the gradual description of the notion of Singularity that Vernor Vinge is best known for in his later sf work.
This is the first book where he introduces the concept of the Singularity and through his characters he explores this idea in great detail. If you have read Vernor Vinge's later work and want to know more about the Singularity, you have to read this book.
Other zoologies and geographies of the future cited in this book:
- "After Man" by Dougal Dixon St. Martin's Press, New York, 1981.
- Christopher Scotese and Alfred Ziegler, as described in "The Shape of Tomorrow" by Dennis Overbye, Discover, November, 1982, pp. 20-25.
%S Across Realtime %A Vernor Vinge %T The Peace War %D 1984 %T Marooned in Realtime %D 1986 %I London: Millenium Paperback %G ISBN: 1857981472 (pb) %P 533 %K science-fiction
Date written: 2000/08/19
January 25, 2005
Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
A character in this comic-book, a teenager who is reading his pirate comic for the second time explains, `'Cause they don't make sense, man, that's why I gotta read 'em over.'
There are many excellent science-fiction novels that were influenced by the universal madness behind the Second World War and the subsequent descent into the Cold War (a history still being repeated all over the world). This book is part of this genre but is also grasping at weighty topics of morality and human destiny. It is appropriate that a `comic'-book is the medium for such a grim discussion.
In places, the allusions to the entire pantheon of comic-book superheroes is overwhelming. A childhood reading superhero comic books now becomes an advantage rather than a liability. With inhuman mastery, Moore and Gibbons take that entire mythology and combine it with appropriate references to Western philosophy, literature and pop-culture to create one of the best examples of the data-compression of brilliant ideas I have seen in any form of literature. A small example of this is in the distributed discussion of Gordian Knot throughout this book: the so-called `genius' of aggression perpetrated by Alexander of Macedon.
Before reading this comic-book I would recommend reading up on Rameses the Second and then reading "Ozymandias" a sonnet by Percy Bysshe Shelley, listening to "Desolation Row" and "All Along the Watchtower" by Bob Dylan, and reading up on Cold War politics, especially the Tower Commission Report about the Iran-Contra affair and the usual favorite of comic-book writers, "Gravity's Rainbow" by Thomas Pynchon.
There are far too many details to discuss within the context of a brief review. There are places on the internet where this discussion already exists (cited below).
Also highly recommended is "V for Vendetta" by Alan Moore. There are various links between these two works (particularly with the obsessive use of the number five to denote a `Fearful Symmetry').
%T Watchmen %A Alan Moore %A Dave Gibbons %I DC Comics %D 1986 %G ISBN: 0930289234 (pb) %P 412 %K graphic-novel
Date written: 2000/07/22
Ronin by Frank Miller
Created, written, and drawn by Frank Miller; paints by Lynn Varley; lettered by John Costanza.
This book is a collection of the five-issue limited series published in 1983 and 1984. Frank Miller takes a 13th century dishonored samurai warrior and places him along with his demon nemesis in a dark 21st century dystopic Manhattan where neo-Nazis roam the streets. Here he comes in violent contact with a sentient computer Virgo, a paraplegic telekinetic named Billy and a cyberpunk heroine Casey McKenna.
The most intriguing part of this story-arc was how Casey McKenna's husband, who starts off as a fairly minor character becomes a crucial part of the plot and raises the most important question behind it.
Frank Miller's art in this book is not at the level of his later work in Dark Knight and Sin City. However, some panels clearly prefigure his style in later comics like Sin City. If the art is disappointing and colors washed out in places the book more than makes up for it with an exceptionally strong and intellectual storyline.
The art in the initial, Japanese parts of this book are clearly lifted almost directly from the art of Gozeki Kojima who along with Kazuo Koike are the authors of the famous manga "Lone Wolf and Cub" from the 1970s (for those who are fans of this manga, there is kid who appears on a few panels who looks exactly like Daigoro).
The character of Billy and the flavor of Miller's future Manhattan is also similar to the work of Katsuhiro Otomo in manga like "Akira" and "Domu", although the influence is not entirely clear-cut to me.
Frank Miller is best known for his work on the Daredevil comics and is the author of what is easily the best Batman limited series: "The Dark Knight Returns".
%T Ronin %A Frank Miller %I DC Comics %D 1987 %G ISBN: 0930289218 (pb) %P 239 %K graphic-novel, science-fiction
Date written: 2000/07/22
Sin City by Frank Miller
Somewhere between The Maltese Falcon and John Woo: Frank Miller has resurrected the quintessential hardboiled character. Of course, don't expect it to be a sentimental return to the same old stuff. This is comic book: expect something smarter.
If you feel disappointed with the beginning, don't stop reading. Frank Miller starts the story in the middle and then goes in two directions at the same time after the explosive start. The backstory is filled in with spades and the plot moves as if on magnetic rails.
It seems as if after years of studying manga, Frank Miller has internalized so much of the samurai manga genre (in particular Kozure Okami, "Lone Wolf and Cub" by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima) that it is clear that this comic book series owes at least part of its existence to this exposure. Of course, closer and more obvious thematic cousins of "Sin City" include the famous Hollywood gangster movies of the 1930s like "Little Caesar" and "Public Enemy".
The part about the twins was a bit misplaced, and the finale seemed like a tribute to Alan Moore (see "V for Vendetta"). But overall a comic book destined to be a classic.
The theme of this book can be glimpsed by reading the names of the sequels: "A Dame to Kill For", "The Big Fat Kill", among others.
%T Sin City %A Frank Miller %I London: Titan %D 1993 %G ISBN: 1852864680 (pb) %P 208 %K graphic-novel
Review written: 2000/08/16
January 19, 2005
Stanislaw Lem by Richard E. Ziegfeld
One of the first books (the first book?) in English about Stanislaw Lem, the Polish science-fiction author. Unfortunately, this book does not rise above the level of a hagiography (as the author himself admits in the introduction: `the goal is to share a sense of enthusiasm about Lem's virtues and, in the process, to assist in the facilitating greater American awareness that Stanislaw Lem is one of the outstanding writers in the twentieth-century letters').
The result is several chapters describing the plots of the Lem books that have been translated into English accompanied by a brief and mostly superficial analysis of the themes underlying the plot of ecah book. An analysis of some published reviews of each book usually by noted reviewers or authors is also included.
The books discussed here are only the ones that have been translated into English. It would be nice to have a book discussing Lem's works in Polish which are out of reach for readers in English.
The biographical information is new and worth having for a Lem fan (I think I qualify) but there is little else to recommend this book to the general sf audience. The contents are underwhelming even for a rabid Lem addict. On the other hand, it is a short book and perhaps a good read if you read all the original books and are impatient for any discussion of their contents.
The discussion in this book about Lem's honorary admission and subsequent dismissal from the SFWA (an American organization of SF authors) helped me understand the issues involved.
In my opinion, a better book on Lem's work is "A Stanislaw Lem Reader: Rethinking Theory" by Peter Swirski which includes interviews with and some contributions by Stanislaw Lem.
%T Stanislaw Lem %A Richard E. Ziegfeld %I New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing %D 1985 %G ISBN: 070446992X (pb) %P 188 %K biography, science-fiction
Date written: 2000/07/17
The Sky Road by Ken MacLeod
It was like the old Civilization game, Myra sometimes thought, with a new twist: Barbarism II. Nobody was going to wipe the board, nobody was going to Alpha Centauri. They were all going down together, into the dark ... Just as soon as enough major players decided to contest the incontestable, and put the simulations to the audit of war.
As in 'Civilization 2', the classic Sid Meier game, this novel is dedicated to the mechanisms of war, diplomacy and politics. It is also an apocalyptic novel. The novel starts a few centuries after a catastrophic Deliverance. A young historian Clovis colha Gree is studying the life of Myra Godwin-Davidova, the woman who is called 'The Deliverer'. The other thread of the novel is from Myra's perspective leading upto the Deliverance. She is the de facto leader of the International Scientific and Technical Worker's Republic (ISTWR) whose borders lie within those of Kazakhstan.
Parts of the story feel very skeletal as if MacLeod expects you to be already familiar with his constructed universe. This might be because some of the characters and political entities also appear in blurbs for his earlier books: "The Stone Canal" and "The Star Fraction".
Ken MacLeod is known for being one of the few socialist-anarchist science-fiction writers. I don't think he actually believes what one of the characters in this book says: 'there's either socialism or barbarism'. While he seems to dismiss the notion of capitalism simply as being imperialism without much discussion, this is not to say that he engages in simple advocacy for some abstract socialist utopia (a common strategy among a different brand of libertarian sf authors). Instead he is only concerned with working out the various aspects of socialism and exploring its problems and its interactions with other political phenomena like capitalism (Myra Godwin, while being a Trotskyist engages in selling options for nuclear deterrence) and labor unions (the ISTWR is engaged in war with the Sheenisov, a worker's collective with mechanical computers and a mysterious allegiance to a military AI in Earth orbit).
The plot mostly dry as if describing some computer game, but it some places it becomes compelling especially when it concentrates on the first launching of a satellite after the Deliverance (the eponymous `Sky Road'). But most of the book reads like an extended dialogue that Ken MacLeod seems to be having with himself about war and revolution in relation to socialism and anarchist society via his characters. The novel has a pessimistic perspective on human societies, but perhaps it will also appeal to readers who are interested in political sf, in particular, those who want a bit more Left in their future dystopias.
By pure chance, I happened to read "The Peace War" by Vernor Vinge around the same time that I read this book and I was struck by a number of similarities in the basic plot structure (but not in sensibility). Both take place in a post-apocalyptic world where the use of nuclear weapons has been abolished. This, in itself, is not interesting since a lot of the cold-war sf books had similar plots. It is interesting that Ken MacLeod is writing a cold-war sf book in 1999. As in Ken MacLeod's book, "The Peace War" has a class of technocrats that emerge from the chaos of the apocalypse. This class is also called "tinkers", whether this name has a common ancestry for both books or this is just a coincidence, I'm not sure. The similarities end there, but the overall notion of a benevolent dictator (The Peace Authority in "The Peace War" and The Deliverer in "The Sky Road") is common. Then again, this idea dates back to "Dune" by Frank Herbert who in turn takes this idea from the Bible.
As mentioned earlier, there are several computer games with a similar focus on war, diplomacy and society although the classic 'Civilization 2' has yet to be rivaled by a new favorite.
%T The Sky Road %A Ken MacLeod %I London: Orbit %D 1999 %G ISBN: 1857239679 (pb) %P 291 %K science-fiction
Date written: 2001/01/28
January 12, 2005
Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond
On November 19, 1835, a ship carrying 500 Maori armed with guns, clubs and axes arrived on the Chatham Islands, 500 miles east of New Zealand. The Moriori people who lived on those islands were brutally slaughtered over the next few weeks by the Maori.
Jared Diamond's claim in this book is that this outcome was entirely predictable. Not just in proximate terms: that the Moriori were a small, isolated group of hunter-gatherers, equipped with only the simplest technology and weapons, entirely inexperienced at war, and lacking a centralized leadership; while the Maori invaders (from New Zealand's North Island) came from a dense population of farmers, used to warring among themselves, with more advanced technology and weapons, and operating under a strong leadership. Jared Diamond's claim goes deeper: that the history of different peoples can be predicted to follow certain courses because of differences among peoples' environments. Crucially the answer does not lie in biological differences among peoples themselves.
He also states his motivation for answering this question as the final repudiation of the usual racist biological answer or the assumption of superiority of one culture/religion over another as an explanation for the dominance of certain human societies over others. Despite incontrovertible evidence presented by varying scientific fields, these kinds of explanations are most commonly held to be true by the general population and the non-scientific intelligentsia. In particular, cultural superiority is still supported as being a central explanation of dominance of one society over another by many reputed and clearly non-racist historians. Thus, Jared Diamond's teleological exercise in this book, if true, would mean that instead of an accidental or mysterious rise of certain human societies, their dominance can be explained by a hidden (and inexorable) design.
This is a history book, but unlike one you have read before. It examines history's broad patterns unfolding on each continent in the world over the last 13,000 years. It's contention is that in order to explain the conquest of the Americas by European powers in 1492 AD requires us to examine how societies everywhere evolved from their common preliterate hunter-gatherer backgrounds since 11,000 BC. Jared Diamond presents a breathtaking view of this kind of history with help from fields considered mundane and boring such as agriculture, animal domestication and simple geography. He also uses as evidence facts from the more traditional fields of archeology and historical linguistics. Each chapter deading with a different continent systematically goes through facts from each of these fields to support the book's eventual conclusions.
In other words, whether you ultimately accept the conclusions of this book or not, if you are remotely interested in human history, you have to read this book. In my opinion, the approach taken in this book was utterly compelling. There are literally so many facts stated in this book that even without the over-arching goal of the book, reading this book for just the facts is rewarding enough. Parts 3 and 4 of this book are the best non-fiction chapters I have read in a long time. They reveal so many surprising and new facts that it is a damning indictment of the usual histories that are peddled in schools and colleges. Particularly compelling are the parts about the history of the Pacific Ocean islands which were colonized by the inhabitants of South China without ever colonizing New Guinea and Australia. Also interesting was the history of Bantu agricultural societes replacing Khosian hunter-gatherers in Africa.
This is not to say that this book will provide you with *all* the answers to questions in human history. It would be pointless to attempt that goal. The book concentrates on particular cases which bolster the main thesis but does not talk about the more difficult cases. For example, the Mongol invasion of Eurasia which started from several nomadic bands and chiefdoms going on to conquer several established agricultural societies (see "The Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China, 221 BC to AD 1757" by Thomas J. Barfield for more on the complex interaction between agricultural and nomadic societies of China and the Mongols). Also curious is the exact nature of the Indo-European expansion into India which as far as we know is a similar case of a nomadic peoples replacing an established agricultural society that flourished along the Saraswati River forming the so-called Indus Valley civilization. Also issues about over-population and similar Malthusian factors on human society are not considered. An attractive idea for a sequel to this book would be a discussion of such issues.
The main problem I had with the tone of the writing was that it seemed to want some kind of Kuhnian revolution in the field of history (Thomas Kuhn might have changed the tone of all scientific writing because of his book). This is problematic for two reasons. The first is that Jared Diamond does not actively participate in the fields which form the backbone of this book and he uses existing research to make many of this points and so it seems that his popularization of these discoveries can be been as a hijacking of ideas from those fields which he then wants to reform. The second is that many competent historians already practice what Jared Diamond is preaching in his Epilogue. Read some representative books on history like "History of India" by Hermann Kulke and Dietmar Rothermund to see that the revolution argued for in this book has already happened (even if it is unevenly distributed).
Those familiar to the world of computer gaming will know that the most popular turn-based or real-time strategy games are the so-called 'God games', where you direct a small band of people into a state and subsequently into an empire. Jared Diamond's theory of the growth of human society from hunter-gatherer bands to chiefdoms to states and then to empires is enough inspire a talented game programmer to incorporate these ideas (especially see Chapter 14 'From Egalitarianism to Kleptocracy') into a radically expressive and realistic real-time strategy game. I await the development of such a game with suspended excitement.
Such a game will also serve a serious purpose of providing a computational model of the growth of human societies which will go a long way in fleshing out the kind of `historical science' that Jared Diamond proposes in the last chapter of this book (Epilogue 'The Future of Human History as a Science'). Just as the relatively new field of cognitive sciences which includes as sub-fields neuroscience, linguistics and psychology also includes a computational component in artificial intelligence, this new field of viewing human history as a science should also include computational modeling of societal evolution in conjunction with the sub-fields of biogeography, crop cytogenetics, microbial evolution, animal behaviour, archeology and historical linguistics.
Search the archives of the New York Review of Books web site for William H. McNeill's (mostly complimentary but grumbling) review of this book (May 15, 1997) and Jared Diamond's subsequent answer (June 26, 1997) to the issues raised in that review and a follow-up response by McNeill.
Update (2005-07-26): This book has been adapted for television as a 3 episode documentary series. The series aired on PBS during July 2005. I haven't had a chance to watch it but here is a review of the Guns, Germs and Steel television series by Michael Balter.
%T Guns, Germs and Steel %T :the Fates of Human Societies %A Jared Diamond %I New York: W. W. Norton %D 1997 %G ISBN: 0393317552 (pb) %G ISBN: 0393038912 (hc) %P 480 %K history, science
Date written: 2000/07/17
America's War in Vietnam by Larry H. Addington
In his review of twelve books about the Vietnam War, Jonathan Mirsky says about this book,
If there is such a thing as an objective account, this is it. ... If you want to read one book about Vietnam, read this one.
("The Never-Ending War" by Jonathan Mirsky. New York Review of Books. May 25, 2000)
From my (admittedly limited) perspective, this is indeed a remarkable book. Its contents are distilled from the author's classes on America's war in Vietnam that he taught for many years before his retirement from The Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina. The narrative inexorably presents fact after fact about the war in Vietnam. The text never bogs down under an analysis of any particular incident.
Addington starts his book with a description of French colonial rule in Vietnam, where even by the standards of other European colonies before 1939, Vietnam was known as the "Colony of Cruelty". He gives particular attention to the resistance of the Vietnamese even at that time to a division of their country and their armed resistance against any such intentions by foreigners.
On 2 September 1945, Ho Chi Minh's speech to his countrymen in Hanoi started with a citation of the American Declaration of Independence. But American attitudes at the time were concentrated on bolstering the French economy and ironically under the Truman Doctrine which was meant to "assist free peoples to work out their own destinies" money from the Marshall Plan was used by the French to purchase arms and equipment to subjugate once again their colonies in Indochina including Vietnam. The French (and consequently the Americans) backed unpopular dictators to retain their influence in the region. Addington points out that while this is the first misstep that America took on its long road to war in Vietnam, it was an inevitable step given how the world was perceived by America after the Second World War.
Particular prominence is given in this book to the description of the Gulf of Tonkin incident which was manipulated by Lyndon Johnson in order to pass the Gulf of Tonkin resolution through the Congress. The same resolution was lated used to justify the increase of American intervention in Vietnam. Addington also describes the pre-war construction of the Diem regime in South Vietnam as a matter of American policy and then the inevitable support of each new general that succeeded Diem -- the result of the many coups that followed his regime.
Enthusiasts of military history should be more than satisfied with Addington's lucid descriptions of the various military operations that were undertaken throughout the Vietnam war by both sides. The aftermath of the war not only in Vietnam but also in the other countries involved, especially Cambodia, is also carefully considered. A book worth reading, indeed.
America seems to have learnt something from its military experience in Vietnam. This is evidenced in the use of reserves in Operation Desert Storm by George Bush, and also a narrow escape from a repetition of the mistakes made in Operation Rolling Thunder when America bombed Serbia in order to make them negotiate with the Kosovo Liberation Army. Unfortunately, American foreign policy so far has been ineffectual in replacing conflict with diplomacy when dealing with so-called "rogue states".
- The geography of Vietnam and its history to World War Two
- The career of Ho Chi Minh to 1939
- World War Two and America's collaboration with Ho
- America and the Indochina War, 1946-1954
- Eisenhower and the road to America's war in Vietnam, 1954-1960
- Kennedy's war: Counter-insurgency and the fall of Diem, 1961-1963
- Johnson's war, I: To the brink, 1964
- Johnson's war, II: The year of the plunge, 1965
- Johnson's war, III: Moving towards defeat, 1966-1967
- Johnson's war, IV: The turning year, 1968
- Nixon's war, I: The strategy of withdrawal, 1969-1970
- Nixon's war, II: The final round, 1971-1972
- The Paris peace accords and the fall of Indochina, 1973-1975
- Aftermath and summing up
%T America's War in Vietnam %T :a short narrative history %A Larry H. Addington %I Indiana University Press %D 2000 %G ISBN: 0253336910 (pb) %P 191 %K history
Date written: 2000/06/20
Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
First of all, this book is very long (update: dwarfed, however, by Stephenson's more recent offerings). At over 900 pages, it will be quite an investment of time. It does have some pages that could have been easily edited out, but considering the size of this tome, the signal to noise ratio is high enough to recommend this book.
Stephenson makes a strong departure from his previous novels like "Snow Crash". This is his first supposedly `serious' novel. However, the strength of this novel is the same as that of his earlier novels: his inspired descriptions of technology. It does not matter that in this novel the technology described is either contemporary or dating back to the Second World War.
This book has been described and promoted as a historical novel and not really as a science-fiction novel. In my view it is really an alternative history novel which is similar, at least in spirit, to some of the novels written by Connie Willis and others by Philip K. Dick, both of whom have both feet firmly planted in the sci-fi genre.
As the book eventually makes clear, there are good guys and bad guys in this book and they are categorized as such. This would be fine if the bad guys were not uniformly ill-defined, unmotivated and permanently hidden from view. The villains provide most of the impetus for the action but little is known about any of them; from General Wing (corrupt PRC honcho) to Andrew Loeb (a lawyer, no less). Some villains (like The Dentist) appear and then vanish without purpose.
But the book makes up for this by providing the most interesting heroes to populate the pages of a thriller: a bunch of nerds including Randy Waterhouse in a high-tech startup to build a data haven to keep governments off of encryption and privacy software while at the same time introducing their own currency; a group of cryptographers including Alan Turing and Randy's grandfather cracking codes in the Second World War and a conspiracy (implausibly) forged in the chaos of that war.
The ending is hopelessly inadequate but the book remains interesting right until the last page. In this sense, this book reminds me of Neal Stephenson's earlier books. The detailed depiction of each sub-culture and craft and the style of presentation is so engaging that it does not matter that the big picture in the background is plainly kooky.
For example, Stephenson is most lyrical when describing the details behind 'van Eck phreaking' (first proposed by Wim van Eck, van Eck's paper). Eating a bowl of Cap'n Crunch; connecting countries by laying fibre-optics on the ocean floor; and the distribution of family heirlooms by solving a generalization of the Knapsack problem are some of the other things examined under the Stephenson's microscope.
Stephenson, however, sometimes loses control of his writing style. In some places the prose reads like a Unix man page. But the strangest part has to be when Admiral Yamamoto's thoughts use a language that one would expect to hear from an American teenager.
Some parts are less than original. Neal Stephenson's theory about the universal nature of the Hacker character is filched from his earlier book "The Diamond Age". It wasn't compelling then, and it remains a bit strained even now.
- More details on the engineering behind laying fibre-optic cables onto the ocean floor can be found in Neal Stephenson's Wired article: Mother Earth Mother Board.
- Also, Neal Stephenson's Wired article about the growth of the internet in China: In the Kingdom of Mao Bell.
- About Rudy:
Rudy (Rudolf von Hacklheber, a German mathematician in the WWII storyline) was not a real character, he is totally made up, but I think that he is a reasonably realistic sample of the kind of guy you might have seen running around Princeton at the time Turing was there, immediately before the war.
- Stephenson also states that Alan Turing spent some time during the war in Greenwich Village (New York City) working on voice encryption for Bell Labs. Later in the novel, Stephenson describes Turing using such a device which combines speech with white noise from a accompanying phonograph which is cancelled out at the receiver's end who has an identical phonograph playing.
%T Cryptonomicon %A Neal Stephenson %I London: Arrow Books %D 1999 %G ISBN: 0099410672 (pb) %P 918 %K science-fiction
Date written: 2000/08/26
December 31, 2004
Mughal India and Central Asia by Richard C. Foltz
The Mughal dynasty ruled most of the Indian subcontinent from 1526 upto 1857. There are not many historical studies available that concentrate on their Central Asian roots and their later interactions with their homeland. The British tradition treats the Mughals as an Indian Muslim dynasty, while the Russian and Soviet tradition has predominantly looked at Central Asian history.
Richard Foltz's thesis in this book is that the Mughals had, since the time of Babur, longed to return to their Central Asian roots. He points out the various places in many historical documents where the (usually sentimental) nostalgia for Central Asia is evident. The documents cited in this book come from many sources: the Mughals themselves and also by the many Central Asian holy men, artisans, soldiers and artists who used to travel to India for financial gain.
After the Uzbek takeover of their ancestral homes including the prominent Chaghatai cities like Samarqand, the Mughals expanded into North India and rule this land as their new home.
Richard Foltz makes the case that the Mughals always intended to return to their homelands in Central Asia and were repeatedly unable to do so due to many problematic circumstances. He catalogs the active cultural and political traffic that existed between the Mughals, the Safavids who inhabited modern-day Iran and Afghanistan and the Uzbeks in modern-day Uzbekistan.
A lot has changed, it seems, as it is safe to say that no significant percentage of the Muslim populations of India and Pakistan considers a significant kinship with Central Asia. This is inspite of the fact that Mughal culture has remained a strong influence for all the inhabitants of North India and Pakistan.
Be aware that this is the author's PhD dissertation in revised form, and so is not written for the layman. It is prone to several pedantic interludes and you need at least a rudimentary knowledge of the history of the region to begin reading this book. You need to know, for instance, who the Safavids were (as opposed to the Sassanids and the Saffarids) since such `basics' are never explicitly mentioned (the web is very helpful here). But overall, it is one of the most entertaining books on history I have read -- mainly due to the several quotes taken from historical sources.
%T Mughal India and Central Asia %A Richard C. Foltz %I Karachi: Oxford University Press %D 1998 %G ISBN: 0195777824 (hc) %P 190 %K history
Date written: 2000/05/23
Against a Dark Background by Iain M. Banks
*Never* get beholden to people like that -- they'll piss on you and then charge irrigation fees.
From the master of space opera comes the most dystopian novel he has written. It is *not* a Culture novel and apart from an overwhelming moral dilemma that plagues the main character, it does not share many themes with the Culture novels.
Lady Sharrow used to be an antiquities thief. Her most infamous caper involved the bungled theft of the Lazy Gun, the most powerful weapon in existence. Her theft of the Lazy Gun resulted in the destruction of a large populated city. A religious cult called the Huhsz who consider all the Lazy Guns to be a holy artifact have finally received permission from the World Court to hunt down Lady Sharrow. Her only hope is to retrieve the last remaining Lazy Gun and hand it over to the Huhsz before they find her and extract their vengeance.
The plot is action-packed, perhaps too much so, even for a space opera. The universe that Banks constructs is very anachronistic, sometimes to such an extent that the action sequences seem to be of the kind you would find in a contemporary action novel. Unlike the galaxy spanning Culture novels, the story is limited to a single star system. I found this book to be less sophisticated than the other space opera novels by Iain M. Banks mostly because of the stereotypical action scenes, the noticeable lack of interesting alien or even post-human characters and the disappointing ending (although see the spoiler below).
The most interesting thing about this novel was the various political systems that are encountered during the quest through the Thrial star system. Each one is a parody of an existing human system, and all of them are found to be oppressive or ineffectual. Most of the planets have moved away from an aristocratic or feudal system but the aristocrats still seem to be very powerful. Indeed, the main character herself exploits her position as an aristocrat at every opportunity.
We are a race prone to monsters, she thought, and when we produce one, we worship it. What kind of world, what translation of good could come from all that's happened here?
** spoiler alert **
It seems as if the implication towards the end of the novel is that the protagonist, Lady Sharrow, is about to eliminate as much life as possible from this star system using the Lazy Gun. However, this is not made explicit in the ending for some reason.
%T Against a Dark Background %A Iain M. Banks %I Bantam Books %D 1993 %G ISBN: 0553292250 (pb) %P 515 %K science-fiction
Date written: 2000/06/01
2001 Nights by Yukinobu Hoshino
While written in the 1990s, this series is more of a look back to the science fiction written in the 1960s -- a kind of homage to the sf of that time in the form of a manga. It is a welcome departure from the typical material associated with manga or anime from Japan: mecha-obsessed military sf or sf that explores spirituality in a technological age usually with pseudo-science like psychic phenomena thrown in for good measure. There is some of the latter in this series but it does not drown out the scope of the stories.
Each of the books is loosely structured around a series of short stories. However, most of the stories are related to each other (even across books) usually in surprising ways. For the most part, Hoshino puts in a great deal of effort in making the stories scientifically plausible and tries at every point to inject some good old fashioned `sense-of-wonder' that should remind you of Golden Age sf.
Since this is a graphic novel, its success depends not only on the writing but also the graphic art. And this is where 2001 Nights departs from its philosophical roots in the sf of the 60s. The novelty in reading 2001 Nights is the art. While the effort put into each panel reduces as the series progresses, some of visuals are quite stunning (especially in the stories "Earthglow" and "Medusa's Throne"). The style seems quite similar to Katsuhiro Otomo's style (particularly Otomo's style in "Legend of Mother Sarah" and "Domo").
There are a combination of short stories and novellas in this collection. The most compelling stories are the shorts. The ones I found especially good were: "Earthglow", "Maestrom III", "I am Rocket", "Medusa's Throne", "A Stranger's Footsteps".
The novellas are less successful but there are fewer of them. I liked "Odyssey in Green" which is about First Contact of the kind favored by the more cynical writers like Stanislaw Lem. The introduction to the collection pays particular attention to the novella called "Lucifer Rising" (which takes up about half of the first book), but I found this story mostly uninteresting except for the ending.
The collection is easy to recommend to previous readers of Japanese manga who are also interested in hard-sf.
%S 2001 Nights %A Yukinobu Hoshino %T 2001 Nights %P 246 %G ISBN: 1569310564 %T 2001 Nights: Journey Beyond Tomorrow %P 696 %G ISBN: 1569311021 %T 2001 Nights: Children of Earth %P 696 %G ISBN: 1569311250 %D 1995 %I Cadence Books Graphic Novel %K graphic-novel, science-fiction
Date written: 2000/04/26
December 01, 2004
A Man of the People by Chinua Achebe
Chinua Achebe is perhaps most well known for his first novel "Things Fall Apart" and remains one of the most famous Nigerian authors writing in English. He retains his deceptively simple breezy style in this novel as well, but the story has moved from pre-colonial times to a post-colonial setting in a modern Nigeria.
The protagonist, Odili Samalu, is a well-educated and independent man and the story is a chronicle of his gradual spiral into the corruption of politics. His political ambitions are initially in reaction to Chief the Honourable M. A. Nanga who is the representative of his district and an old friend who has changed irrevocably since becoming a politician. Odili is an idealist and philosopher who despises Chief Nanga. Odili becomes a rival of Mr. Nanga not only for political office but also for the affections of his mistress and his wife-to-be. He includes some indication in this novel of the involvement of the two superpowers (at the time) in the political process in Nigeria.
The plot of this novel seems to chronicle the coup that occurred in Nigeria in 1966 just as this novel was published. He squarely blames the corruption of the politicians for the collapse of the government and the subsequent military regime. He does this implicitly throughout the book, and then explicitly in the last chapter of the book.
Achebe's style of writing is minimalist, his style reminding me at times of R. K. Narayan. But unlike Narayan he remains mostly unsympathetic with almost all of his characters. At times Achebe displays great skill in his writing. However, this novel is never as consistently good as "Things Fall Apart". If you have to read one Achebe book, read that one. After that, give this one a try.
%T A Man of the People %A Chinua Achebe %I Anchor Books/Doubleday %D 1966 %D :Reissue edition 1989 %G ISBN: 0385086164 (pb) %P 150 %K literature
Date written: 2000/05/22
The Great Human Diasporas by Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza and Francesco Cavalli-Sforza
There are many excellent popular science books on the subject of evolution and natural selection. Most of them pick examples that are clear-cut and easy to transmit in a pedagogical sense, avoiding the evolution of humans and the issues of similarity and dissimilarity between the various human races. In the first five chapters, the authors pursue answers to the following questions:
- How different are humans from other animals?
- What accounts for the differences between humans of different races?
- Why do scientists claim that we all come from Africa?
- Are there any beneficial mutations? (The answer is yes, and the book gives many excellent examples.)
- Can all humans trace our ancestry back to a single person? (the answer is surprising and complicated to understand)
This book answers all of these questions and more. You might find answers to some of these questions in other books as well, but for people interested in what evolution has to say about humans, this book is the most readable resource that I've found.
The primary author of this book is Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza who is an emeritus professor of genetics at Stanford University and this book is mostly a chronicle of his contributions to the field of genetics and how he used these tools to address questions about human origins and diversity.
The first five chapters deal with the author's main strength in the use of genetic drift in order to find answers about the movement of humans out of Africa and in other parts of the world. In chapter 6, the authors use archeology and in chapter 7, they use linguistics to show that these related fields concur with the genetic studies and importantly, do not contradict them. The facts in chapter 7 are a bit dated since the publication of this book and there are many recent books that give an updated picture of the evolution of language (see, for instance, "The Origins of Life" (From the Birth of Life to the Origin of Language) by John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathm\'ary).
In chapter 9 and in the postscript, the authors take on the use of genetics to prove that some races are inherently more intelligent than others and thoroughly debunk these approaches. In chapter 10, however, is the weakest chapter in the book where the authors simply descend into preaching and philosophy of life discussions.
One unfortunate thing about this book is the large number of typographical errors that have been carelessly allowed to remain in the final published version. The publisher should be ashamed that they did not proof-read this document more carefully.
%T The Great Human Diasporas %T :The History of Diversity and Evolution %A Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza %A Francesco Cavalli-Sforza %A :translated from the Italian by Sarah Thorne %I Perseus Books %D 1995 %D :First Italian Edition, 1993 %G ISBN: 0201442310 (pb) %G ISBN: 0201407558 (hc) %P 300 %K science, evolution
Date written: 2000/05/21
November 22, 2004
The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years by Chingiz Aitmatov
An aerial view of the Syr Darya River near Tyuratam.
Copyright © 2000 by Anatoly Zak
Trains in these parts went from West to East, and from East to West.
And on either side of the railway lines in these parts lay the great wide spaces of the desert -- Sary-Ozeki, the Middle lands of the yellow steppes.
The main plot of this novel which is set in Kazakhstan is the heroic story of Burannyi Yedigei's journey to bury his friend Kazangap in the Ana-Beiit cemetery following the traditions of his clan. Traditions which seem to have become increasingly irrelevant in a rapidly modernized world that Yedigei has to struggle against.
This `day' during which Yedigei has to complete this burial is contrasted with several much longer spans of time (hence the title) that stretch from his past, to the exploration of outer-space, to the timeless legends of his people.
Yedigei works at a railway siding at Burannyi near a large rocket launch facility, probably meant to suggest the Baikonur cosmodrome at Tyuratam. Yedigei's unwillingness to lose his customs or to permit any kind of change in Kazakhstan due to the modernization brought to his country by Russian influence is contrasted with the human discovery of a utopian civilization by a joint U.S.-Russian space station crew. The utopia is considered dangerous by the two superpowers (Aitmatov is writing when the Soviet Union was still going strong) and further contact with this utopia is forbidden. Don't read this book for its science-fiction sub-plot. Even though Aitmatov is prescient about a joint American-Russian space station, he is simply using the alien civilization as a plot device and the novel as a whole explores some general ideas, but not using the sf genre.
While the novel is about Kazakhs and the past legends of Kazakhs, it should be noted that Aitmatov himself is Kirghiz. The most compelling parts of the book are the legends of Yedigei's clan, such as the legend of the creation of the Ana-Beiit cemetery (Naiman-ana's tragic search for her son lost in war) or the love of the famous bard Raimaly-aga for the much younger Begimai (Aitmatov compares Raimaly-aga with Goethe). These legends are adapted and invented by Aitmatov with inspiration from the great Kirghiz epic poem, `The Manas'.
There are many instances where Stalinist purges are condemned by the characters in the book. However, Aitmatov never directly addresses the Russian influence in Kazakhstan. There are no negative Russian characters, only local Kazakhs who are in positions of power because of the Russians. While Aitmatov himself was the roving correspondent for Pravda in Central Asia and a member of the Supreme Soviet, in this novel he seems to be subtly painting a tragic picture of Soviet Central Asia.
The last part of the book is quite strong, but it might take some effort to make it there if you are not fascinated by the Central-Asian backdrop.
%T The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years %A Chingiz Aitmatov %A :translated into English by F. J. French %I Indiana University Press %D 1980 %D :First Midland Book edition 1988 %G ISBN: 0253204828 (pb) %G ISBN: 0253115957 (hc) %P 352 %K literature, central-asia, science-fiction
Date written: 2000/05/13
November 12, 2004
The Sciences of the Artificial by Herbert A. Simon
Our speculations have carried us over a rather alarming array of topics, but that is the price we must pay if we wish to seek properties common to many sorts of complex systems.
This quote from the last chapter of this book appropriately sums up the goal and the message of this book. Herbert Simon takes us on a great journey through a possible science of complex systems, particularly artificial systems that are often called `self-organizing'. He conducts this discussion at the very heights of generality taking in diverse fields like architecture, computer science, artificial intelligence, machine learning, economics and social planning.
This book is a must-read for computer scientists. It gives concrete reasons why the word science is part of the name of this field and why it is reasonable to expect that the field itself is split up into hardware technicians, compiler writers, functional programmers, systems analysts, software engineers, algorithm analysts, complexity theorists among many other subfields.
The scope of this book is so expansive that almost any one in this technological and increasingly computational age that we inhabit might get something out of reading this book.
In many conversations with fellow computer scientists I have heard the line `Well, computer science is really not a science. It is more like engineering or a craft like carpentry.' This is a view shared, but usually unspoken, by scientists in other fields, like physics or biology. This book lays out the reasoning why analogies like this are misguided and are a short-sighted view to take especially if you are a computer scientist. It also explains why scientists in other fields are more similar to computer scientists than they imagine.
Herbert Simon is famous in two fields: artificial intelligence and economics. In AI, he is most famous for his work with Allan Newell on the General Problem Solver (GPS). His work on GPS and also his work in economics understandably forms a major part of the discussion here. However, even though whenever he descends into details, I disagreed with him on almost every point in which I had any expertise, the overall picture he paints is such an important one that it is foolish to ignore the goals that he pursues here.
The answers he gives to the questions he raises are very preliminary but the questions are so compelling that I'm sure answers will be found, eventually.
Computer Science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes.
%T The Sciences of the Artificial %A Herbert A. Simon %I Cambridge, MA: MIT Press %D 1969 %G ISBN: 026269073X (pb) %G ISBN: 0262191938 (hc) %P 247 %K science, computer-science
Date written: 2000/05/01
November 10, 2004
Trespassers on the roof of the world by Peter Hopkirk
... Lurgan's impassive face changed. He considered the years to come when Kim would have been entered and made to the Great Game that never ceases day and night, throughout India. He foresaw honour and credit in the mouths of a chosen few, coming to him from his pupil. Lurgan Sahib had made E23 what E23 was, out of a bewildered, impertinent, lying, little North-West Province man.
"Kim", Rudyard Kipling
Tibet is geographically isolated, especially from the West. Part of the appeal of this kingdom has been this isolation. In fact, some people have conferred utopian ideals onto this land simply because of this isolation: the famous misnomer of `Shangri-La' invented by James Hilton.
This book chronicles each attempt by spies and explorers to pry open the mysteries of Tibet. The most compelling of these were the Indian spies who mapped large parts of Tibet working under Captain Montgomerie. People like Kishen Singh (code name 'A.K.'), Nain Singh and Sarat Chandra Das collected unparalled amounts of geographical material about Tibet. Sarat Chandra Das was incorporated by Rudyard Kipling into his novel "Kim" as the intrepid Hurree Chunder Mookherjee (sic).
While their exploits were published in the Royal Geographical Society, they were never officially acknowledged either by the British or subsequently by the Indian goverment. Their stories are amazing and even though only part of this book is devoted to them, this was reason enough for me to read this book. The question remains: why did these people perform these heroic deeds so far above the call of duty for the benefit of their British rulers? I suspect the answer is not a simple one: neither monetary incentives or loyalty to the British or an utopian ideal seem to be an answer. Their motivations were, I suspect, not very different from the other explorers from the West. The contributions of these Indian spies and explorers, in terms of maps and local information, were quantitatively greater than most of the other explorers in Tibet but their stories remain largely unknown to this day.
A more exhaustive history of these Pundit explorers in the pay of the British Empire is in the book "Pundits : British Exploration of Tibet and Central Asia" by Derek Waller (University Press of Kentucky, 1990).
This book is as exhaustive as possible about the various explorers who tried to storm Lhasa in their own ways and for their particular motivations. There is an amazing variety of them:
- Annie Royle Taylor who wanted to convert the Dalai Lama to Presbyterianism,
- Henry Savage Landor who was captured by the Tibetans and tortured for several days along with his two Indian servants Chanden Singh and Man Singh (who was a leper). They were released at the Tibetan border probably as a warning against further intrusions into Tibet.
- Ekai Kawaguchi, who not only reached Lhasa, but lived there for more than a year in disguise. He was presumed to be in touch with his teacher and one-time British spy - Sarat Chandra Das
- the Canadian Susie Rijnhart who returned from her ill-fated expedition to Tibet without her Dutch husband Petrus Rijnhart and her infant son Charles.
- the Russian Colonel Nikolai Prejevalsky who was turned away from the gates of Lhasa by Tibetan warrior monks.
- the US Air Force cargo plane that crash landed near Lhasa and whose crew were nearly lynched.
There are many such stories in this book. Many of them document stories of torture designed to deter further intrusions into Tibet but also about torture on the citizens of Tibet by the ruling theocracy. These stories, which are almost certainly true due to the multiple sources that report it, were then used by the British and the Chinese as a convenient excuse to invade Tibet. The reasoning provided then is exactly the same as in other colonial "interventions" in history: a double-barreled combination of (a) revenge for real or perceived slights by the ruling power and (b) the liberation of the oppressed populace.
The story of Heinrich Harrer which got a lot of attention from Hollywood (including the movie "Seven Years in Tibet") does not get much attention by Peter Hopkirk and Harrer is dismissed as a footnote in this history and appropriately so.
Most people know of the Chinese invasion of Tibet on November 7, 1950. However, not many historical sources point out the previous history of relations between Tibet and China and especially the role of the British and the Russians. This book is one of the few places which details this history. Since this is so rarely mentioned anywhere, I've included the full account below:
After the British invasion of Tibet in 1904 under the command of Col. Younghusband, the British enforced certain trade treaties with Lhasa and installed Captain O'Connor as the British trade commissioner in Gyantse. The British presence irked the Chinese who were used to having a permanent consul (called the amban) in Lhasa and whose influence was now displaced by that of the British. However, the British were not very comfortable with their position in Tibet and wished to pull out. The British Campbell-Bannerman government signed a treaty with China in April 1906 restoring Britain's recognition of Chinese suzerainty over Tibet. The British never consulted with the Tibetans on this matter. The following year, the Chinese signed a treaty with the other power in the region, the Russians granting the Chinese `suzerain rights' over Tibet. Again, the Tibetans were never consulted. Soon thereafter, the Chinese advanced into Tibet leaving a trail of slaughtered monks. In February 1910, two thousand Chinese troops seized Lhasa. The Dalai-Lama escaped to Sikkim in British India. After the October 1911 revolution in China, the Chinese garrison in Lhasa mutinied and the Tibetans took advantage of this and started a guerilla war against the Chinese. On January 6, 1913, the last of the Chinese marched out of Lhasa and the Dalai Lama returned to his capital. The Chinese invasion of 1950 cannot be divorced from this history thirty-seven years before and the politics of the powers in the region: Chinese, Russian and British.
It is important to note that most of the explorers mentioned in this book have written books of their own in which they detail their adventures. In fact, it was common for these `explorers' to finance their expeditions in this way. There is a veritable glut of these portraits of Tibet which are in direct contrast with the contemporary portrayal of Tibet in the media. For example, a useful book to read after this one is "Lhasa and its Mysteries" by Col. Austine Waddell (1905) which despite its title demystifies Tibet entirely. Waddell's book is particularly unsympathetic towards the Lhasa theocracy, which is not surprising since he chronicles the 1904 invasion of Tibet by the British. However, his cold prose is an effective counterbalance to the unabashed mysticism usually associated with any current writing about Tibet.
The British and Russian tug-of-war over India that was fought out over Central Asia is documented in "The Great Game" also written by Peter Hopkirk and in "Tournament of Shadows" by K. E. Meyer and S. B. Brysac.
More books on Tibet:
- "The Dragon in the Land of Snows: A History of Modern Tibet Since 1947" by Tsering Shakya (Columbia University Press, 1999). Recommended by Ian Buruma in his NY Review of Books article "Found Horizon" which reviews the books by Schell and Hilton (see below).
- "Virtual Tibet: Searching for Shangri-La from the Himalayas to Hollywood" by Orville Schell (Metropolitan Books, 2000)
- "The Search for the Panchen Lama" by Isabel Hilton (Norton, 2000)
%T Trespassers on the roof of the world %T :the race for Lhasa %A Peter Hopkirk %I J. Murray %D 1982 %G ISBN: 0719539382 %P 274 %K history
Date written: 2000/06/14
October 28, 2004
The Great Game: the struggle for Empire in Central Asia by Peter Hopkirk
Now I shall go far and far into the North, playing the Great Game.
"Kim", Rudyard Kipling
The mention of the words `cold war' brings to mind the mostly latent conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union which involved many other countries in its wake. That, however, can be considered to be history repeating itself. The original cold war was fought throughout the 19th century including the early part of the 20th in Central Asia between the British Empire and the Russian Tsarist government. The effects of this imperialist struggle are still around today even after the fall of the British Empire and the Soviet Union. This book is a chronicle of that period of history.
`The Great Game' was a term first used by one its protagonists: Captain Arthur Conolly but it only became famous as a term describing the cold war in Central Asia after it was used by Rudyard Kipling in his novel "Kim". I highly recommend reading (or re-reading) "Kim" after reading this book.
It amazes me that India was the land that ignited the entire conspiracy of the Great Game with both the British and the Russians trying to control the `immense riches' of India. A changing economy and a few hundred years of British rule have taken care of that particular tempation towards colonialism and completely changed the image of India in the world.
The time covered by the Great Game is expansive, starting with the treaty between Napolean and the Russians in 1807 all the way to the British invasion of Tibet in 1904. The cast of characters is similarly numerous, but this is not much of a problem as the Game is divided into many individual acts with their own protagonists. The stories themselves are compelling:
- Stoddart and Conolly's internment in the infamous Pit by the Emir of Bokhara;
- the various missions by the many British and Russian spies trying to infiltrate khanates like Khiva, Bokhara and Merv in disguise;
- the `foreign devils' like Aurel Stein stealing treasures on the Silk Road;
- the Russian annexation of Merv which eventually resulted years later in the Russian expansion into the rest of Central Asia;
- the British invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent struggle for power in Central Asia against the Russians;
- the massacre of Tibetan soldiers by the British at Guru during the attack on Gyantse.
The books reads like a contemporary political thriller with spies, treachery, rabble rousing, lies, the politics of greed and all the other good stuff.
Despite his claim earlier in the book that `I have tried, when describing the deeds of both Britons and Russians, to remain as neutral as possible', Peter Hopkirk's sympathies clearly lie with the British and he often apologizes for their actions while condemning equally reprehensible acts by the Russians. However the bias is overt and easily discounted by the aware reader.
Until recently, this book was the most comprehensive chronicle of the Great Game and along with Peter Hopkirk's other books was a comprehensive history of the times. A new book has appeared which covers the same period of history with a broader scope: "Tournament of Shadows" by K. E. Meyer and S. B. Brysac.
"Trespassers on the roof of the world" also written by Peter Hopkirk is a chronicle of various explorers and spies that have tried to infiltrate Tibet which also featured in the Great Game but to a lesser extent and as such was mostly left out of this book.
%T The Great Game %T :the struggle for Empire in Central Asia %A Peter Hopkirk %I Kodansha International %D 1994 %G ISBN: 1568360223 (pb) %P 565 %K history
Date written: 2000/04/30
October 27, 2004
A Good Old-Fashioned Future by Bruce Sterling
... like coffee struck by lightning.
This is a collection of short stories by Bruce Sterling, all of them published in the 90s. Like many other science fiction authors, a many of Sterling's most imaginative ideas go into his short stories, a spark that somehow gets smothered in the novel-length treatment of the same ideas.
The book begins with "Maneki Neko" is a smartly written tale which draws on Sterling's cyberpunk roots; it takes the gift economy that Eric S. Raymonds (esr) keeps parading as the economy behind free software and extrapolates it into a marvelous dystopian vision.
"Big Jelly" is written with Rudy Rucker: who like Sterling is a distinguished cyberpunk alum. It is an odd tale about a high-tech biotech startup in the near future. The jargon is set on high but the ideas are sloppy and it eventually just peters out. There is a character in this story that I could swear is a thinly disguised Esther Dyson -- which made me smile.
"Taklamakan" is aggressively written and suitably hip tale about a pair of freelance hackers gathering intel in a Central Asian desert. Ultimately, it turns out to be an amalgam of two unrelated and untenable ideas, but it somehow works even if it is excessively cynical about the current political situation in Xinjiang (Chinese Turkestan).
The other stories "The Littlest Jackal", "Sacred Cow", "Deep Eddy" and "The Bicycle Repairman" are all vignettes from a common futurist perspective mostly set in a anarchist future. Most of them use a European setting although strangely transformed as in "Sacred Cow" where the Indian `Bollywood' industry shoots all its movies in England to save money.
Even if some of the stories in this collection do not satisfy completely as short stories, they are entertaining for the detail with which Sterling paints each scene from the future. The best part of the futurism written into this book is that in Sterling's mind, the future as depicted in these stories is supposed to be *cool* which is better than utopian anyday.
%T A Good Old-Fashioned Future %A Bruce Sterling %I Bantam Books %D 1999 %G ISBN: 0553576429 (pb) %P 304 %K science-fiction
Date written: 2000/05/01
October 21, 2004
This New Ocean: The Story of the First Space Age by William E. Burrows
William Burrows does not explain exactly what he means by "The First Space Age" until the last chapter of the book. He is referring to the militaristic space race between the two cold-war rivals: America and the Soviet Union. Even pure scientific endeavours had to be funded by exploiting politicians who feared that the other side would do it first. That history still colors most of space research today and this long arc of time is the main focus of this book.
The main appeal of reading a detailed history of spaceflight is that you get at least a glimpse at the thousands of people other than the astronauts who were behind the scenes in the many missions to space undertaken around the world. It takes a book like this to help us appreciate the real scale of each effort in spaceflight.
Despite the relatively short time that humans have had spaceflight, there are far too many historical details for even a 700 page book to cover exhaustively. Fortunately, where some of the details are lost in this book (for example, the Apollo missions after Apollo-11) there are entire books that deal with these subjects. Hence, despite its length, this book serves only as an essential introduction to the history of spaceflight. Don't read this book if you want a detailed description of any particular mission to space. However, by sacrificing details of particular missions Burrows makes room for a more comprehensive description of human endeavours in space -- not just concentrating on the more glamorous manned missions, but also describing in deserving detail the unmanned missions. Burrows also is careful enough to present the stories of many of the engineers and managers without whom no space program would exist.
If you consider yourself an enthusiast of space exploration this book is a must-read. You are likely to find many new facts here including many surprising ones. However, it is not just for the facts that one should read this book. Burrows also tackles the philosophical issues involved in the rationale for spaceflight. Burrows is careful not to dismiss out of hand those voices that were opposed to space exploration (mainly because of the costs involved). Rather, Burrows gives voice to the many scientists who have argued for the importance of space as a human endeavour. These arguments, both pro and con, are spread throughout the book and helped to sharpen my own opinion about the reasons for space exploration.
Apart from the engineering and science history, Burrows also tries to document the politics behind the thrust into space by the United States and the Soviet Union. The now infamous military-industrial nexus that drove space research in both of the superpowers is documented and discussed in great detail. Personally, I found this to be less interesting than the science history.
Burrows' writing is at its best when he tries to convey the amazing feat of flinging manmade objects out into space. However, there are also quite a few annoying aspects in the writing. In many places, only the last name of a person is mentioned and one is forced to go through the index to find the full name and description of this person. This happens far too often and should not have overlooked by the editors. Also, there is some repetition of facts, but that is to be expected in a book of this scope.
Due to the focus of Burrows' books, there is very little discussion about the space programs of countries other than the US and Russia. Apart from a few references in Chapter 17 ("The Second Space Age"), there is no information about whether or not countries other than the superpowers could develop a viable space program in the future. Such information would have been fitting in a book that has such a wide breadth about space exploration.
Another book that seems to tread the same ground is "Countdown: A History of Space Flight" by T. A. Heppenheimer. Unfortunately, I haven't read it and so am unable to compare their content.
%T This New Ocean %T :The Story of the First Space Age %A William E. Burrows %I Modern Library Paperback Edition %D 1998 %G ISBN: 0375754857 (pb) %P 723 %K history, space exploration
Date written: 2000/04/10
Flux by Stephen Baxter
Post-human. Hard-SF. Look no further: this is the book. Hard-sf often does not attempt to look too far into the future to keep the speculations rooted in hard science. Stephen Baxter does not need to follow these rules to mould his flavor of hard-SF. He takes us far into the future; a future which is realized with (apparently) solid scientific speculations. The choice of location determines everything in this far-future story.
The protagonists of this novel are submicroscopic humans composed mainly of tin nuclei engineered to live in the superfluid mantle of a neutron star. This is science-fiction so hard, it's supercarbon.
Baxter is perhaps the ideal ubergeek built to tackle such a daunting project. His meticulous attention to detail in building this world pays off -- everything seems to fit together. The nagging doubt in my head was that this was perhaps a One-idea book whose inventiveness will fizzle out after the first few chapters. Surprisingly, this was not true. Long after the novelty of the constructed universe begins to wear off, the story is still compelling.
Baxter, unfortunately, fumbles in the last few chapters as he struggles to tie up all the threads in his epic. The pseudo space-operatic finale is disappointing. However, the book is still worth reading for the rest of the ride.
%T Flux %A Stephen Baxter %I HarperPrism %D 1993 %G ISBN: 0061008370 (pb) %P 409 %K science-fiction
Date written: 2000/04/12
October 06, 2004
The Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien
Hell goes round and round. In shape it is circular and by nature it is interminable, repetitive and very nearly unbearable.
Flann O'Brien is considered one of the giants of Irish literature. The Third Policeman invites comparisions with the work of Lewis Carroll, Borges, Stanislaw Lem, Richard Brautigan and Jonathan Swift but it is important to consider that `Flann O'Brien' (a pseudonym for Brian O'Nolan) had finished this book in 1940, but didn't find a publisher until 1967. Some say it was the whiskey drinking that got in the way.
There are good reductionists and bad ones forming the foundation of good and bad scientific inquiry. O'Brien pokes fun at all reductionists in this book. The protagonist spends quite some time in a two-dimensional police station arguing the finer points of `Atomic Theory' with his interrogators. The theory turns out to have surprising consequences for the makeup of bicycles and men.
Anyone interested in Borges' work should read this book just for the footnotes which expound in great detail on the works of de Selby (according to the protagonist, the most brilliant physicist, ballistician, philosopher and psychologist who ever lived). The footnotes sometimes also quote the various annotations and critiques of de Selby's work. The footnotes at the beginning of the book span the usual one or two lines, while towards the end of the book span several pages (at one point engulfing the main text itself).
Like Stanislaw Lem (in "Memoirs Found in a Bathtub") and Borges (see e.g. "Ficciones"), O'Brien compares the criticism of some of de Selby's writings to cryptography. Especially the several decryptions of the `Codex' ostensibly written by de Selby in such bad handwriting that no one can decipher its message.
Some parts are far more inventive than others, and since most of the novel is either biting satire or surreal wandering, your mileage might vary. Here is an example of what O'Brien can accomplish in this genre:
The Sergeant looked at me incredulously. `That is a great curiosity,' he said, `a very difficult piece of puzzledom, a snorter.' He sat down by the turf fire and began jawing his knuckles and giving me sharp glances from under his bushy brows. ...
I was unwilling to give any lead to the direction of the talk and there was complete silence for five minutes. Then his expression eased a bit and he spoke to me again.
`What is your pronoun ?' he inquired. `I have no pronoun,' I answered, hoping I knew his meaning.
Like his later book "The Dalkey Archive", this book is a `study in derision'. The satire is so laden with invective and is so dense that I wish there was an annotated version of this book to read which would make it much easier to read. Although sometimes annotations are a liability, as is the case with versions of "Gulliver's Travels" annotated with copius amounts of historical details.
What is your pronoun?
%T The Third Policeman %A Flann O'Brien %I Dalkey Archive Press %D 1967 %D :First Dalkey Archive Edition, 1999 %G ISBN: 156478214X (pb) %P 200 %K fiction, literature
Review written: 2000/03/16
Earth Made of Glass by John Barnes
It is surprising to find an author in the late 90s writing a story that intellectually is the successor to the old 'humanistic' science-fiction authors. This is a tale of social engineering, at a scale more modest than the Psycho-Historians in Asimov's Foundation, but more carefully realized.
After centuries of slower-than-light travel humanity has colonized several worlds, each one effectively developing independent of each other and the homeworld. This isolation suddenly evaporates as a new technology arrives (called a `springer') which lets individuals instantaneously transport from one world to another. This brings together the Thousand Cultures, testing each culture's xenophobia.
This book follows two bureaucrats (who are also spies) married to each other on their assignment to the recently settled world of Briand. Briand was settled by two groups of people, each of which are living out some historical fantasy of the extremely rich. One colony is made up of Mayans living in a culture imagined as being in their Classic Age before the arrival of the Spanish at their shores. The other colony is dedicated to reviving the ancient culture of Tamil Nadu (in South India) responsible for the classical texts of Cankam (Sangam) poetry (the poetry is generally dated to 100-500 AD).
This odd juxtaposition and clash of two cultures like the Mayans and the Sangam-era Tamils is just strange. They are cultures that are neither similar nor opposites and the depiction of their conflict is perhaps the best reason to read this book. Each colony has access to modern technology but they are both dedicated to the purpose of reviving their respective ancient culture. The arrival of the springer has thrown these two colonies into hostile conflict as they attempt to share the meagre resources on their planet. The bureaucrats are sent into this situation to find a peaceful solution.
As the plot develops you realize that as many of the events unfold, it is not clear which of them occur naturally and which are engineered by the people that govern. The most chilling effect of this book is perhaps how easily societies might be manipulated. However, the pacing of the book is extremely meditative and might turn off most sf readers. The length could have been cut at least by a third to form a more effective book, but as it stands this book will be interesting to readers who seek out carefully constructed fictional worlds.
A common method of understanding the relationship between countries is to compare it with the relationships between people. John Barnes tries to juxtapose the troubled marriage of the two bureaucrats to the hostility between the two colonies. However, this thread did not impress me as much as the world-building and the other subplots in this book.
This book is a sequel of sorts to an earlier book by Barnes set in the same fictional universe: "A Million Open Doors". At the time I read this book, I hadn't read the earlier book but it did not seem a pre-requisite at all.
%T Earth Made Of Glass %A John Barnes %I Tor %D 1998 %G ISBN: 0812551613 (pb) %P 416 %K science-fiction
Review written: 2000/03/15
October 04, 2004
Chaos by James Gleick
Chaos is a term given to a particular brand of non-linear mathematics useful in the description of natural phenomena that saw its first light, according to this popular science exposition to the topic, in the mind of a meteorologist in the 1960s. Subsequently taken up by a biologist, several mathematicians, and then a whole set of physicists, and ultimately even by economists, ecologists and heart surgeons. It was only in the 1980s that chaos theory caught on as a legitimate field of study in the various scientific communities.
The chaotic properties in a simple root-finding method like Newton-Raphson is usually covered in most modern calculus textbooks, but this behaviour is often something to be avoided, leading us away from nice convergence properties. The history of how this behaviour turned from being something to work around, to something useful is an interesting story.
Gleick presents a concise and approachable guide to the math behind chaos theory and also a good history lesson in the forming of a new subfield within physics and other disciplines.
There are some nitpicking issues that I had with the book, none of which detract very much from the content of the book but are worth laying down nonetheless. As a necessary simplification for a general audience some of the math is simplified, however some parts were too watered down, especially the discussion of Feigenbaum's bifurcation theory. Also, I wished Gleick had given some more details about the Lyapunov exponent and its relation to entropy. Some of color plates were completely dissociated from the text. Direct pointers to those pretty fractals from the text would have been helpful.
If you're addicted to science books, pick up this short and eminently readable book and enjoy the bizarre tale of fractals and strange attractors.
%T Chaos %T :making a new science %A James Gleick %I Viking Penguin %D 1987 %G ISBN: 0670811785 (hc) %P 354 %K science
Review written: 2000/02/07
Way Station by Clifford D. Simak
Clifford Simak has pioneered his own brand of `rural' hard-sf, written in a style so natural that it seems simple. "Way Station" is considered to be his most famous novel in this genre.
As the novel begins, in the 1960s, a CIA agent discovers that veteran of the Civil War seems to be still alive in a small village in Wisconsin and appears to be about 30 years old. The man lives in a house that is impenetrable, and in the family cemetery behind the house, next to the gravestones of his mother and father, is a third gravestone with an inscription written in a script nobody can identify.
(Minor spoilers ahead)
As the novel progresses you meet the protagonist: Enoch Wallace who is the caretaker of a device which allows instantaneous transport over a distance of several light years. This galactic way station sits in his home, where he tends to it alone, his occupation shared only with alien visitors on their way to their eventual destinations. His contact with the station makes him immortal. However, his isolation is under threat from his fellow humans and everything in Enoch's sedentary life is about to change.
There is some overshadowing nervousness, typical in a cold-war novel, about the danger of human aggression going too far. References to a `spiritual force' which permeates the universe and other such Taoist metaphysics (in my opinion) does not mix well with hard-sf. There is also an unfortunate deus ex machina used to push the book to its close. But apart from these minor distractions the novel does carry its philosophy consistently to its satisfying (and surprising) last chapter.
This book was the winner of the 1964 Hugo Award. "A Choice of Gods" is another good example of Simak's writing.
%T Way Station %A Clifford D. Simak %I Manor Books Inc. %D 1964 %G ISBN: 0837604400 (pb) %P 190 %K science-fiction
Review written: 1999/11/30
October 01, 2004
Jejuri by Arun Kolatkar
Bronze figurine of Khandoba with Mhalsi and Banai, 18th century, Maharashtra.
(Image from the Lowe Museum web site)
Arun Kolatkar was born in 1932, in Kolhapur, where his early education was at the Rajaram High School. He enrolled in the J. J. School of Art, Bombay in 1949, and after attending this and other art schools in Kolhapur and Pune, in 1957 he took his Diploma in Painting from the J. J. School of Art. He published his first book of poetry, Jejuri, in 1976, and in the same year he published Arun Kolatkarchya Kavita, a collection of poems in Marathi. He turned to poetry full-time 15 years ago: before that, he wrote while working as a graphic artist in the Bombay advertising industry.
The setting and imagery in Jejuri is taken from the temple town of the same name near Pune in western Maharashtra. Khandoba is one of the primary deities of the temple complex at Jejuri and the collection was published with the image of Khandoba on the cover. However, religion is not the main focus of the book. As Arvind Krishna Mehrotra (see below) argues: the object of Jejuri seems to be the act of observation.
Here is an excerpt from Jejuri:
what is god and what is stone
the dividing line if it exists is very thin at jejuri
and every other stone is god or his cousin
there is no crop other than god and god is harvested here
around the year and around the clock
out of the bad earth and the hard rock
that giant hunk of rock the size of a bedroom
is khandoba's wife turned to stone
the crack that runs right across is the scar
from his broadsword he struck her down with once
in a fit of rage
scratch a rock
and a legend springs
The bilingual aspect of Kolatkar's output is highlighted in this excerpt from The Oxford India Anthology of Twelve Modern Indian Poets (1992), edited by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, from his introduction to Arun Kolatkar's work:
Few would know that some of Kolatkar's early poems in English appeared in Anthology of Marathi Poetry: 1945-1965 (1967), edited by Dilip Chitre. (Chitre makes some very perceptive comments on them in the introduction to the book.) Though both `Woman' and `Suicide of Rama' say `English version by the poet', their Marathi originals were never committed to paper. This bit of deception, by itself a minor biographical fact, raises a host of complex issues centered around the idea of the poet, especially in our century, as a wanderer across language. Kolatkar himself operates across the two he writes in, sending out, as we have just seen, occasional false signals.
On the other hand, certain of his poems are dually located. The Marathi texts of `Irani Restaurant Bombay', `Crabs' are to be found in Arun Kolatkarchya Kavita, while, simultaneously, they are poems in English, smuggled into the language through the unmanned checkpoint of verse. ...
Not only is Jejuri among the finest single poems written in India in the past forty years, few books of verse published here have been so successful. It won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize, and quickly went into three editions. But the editions were small and the distribution limited.
My favorite Kolatkar poem is written in the Bombay Hindi vernacular:
Arun Kolatkar passed away last week, on September 25th, 2004, succumbing to intestinal cancer. Kolatkar’s latest works, published in 2004, include ‘Kala Ghoda Poems’ and ‘Sarpa Satra’ in English.
%A Arun Kolatkar %T Jejuri %I Peppercorn Publishing, UK edition %P 58 %D 1978 %G ISBN: 0330492365 %K poetry
September 30, 2004
Science in Medieval Islam by Howard R. Turner
This is one of the few popular history books that I could find about the contributions of scientists who lived in the so-called Golden Age of Islamic culture from the seventh to the seventeenth centuries A.D. The books manages to give a fairly effective overview of a long and important historical period. While almost any scientific history published in the West will mention Aristarchus, for instance, very few bother to mention any of the major Islamic scientists who not only preserved the Greek scientific tradition but extended and improved on it.
In the rare cases when the ancient Islamic scientists' contribution is mentioned they are portrayed as caretakers of previous scientific knowledge which they transmitted back to Europe just in time for the Renaissance. The truth, of course, is much more interesting. This book is a lightweight introduction to this interesting and ignored time. It is an illustrated introduction and is a quick read with a lot of accompanying pictorial excerpts from the original scientific texts.
For me personally, the most interesting scientists mentioned in this book were:
- Ibn al-Shatir's 14th century manuscript illustrating his concept of planetary motion. According to Turner, a diagram in Copernicus' Commentariolus (ca. AD 1530) bears remarkable resemblance to Ibn al-Shatir's schematic.
- al-Jazari's Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices (from the 13th century).
- Ibn al-Haytham's 11th century text: Kitab al-Manazir (Book of Optics) and his theory of vision.
Turner makes some silly statements about the Arabic language being `more suited' than others for scientific pursuits, but apart from such minor failings the level of scholarship is very high.
Turner is also a bit jingoistic at times, but that is understandable since he has to counter the weight of all those stern Western Tradition professors who obsessively promote Greek contributions to Western culture at the cost of all else. With more books like this one perhaps historical teaching will be able to impart a more realistic tradition to students: that partnership between cultures and scientific interchange is not as modern as it seems.
%T Science in Medieval Islam %T :an illustrated introduction %A Howard R. Turner %I University of Texas Press, Austin %D 1995 %G ISBN: 0292781490 (pb) %G ISBN: 0292781474 (hc) %P 262 %K history, science
Review written: 2000/01/20
Bellwether by Connie Willis
I have read a few short stories by Connie Willis ("At the Rialto" was one excellent example), but I was unsure of picking up a novel length story by her since I don't usually have the patience for long time travel or alternative history plots which seem to be the themes behind her most popular novels. So it was with some trepidation that I accepted a friend's recommendation and started on "Bellwether". I'm glad that I did: this was one of those novels that reads so easily that I could finish it in one sitting.
The setting is not futuristic but a very commonplace (at least for 1996) research lab. Sandra Foster studies fads and trends obsessively, trying to find out why certain activities (with `low ability thresholds') or merchandising catch on for a brief period and then die out. Her life, and indeed the whole plot of this book, revolves around acquiring funding for her research. Like most researchers, the funding bureaucracy takes up 90% of her time. She even does research on getting funding to do research. A chance encounter with a fellow researcher in her lab who recently lost his funding for the study of chaos theory leads her closer to a scientific theory of fads. But can she retain her funding or her sanity before she makes her final discovery?
Like all caricatures, this book overstates its case about the contribution of pure chance to scientific breakthroughs. While it contains an impressive collection of cases where a new scientific discovery happened simply because the universe arrives at some state in a chaotic system. This is presented as the only `true' kind of breakthrough. Whatever `chaos theory' that Connie Willis assumes for the basic plot to work does not seem fit into any of the mathematical tools that actually comprise chaos theory (see "Chaos" by James Gleick).
In fact, the `Bellwether' theory as it is developed in the book has more to do with writing a novel than predictions in the real world. But the theory as implemented here does result in a wonderful story about scientific speculation and research. Good hard-sf in my book. Connie Willis inserts a fascinating collection of fads and accidental scientific breakthroughs (some of these should be familiar to everyone who has read `inspirational' science books for kids). A further enjoyable part of reading this book is that each chapter (there are about 50 of them) starts with a description of a different short-lived fad from time periods ranging from the 14th to the late 20th century.
One of my favorite fads from the book:
mah-jongg (1922-24) -- American game fad inspired by the ancient Chinese tiles game. As played by Americans, it was a sort of cross between rummy and dominoes involving building walls and then breaking them down, and `catching the moon from the bottom of the sea.' There were enthusiastic calls of `Pung!' and `Chow!' and much clattering of ivory tiles. Players dressed up in Oriental robes (sometimes, if the players were unclear on the concept of China, these were Japanese kimonos) and served tea. Although superseded by the crossword puzzle craze and contract bridge, mah-jongg continued to be popular among Jewish matrons until the 1960s.
For more information about chaotic systems and their initial discovery in the early 1960s to the current explosion of interest, see "Chaos" by James Gleick. It is a straightforward popular science treatment of the mathematics and science behind chaos theory.
Although introduced in the 1960s, chaos theory remained entrenched as a fad in the minds of many mathematicians and physicists. I remember taking a course on Recursion Theory in 1996 taught by a brilliant professor of mathematical logic, and a young student raising his hand in the first class asking impetuously whether the course would cover any chaos theory. The professor blinked twice and answered in the negative silently cursing to himself, I'm sure, about fads.
%T Bellwether %A Connie Willis %I Bantam Spectra Book %D 1996 %G ISBN: 0553375628 (pb) %P 247 %K science-fiction
Review written: 2000/05/13
September 24, 2004
Diaspora by Greg Egan
Quite easily one of the best among Greg Egan's novels, which is not saying much since Egan's novels have typically not been of the same high calibre as his short stories. In part, Greg Egan makes this novel a success by making it episodic with several shorter stories embedded within an overarching theme rather than a plot. In fact, one subplot is lifted directly from one of his earlier short stories: "Wang's Carpets".
While mathematicians convert coffee into theorems, Egan converts those theorems into sci-fi plots. For example, the chapter on "Wang's Carpets" provides an intriguing answer to the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence by exploiting a theorem by Hao Wang which shows that when using tile patterns to tile the entire plane, the set of tile patterns can encode the moves of a Turing machine.
Egan's speculations are so varied and tied into so many scientific and mathematical facts, that Egan's writing rivals the best efforts in scientific non-fiction. The scientific speculations that pack each page this book are daring and encompass several fields including quantum gravity, planetary dynamics, atmospheric science, evolutionary biology, biochemistry, cellular automata, virtual reality and tiling theory to mention a few.
The central plot of "Diaspora" which takes up the third act in the novel reminded me strongly of one of Isaac Asimov's best hard-sf novels "The God's Themselves" ('against stupidity, the God's themselves contend in vain').
Some of the scientific speculations in this book (and other Egan novels) are visually presented using a series of Java applets on Greg Egan's web page.
%T Diaspora %A Greg Egan %I HarperPrism %D 1998 %G ISBN: 0061057983 (pb) %G ISBN: 0061052817 (hc) %P 391 %K science-fiction
Review written: 2001/02/15
The Persian Expedition by Xenophon
Xenophon lived around the 4th century B.C. and this particular story is a fascinating insight into the military history of that time. He has written other books ranging from a treatise on Socrates to a history of his time. In this book he tells his own story of a doomed military expedition.
From the beginning, Xenophon is full of apparent contradictions: he clearly thinks that the Spartan way of life is superior to that of his native Athenians, despite or perhaps because of the fact that at the time the Spartans had dominion over Athens. He joins a mercenary army to fight in Persia for Cyrus who wants to take over the rule of Persia from his brother. Xenophon does this not because of the lucrative possibilities of plunder in a hostile land, but because he considers Cyrus to be the epitome of the ideal ruler: noble and brave in battle, yet gracious and generous to his friends.
Things fall apart quickly and Xenophon finds himself promoted up the chain of command responsible for thousands of Greek troops in the middle of Persia deep inside hostile territory faced with the problem of retreating to more friendly lands. This book is the story of this journey. For me, the story retained interest until the last few chapters where the problems Xenophon faces became repetitive. The last chapter (which ends the saga quite abruptly) tells us of the fall of a noble mercenary to common thievery.
%T The Persian Expedition %A Xenophon %I Penguin Books %D 1949 (this edition) %P 301 %K non-fiction, history
Review written: 1999/10/27
September 13, 2004
River Out of Eden by Richard Dawkins
This is a short and precise book. It's greatest asset is that it does not stray too far from its point. A good first book on genetics and its relation to evolution.
Dawkins is not uniformly good in his analogies and explanations in this book and sometimes he goes off on a tangent unrelated to his main point, but the writing bears the mark of an accomplished science writer. Dawkins has published several other notable books on evolution including "The Selfish Gene" and "The Blind Watchmaker". However, if you're looking to read Dawkins for the first time, this is a good book to evaluate his talents.
Famous biological facts about various species are usefully collected in one place here, for example, the complex mechanisms of communication among honeybees which are the among the canonical examples of complex universal language behaviour in a species other than humans.
Dawkins also spends time in the last chapter about how self-replication might arise and develop in complexity without considering details of how they occurred on Earth and thus speculating about how life might arise on other extrasolar planets.
If you have read other books by Dawkins on the subject, this book might have little new to offer other than a quick and entertaining read and the comforting thought that good science writing is not dead yet.
%T River Out of Eden %T :a Darwinian View of Life %A Richard Dawkins %I BasicBooks %D 1995 %G ISBN: 0465069908 (pb) %G ISBN: 0465016065 (hc) %P 172 %K science, genetics, evolution
Review written: 1999/09/24
September 09, 2004
The Symbolic Species by Terrence W. Deacon
This book might look like a popular science book describing all the wonderful research into neurolinguistics and what it has discovered about language acquisition. Unfortunately, the neuroscience described in this book, while fascinating, has little to do with language (apart from the parts mentioned later in this review). And the speculations about language acquisition in children and the evolution of language in the human species are poorly informed about linguistics.
Terrence Deacon only cites Chomsky's philosophy of language works and Pinker's popular book on the subject -- no mention anywhere of Principles and Parameters and any of the work on learning theory for natural language. As a result, at one point he equates Universal Grammar with `deep structure' which to anyone who has taken an introduction to linguistics course will make it clear what insights Deacon has about linguistics. This is not to say that he does not make some compelling points about the evolution of language: just that this book will not herald the revolution in thinking that Deacon clearly hopes it will accomplish. Particularly since Deacon's evolutionary `just-so stories' are also less than compelling.
The most interesting part of the book lies in Part Two: `Brain' which concentrates on the neuroscience of human and other species. The descriptions of the localization of language in the human brain and the motor control of vocalization are the most lucid passages in the book. After talking to some people who are more informed in this area, I also realized that the studies presented here about unconscious control that humans have over relaxation reaches and other aspects of planning in behaviour are quite important for the notion of composition in language syntax and semantics. Unfortunately, these links are barely touched upon and are not described in the detail that they deserve. Deacons spends most of his time instead talking about his co-evolution theory of language complexity in humans.
The co-evolution theory is fleshed out only in a fraction of this book and has many apparent problems which are left unresolved at the end of the book. However, Deacon presents some interesting examples of animal vocalization: Hoover the talking seal and language acquisition, without human intervention, by apes: the case of Kanzi. It is important to note that all the animal vocalization cases have been subject to some great skepticism in the psycholinguistics and linguistics literature. Deacons makes it clear that while humans share many communicative aspects with other primates and perhaps even seals, there is a clear jump in complexity in human language. Also interesting is the discussion on the communicative laughter in humans and other primates. It is a pity that the interesting parts alone were not strained out of this tome to make a shorter and more interesting book.
%T The Symbolic Species %T :the co-evolution of language and the brain %A Terrence W. Deacon %I W. W. Norton & Company %D 1997 %G ISBN: 0393038386 (hc) %P 527 %K science, neuroscience, linguistics
Review written: 2000/06/05
August 31, 2004
Planet Quest by Ken Croswell
The majority of popular science books are about cosmology, gravitation and/or quantum physics. But there are dismally few books about astronomy or astrophysics. So a book about the greatest astronomy story in this century is welcome news.
If you are remotely interested in astronomy, then this book is a must-read. Furthermore, I was pleased with how Ken Croswell has kept the book short enough to read over a single weekend but still included a fairly detailed history about the search and discovery of planets both within and outside our solar system. Croswell does a competent job in giving the reader enough peripheral knowledge such as theories of planetary formation in our solar system to give a context to the later chapters.
Croswell starts off gently with the discoveries of Uranus, Neptune and Pluto and describes the futile search for other planets in our solar system: Vulcan (which was postulated to exist within the orbit of Mercury to describe Mercury's eccentric orbit, later explained by Einstein); and the chimeric Planet X (the tenth planet).
Croswell next catalogs the controversy over `brown dwarfs' and whether such `failed' stars can be referred to as planets. The description of the varying methods used in discovering extrasolar planets such as the Doppler shift and astrometry (measuring the wobble size of a star) was adequate enough to understand the results although I would have preferred more details.
Surprisingly, the first extrasolar planets were discovered around the pulsar PSR B1257+12 and not around a main sequence star (in fact when planets were discovered finally around a main sequence star this historical precedent was not reported at all). Soon after this amidst fierce rivalry between the various teams working on this problem the first planet around a more `normal' star was discovered: 51 Pegasi. The controversy surrounding its announcement to the press was unfortunate and is documented here in full. In a field where retractions of claims are as common as the claims themselves, the story of the confirmation of extrasolar planets is also interesting. The final list at the close of the book includes 47 Ursae Majoris, Rho1 Cancri A, Tau Boötis A, and Upsilon Andromedae. All except for 47 Ursae Majoris are gas giants orbiting closer to their suns than Mercury orbits our sun. Of course, these are just the first results of an ongoing search.
This book also has a few tables of data that are useful as a reference: e.g. a list of the known stars within 12 light years and their properties. And, by the way, did you know that Copernicus was Polish?
For recent news about extrasolar planets visit the Extrasolar Planet Encyclopedia.
There is another book on the same topic: "Other Worlds : The Search for Life in the Universe" by Michael D. Lemonick. Also, "In Search of Planet Vulcan" by Richard Baum and William Sheehan is about the early 19th century futile search for a planet inside the orbit of Mercury.
%T Planet Quest %T :the Epic Discovery of Alien Solar Systems %A Ken Croswell %I The Free Press %D 1997 %G ISBN: 0684832526 (hc) %P 324 %K science, astronomy
Review written: 1999/09/17
Destination Mars by Martin Caidin and Jay Barbree
This is basically a coffee table book about Mars. The pictures are good but the text is mostly insipid. It's 228 pages long, but can be read easily in a couple of hours. If you haven't read much about Mars before, it is a useful introduction to the topic.
As the subtitle suggests, this book is about the influence of the planet Mars on human myth, literature and art. In myth, the book only deals with Greek and Roman legends. Science-fiction and non-fiction is covered in more depth from early works like "The War of the Worlds" by H. G. Wells upto "Red Mars" by Kim Stanley Robinson. It is also about the various milestones of the scientific exploration of Mars which is covered in reasonable depth for the size of the book. And there are quite a few pictures from the Mariner and Viking missions and from the Hubble telescope. Since the book was published before Pathfinder and the Mars Global Surveyor missions it feels a bit out of date. The writing is erratic and some topics are included which are quite unrelated to Mars and there is the occasional typo. But the pictures are pretty.
The proposed topic of the book is a big one and "Destination Mars" points out all the highlights but does not pretend to be an exhaustive source of information.
%T Destination Mars %T :in Art, Myth and Science %A Martin Caidin %A Jay Barbree %A :with Susan Wright %I Penguin Studio %D 1997 %G ISBN: 0670860204 %P 228 %K science, literature
Review written: 1999/08/21
August 26, 2004
A Choice of Gods by Clifford D. Simak
Clifford Simak was born and raised in south-western Wisconsin and throughout his career he has been careful to allow his rural background to permeate his writings in science-fiction: a trait that is, to my knowledge, singular to Simak within the genre of hard-sf.
This book with its wonderfully ambiguous title (can you pick out more than two alternative interpretations?) is not considered to be his best work (most critics pick "Way Station" as the quintessential Simak book), but I highly recommend this book. It has big ideas, strange robots and stranger post-humans. The blurb on the back of the book has a uncharacteristically good synopsis, so I'll just reproduce it here:
One night in July, 2135, there were some eight billion people on Earth. The next morning there were perhaps 400. There was no clue to what had happened to the world's population -- but, over the centuries that followed, still stranger things occurred.
The human lifespan now stretched to millenia instead of decades, and much of the remaining population developed the ability to move at will among the stars -- and abandoned their homeworld for a life in deep space.
Then, after 3000 years, a star-rover discovered what had happened to Earth's original inhabitants -- and that they were coming to reclaim their heritage. Those who had stayed behind knew, with a growing fear, that the mystery of what had been done to Earth and why it was about to be solved ... in a way that would change humanity forever.
If you liked this novel, try "Way Station" as well.
%T A Choice of Gods %A Clifford D. Simak %I Ballantine Books %D 1972 %G ISBN: 0345298683 %P 190 %K science-fiction
Review written: 1999/08/20
August 24, 2004
Takedown by Tsutomu Shimomura
This is a non-fiction account of the famous arrest of hacker/cracker Kevin Mitnick written by the person who tracked him down by deciphering computer system logs and good old-fashioned detective work.
For all its flaws, this modern day Sherlock Holmes adventure is pretty captivating. This is surprising because there are no sympathetic characters in this story. Sherlock Holmes could afford to be annoyingly over-confident and dismissive of everyone else because he was a fictional character. Those traits don't sit so well with Tsutomu, who seems to dislike almost everyone he comes into contact with: from his graduate student Andrew Gross all the way to the NSA. Only Richard Feynman and his love-interest Julia are spared. I wonder if Julia was included here as a parallel with Clifford Stoll's "The Cuckoo's Egg".
Surprisingly, John Markoff does not play the role of Watson in this story as Tsutomu writes this book in the first person. In fact apart from a small part, Markoff has barely any role here. The fact that Tsutomu took over complete control over the description of events is both good and bad. Tsutomu gives a lucid descriptions of the details behind all of the cracking hijinks; the description of the IP spoofing attack and the surprisingly effective X11 screen capture hack itself is worth the price of admission. The technical details are the saving grace of this book. On the other hand, the description of all the events are completely one-sided, biased and Tsutomu has a naive good vs. evil philosophy against Kevin Mitnick. Tsutomu writes himself into a stereotypical Hiro Protagonist role. Not to mention the annoyingly long and pompous sub-title to the book (see the book ISBN information).
Inspite of all these flaws, it's still worth reading. Although read "The Cuckoo's Egg" first; Clifford Stoll is much easier to get along with.
%T Takedown %T :the pursuit and capture of Kevin Mitnick, %T America's Most Wanted Computer Outlaw %T -- By the Man who Did it %A Tsutomu Shimomura %A :with John Markoff %I Hyperion %D 1996 %G ISBN: 0786889136 %P 324 %K non-fiction, computer science
Review written: 1999/08/20
Cyberpunk: Outlaws and Hackers on the Computer Frontier by Katie Hafner and John Markoff
A mainstream depiction of the cracker subculture: this books lacks many of the technical details which make these kind of stories interesting to read.
The book has three short stories about some of the more famous cases of computer crimes from the late 80s to the early 90s. There is the now extremely famous case of Kevin Mitnick (also the subject of another book "Takedown"), the story of Robert Tappan Morris -- `inventor' of the first internet worm, and the chronicles of the German cracker clique called Project Equalizer which formed out of the Chaos Computer Club (who also appear as dramatis personae in "The Cuckoo's Egg").
There is surprisingly little overlap between "The Cuckoo's Egg" and the story of the Chaos Computer Club presented here. The story of Kevin Mitnick (minus the platitudes) is useful as a counterbalance to the story presented in "Takedown" which is singularly one-sided.
There is no ambivalence in the writing: cracking is considered to be a VERY BAD thing and no effort is made to understand why someone would spend all of their time for very little financial gain doing something increasingly considered as terrorism. The only exception made here is for Robert Tappan Morris, which is ironic, because that part of the book seems to be trying to uncover exactly such a double standard.
For another point of view on the hostility against the cracker subculture look at "The Hacker Crackdown" by Bruce Sterling which is freely available online.
%T Cyberpunk %T :Outlaws and Hackers on the Computer Frontier %A Katie Hafner %A John Markoff %I Touchstone Books %D 1995 %G ISBN: 0684818620 %P 368 %K non-fiction, computer science
Review written: 1999/08/17
The Cuckoo's Egg by Clifford Stoll
Stoll's story starts with the 75-cent accounting error that first tips him off to the uninvited visitors to the Lawrence Berkeley Lab computers. The online trail that he uncovers is interspersed with details of his personal life (and this is more interesting than you would imagine). The trail eventually leads to Hanover, Germany and to the Project Equalizer plot.
Project Equalizer was an improbable initiative by the KGB to pay the West German Chaos Computer Club members to hack into United States military computers. In the end, the information that the hackers involved uncovered was not judged worth the expense by the KGB, and this book is the story of how Clifford Stoll eventually got the Chaos Club members arrested.
Stoll is ambivalent between his condemnation of the crackers and whether perhaps his liberal ideals are being strained by collaborating with the CIA. Should he be helping institutions which he is not particularly fond of but whose members are easy to get along with since they share his indignation against the crackers. Stoll's argument against the crackers eventually settles on the fact that the crackers are corrupting the fragile trust on which the networks are based on making these protocols increasingly less open in the future.
This is the most entertaining of all the various `cracker/hacker' books that came out of the late-80s.
After reading "Takedown", another cracker pursuit story, it is interesting to compare Tsutomu Shimomura with Clifford Stoll. It is surprising how good-natured Clifford Stoll is as he chronicles how he tracked down the people responsible for cracking into the Lawrence Berkeley Lab computers in the mid-80s. He once calls these crackers `varmints' no less.
For more background information on the Chaos Computer Club, see "Cyberpunk" by Katie Hafner and John Markoff.
%T The Cuckoo's Egg %T :Tracking a Spy through the Maze of Computer Espionage %A Clifford Stoll %I Pocket Books %D 1989 %G ISBN: 0621726889 %P 326 %K non-fiction, computer science
Review written: 1999/08/24
August 18, 2004
John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener: from Mathematics to the Technologies of Life and Death by Steve Heims
On the face of it, John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener have little to do with each other. They did not collaborate in their professional careers and did not know each other very well. But the subtitle to the book is the key to Steve Heims intentions in putting the biographies of these two men into one book. He wants to discover what in the background of a scientist is responsible for such brilliant minds to collaborate in the construction of weapons of mass destruction and policies of mutually assured destruction.
John von Neumann was aggresively brilliant and made several contributions to mathematics and physics. He was also a key technical adviser and proponent of the nuclear proliferation conducted by the United States in order to target the Soviet Union. Norbert Wiener was arguably equally brilliant but sacrificed several aspects of his career as a scientist because he refused to create anything that could be misused to a destructive end. He practised an applied moral and social philosophy in his attitude towards technology. This is the juxtaposition that Heims offers in this book. A story of two men and their research programs.
What Heims seems to be after is the moral or ethical core of any scientist. Should you fund your research if you know that it will lead to an eventual misuse of it antithetical to your moral values (although von Neumann seemed to truly hate the Soviet Union enough to consider mutually assured destruction a valid option for the greater good). Heims gives us a crucial insight into this question. It is even more to his credit that Heims follows this objective without sacrificing any details in the biographical details of these scientists.
Those interested in these issues should also read "The First Circle" by Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, where issues of ethics in research are covered in a fictional setting in a research station gulag in Stalinist Russia.
%T John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener %T :from Mathematics to the Technologies of Life and Death %A Steve Heims %I MIT Press %D 1980 %G ISBN: 026258056X (pb) %G ISBN: 0262081059 (hc) %P 547 %K science, biography
Review written: 1999/08/15
Coming of Age in the Milky Way by Timothy Ferris
The topic of this book is one to which no single book can do justice. Given the scope of the enterprise it is no surprise that the book falls short of its goal. However, if you have to read a single book about early astronomy, the gradual acceptance by humans of the laws of classical physics, the realization of subatomic particles, the evolution of life on earth, and the origin of the universe then you could do much worse than Ferris' offering.
In fact, if you are new to popular science writing then this is an excellent first book to read. Ferris also brings a unique historical view to his writing which is mostly missing from many popular physics books which usually spiral around the theory of black holes and quantum physics and so Ferris' book is a good companion to other books in this field.
Even if you have read everything there is to read about stellar physics from Kip Thorne and Stephen Hawking; and imbibed all the natural selection you can from Dawkins, there is still something you should read in this book. Apart from the historical perspective, Ferris in the chapter "Mind and Matter" gives a beautiful description of a galactic network which will someday be used to transmit and store information across impossibly vast distances. Apparently, Ferris has returned to a similar topics in another book "The Mind's Sky".
%T Coming of Age in the Milky Way %A Timothy Ferris %I William Morrow and Company %D 1988 %G ISBN: 0688058892 %P 495 %K science, cosmology
Review written: 1999/08/14
The Inverted World by Christopher Priest
I had reached the age of six hundred and fifty miles.
This is the kind of first line that I read science-fiction for. Within a few pages you are introduced to a universe where the sun and the other heavenly bodies are hyperbolic in shape and where an entire population inhabits a city moving inexorably on its rails towards some unknown destination.
I thought I should introduce some books that I read when I was very young that were crucial in my adult fascination with science-fiction. Books like this one which do not seem to have aged at all. The ideas still provide that healthy dose of `sense-of-wonder'. I still remember reading this book in one sitting during a warm Bombay summer day (and night).
Be careful about reading too many reviews of this book. It's one of those books that can be easily ruined with too much information.
This book is not as well known as a classic in the sci-fi community, which is a shame.
%T The Inverted World %T :a novel %A Christopher Priest %I Harper and Row %D 1974 %G ISBN: 0060134216 %P 240 %K science-fiction
Review written: 1999/08/14
August 10, 2004
New Maps of Hell: a Survey of Science Fiction by Kingsley Amis
Kingsley Amis was already a fairly well-established literary figure after the publication of his "Lucky Jim", and his detailed analysis of the science-fiction of his time is surprising since even now science-fiction is all but ignored by the literary critics (this is changing but not rapidly).
Here he lays out a map of the various science-fiction that had been published until 1960 (still early days for the genre). His sweep is broad and touches on generalities that are relevant even for today's brand of science-fiction with its nanotechnology and cellular automata.
Amis talks at length about fantasy and space opera and the various visions of utopia that permeate science-fiction. Apart from the general points this book makes, there is also a wealth of information about the science-fiction of the 40s and 50s including people like Sheckley, Heinlein, Clarke, Miller, van Vogt, Kornbluth, Pohl, Asimov and other luminaries. It is somewhat surprising that this book has not dated much even though science-fiction has changed immensely since the 50s.
This book was formed out of a series of lectures delivered by Amis in the spring of 1959 as part of the Christian Gauss Seminars in Criticism at Princeton University.
%T New Maps of Hell %T :a Survey of Science Fiction %A Kingsley Amis %I Ballantine Books %D 1960 %G ISBN: 0405063210 %G LC: 60-5441 %P 161 %K science-fiction
Review written: 1999/08/14
Queen of Angels by Greg Bear
The book opens on 12.23.2047 with the world undergoing yet another millenium fever for the `binary' millenium: 2^11. The plot is set in these last few days before 2048. The concern over the date, while not plausible in itself, is a concept useful in creating a sense of a Singularity: a sense that simply surviving a date will transform the world.
This book is intended to be an exploration of consciousness, intelligence and free will. There are three interleaving stories which are related only by this common theme.
Greg Bear tries something very ambititious in this book; unfortunately he does not succeed. However, the result is still interesting, but if you're looking for a representative Greg Bear novel there are much better ones out there ("Moving Mars" for example).
The main story follows a hardboiled LA detective Mary Choy who is assigned to find out why a famous American poet and author Emmanuel Goldsmith has killed 6 of his friends. Following standard cyberpunk tradition, Mary has been completely transformed physically and mentally by modern nanotechnology: a process called transforming. The other (more interesting) thread follows the exploration of the planetary system of Alpha Centauri B by an artificially intelligent probe called AXIS. The third thread follows Richard Fettle who is one of Goldsmith's friends who has to deal with the murder of his friends by his mentor. Greg Bear uses a hypothetical architecture of the mind called the Country which is modeled vaguely on Minsky's "Society of Mind".
Unfortunately, the content in this book outstrips the length. It could have been an interesting, even recommendable book at less than half its current size (about 400 pages). As it stands it is sluggish and self-indulgent.
Greg Bear seems to have read a lot of Harlan Ellison while writing the first few hundred pages of this book which is filled with phrases like `dolphinslick' and `sherlocking'.
Greg Bear cites the following non-fiction works as inspiration for the ideas in this book: "The Engines of Creation" by K. Eric Drexler (Doubleday/Anchor), "Bound for the Stars" by Saul J. Adelman and Benjamin Adelman (Prentice-Hall/Spectrum) and "Mirror Matter" by Robert L. Forward and Joel Davis (Wiley).
%T Queen of Angels %A Greg Bear %I Warner Books %D 1990 %G ISBN: 0446361305 (pb) %G ISBN: 0446514004 (hc) %P 420 %K science-fiction
Review written: 1999/08/15
August 03, 2004
Tehanu: the last book of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin
Between 1968 and 1972, Le Guin published the Earthsea trilogy: "A Wizard of Earthsea", "The Tombs of Atuan" and "The Farthest Shore". The Earthsea trilogy is that rare brand of fantasy trilogies that is truly engaging and in a new voice that does not mimic any of the traditional bell-wethers of fantasy literature, whether you consider John Milton, Lord Dunsany, J.R.R. Tolkien, or Mervyn Peake.
In 1990, Le Guin decided to add a fourth book to this trilogy: a novel named Tehanu. The perils of established authors revisting their earlier triumphs are quite familiar. The failure rate is almost complete (you can see a perfect example of this in Arthur C. Clarke). In this case, however, the trepidation is uncalled for. This book is the perfect follow-up to the earlier trilogy.
In the Earthsea trilogy, the first book followed Ged, the second was the story of Tenar, while the third returned to Ged. So, logically, Tehanu returns to the story of Tenar. As the story opens you learn that The Eaten One who renounced her faith in "The Tombs of Atuan" has left behind the study of high magic and the companionship of a powerful mage to lead a simple life as a farmer's wife. The story begins as Tenar's life becomes intertwined with that of an abused and horribly burnt little girl when Tenar adopts her as her child. Ged does make an appearance later in the book, but the events will probably not be as you expect them to be. There are many surprises: including the rejection of magic. While the Earthsea trilogy had a balanced view of what magic could accomplish, in this book magic is mostly shunned by the characters: in Ged's case, because of his previous life. After reading Danny Yee's review (see Danny's Reviews), I agree with his conclusion that Tehanu to a large extent abandons the Taoist bent of the original Earthsea book. However, while it stands apart from the other Earthsea books, it is still a notable achievement.
The title of this book contains the promise The Last Book of Earthsea. This is a promise broken by Le Guin in 2001 when she wrote a fifth book in this series entitled "The Other Wind". Defying all odds, even this overextended visit to Earthsea is not accompanied by a repetition of old ideas. Le Guin seems to re-open the story only when she has something new to say.
Ursula Le Guin has always extended the genre of fantasy fiction, for instance, her series of Hainish short stories typically categorized as fantasy read more like anthropological science fiction. Her Hainish short stories (which can be easily found in the "Year's Best Science Fiction" collections edited by Gardner Dozois) and "The Left Hand of Darkness".
%T Tehanu %T :the last book of Earthsea %A Ursula K. Le Guin %I Bantam Books %D 1990 %G ISBN: 0553288733 (pb) %G ISBN: 0689315953 (hc) %P 226 %K fantasy
Review written: 2000/11/18
July 30, 2004
Child of the River by Paul J. McAuley
Not many science-fiction authors can spin off a great first chapter which is gives you a disquieting, grim gradual revelation of being in a completely alien environment. Paul McAuley pulls this off. However later chapters are more sloppy and less inventive (at some point one of the characters mentions the word `democracy' which should be a meaningless word in McAuley's constructed universe). The ending resolves many of the issues raised in this book but mostly serves as a setup for the next book in a trilogy. Reading this book did not impel me to pick up the remaining installments.
The setting and the plot is not particularly original involving the ubiquitous `Chosen One' plotline, but the hard-sf details and the comfortable fantasy atmosphere can conspire to make it quite a enjoyable read for a lazy summers day.
Paul McAuley walks a thin line between fantasy and hard-sf. Occasionally reading this book reminds you of Gene Wolfe, and then in the space of a few pages you get some hard-sf scientific speculation.
One minor point: the setting for this novel, Confluence, has a rigid caste system, the learned class resemble the Brahmins and there are other hints that the dominant religion is some mutated form of Hinduism. However, the name of the protagonist is Yama, the name of Death personified in Hinduism. The etymology in the book is that Yama is short for Yamamanama which means `Child of the River'. From what sources I could access, the real Sanskrit etymology of the word Yama is from the verbal root `yam': to subdue, control. This is not particularly egregious, except that unimaginative fantasy or sf writers usually pick up some classical works to simply use the unusual names. I hope that McAuley's intentions were not as shallow and it is unclear whether we should attribute these and many other discrepancies to a higher purpose or to the author's ineptitude.
%T Child of the River %T :the first book of Confluence %A Paul J. McAuley %I Avon Books %D 1997 %G ISBN: 0380975157 %P 306 %K science-fiction
Review written: 1999/08/17
Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein's Outrageous Legacy by Kip S. Thorne
The search for the nature of space-time after Einstein's contributions in this area forms the main topic of the book. Kip Thorne describes for the layperson the details of the many discoveries about gravitation (mostly related to the properties of black holes), and quantum physics (as it relates to the measurement of gravity waves) made by physicists in the second half of the twentieth century.
Kip Thorne embeds the details of these topics in a historical context, documenting the usual conflicts, camaraderie and sense of wonder that exist among all scientists. The different personalities are almost as interesting as the science itself. Ranks as one of the most interesting popular science books I've read. Some of the attempts at presenting a `science fiction' viewpoint of a particular phenomena mostly fall flat pedagogically but these instances are few and far between.
Kip Thorne has co-authored with Charles W. Misner and John Archibald Wheeler a seminal textbook about gravitational physics called "Gravitation". He is the Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics at CalTech.
This book is somewhat similar in content but far greater in scope, the details covered and in readability when compared to "A Brief History of Time" by Stephen Hawking.
%T Black Holes and Time Warps %T :Einstein's Outrageous Legacy %A Kip S. Thorne %I W. W. Norton and Company %D 1994 %G ISBN: 0393312763 %P 619 %K science, cosmology
Review written: 1999/07/10
July 26, 2004
News from Tartary: a Journey from Peking to Kashmir by Peter Fleming
This book describes a trip made in 1935 by the author from Peking to Kashmir through Xinjiang or Chinese Turkistan (what used to be called Tartary). This is a book for those interested in `Great Game' history where Central Asia was the place of intrigue between Russia and the British Empire. There is some interesting political information, often missing from history books, embedded in this travelogue. The uneven writing can perhaps be attributed to the fact that Peter Fleming had to fund his trip by sending regular dispatches to newspapers in London.
Circumstances early on dictate that he has to travel with Ella 'Kini' Maillart, a young Swiss journalist. Kini's addition makes the story more interesting, not only because neither of them wished a travel companion preferring their own company, but also because she was a woman traveler and journalist in a time and place when this was not common. One desire I was left with after reading this book was to read her account of the same trip (published in 1937 as "Forbidden journey: from Peking to Kashmir"; Translated from the French by Thomas McGreevy).
Most of the early part of the book is spent describing the struggle with the `inscrutable oriental' bureaucracy. Since their trip was contingent on the deception of the authorities it wasn't clear to me that the obstacles the various Chinese officials placed in their way was of healthy spite or knowledge of their deception which they could hardly be happy about.
Peter Fleming when he is successful at his writing reminds me strongly of authors like P. G. Wodehouse (who he mentions favorably in this book). Here is an example:
I have travelled fairly widely in `Communist Russia' (where they supplied me with the inverted commas): and I have seen a good deal of Japanese Imperialism on the Asiatic mainland. I like the Russians and the Japanese enormously; and I have been equally rude to both. I say this because I know that to read a propagandist, a man with vested intellectual interests, is as dull as dining with a vegetarian.
Despite his protests to the contrary, Fleming is anti-Russian (a common British sentiment at the time) and shows naive surprise that some of the natives treat the British along with the Russians and the Japanese as equal imperialist threats. In my view, there is little to distinguish British aggression from Russian in this region, although transgressions by the Russians have been more faithfully recorded by historians. He is also virulently abusive to his Uighur guides complete with a great deal of racist invective which is quite jarring with his otherwise debonair attitude.
Peter Fleming is Ian Fleming's older brother; less famous than Ian now ever since the James Bond movie franchise took off, but considerably more famous than Ian when he wrote this book. For more on Ian and Peter Fleming, read Ian Fleming's biography.
For more information about Ella (Kini) Maillart
%T News from Tartary %T :a Journey from Peking to Kashmir %A Peter Fleming %I The Marlboro Press/Northwestern %D 1999 %D :originally published 1936 by Charles Scribner's Sons, New York %G ISBN: 0810160714 (pb) %P 384 %K travel
Review written: 2000/01/02
June 29, 2004
Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks
Nothing like a good space opera fix.
A broth of a book - not particularly bright, but great fun to be with, the life and soul of the party. Rather a Brian Blessed sort of book.
Iain M. Banks
Bora Horza Gobuchul hates machines. Not all machines, just the sentient kind and only for what they represent. He likes the fallibility, the irrational nature and most importantly the social inequalities of the more flawed biological species in the galaxy. He lives in a utopian society, called the Culture, where self-expression and good taste have replaced commerce and industry, but Horza stands against everything that the Culture represents. He considers them fruity, hypocritical and completely dependent on annoyingly superior sentient machines called Minds.
The Idirans, on the other hand, conquer the species they considered inferior and subjugate them into their righteous religious empire. Following their Faith, the immortal Idirans continue to fight and expand until this philosophy brings them in furious contact with the Culture who engage them in war on a matter of principle.
Horza makes his choice. He decides use his Changer status (he is a kind of changeling) to work with the Idirans. His assignment is to capture a Culture Mind that is trapped on a neutral planet which is off-limits to both parties. Nothing, of course, goes as planned ...
Consider Phlebas is the first of the Culture books, and you actually learn a lot about the Culture from it. You can learn it from an antagonistic standpoint too - the main character Horza hates the Culture. That was me trying not to make it boring for the reader. By writing from the point of view of someone who was fighting against it, I made it more interesting for me and, I hope, the reader as well.
Iain M. Banks
The Culture is a posthuman utopian society that forms the basis for one the best space opera series around. The books are never actually about the utopian part of society. The plots concentrate on the dystopian penumbra of the Culture: the department of Special Circumstances and its interactions with the other less utopian societies in the galaxy.
It is not as slick as some of the later Culture books like "Use of Weapons". But you can clearly see incipient ideas for the remaining novels in this book -- for instance the plot of "Player of Games" is prefigured in one part of this book. If you've read a few Culture novels and are wondering if this book is worth tracking down -- it is.
For an exegesis of the title of this book: "Consider Phlebas", taken from the poem "The Wastelands" by T.S. Eliot, read my discussion of another novel by Iain M. Banks called "Look to Windward".
I took the quotes shown here by Iain M. Banks from an interview with the author at the Culture Shock web site which is an excellent resource on the writings of Iain Banks (with the M. and without).
%T Consider Phlebas %A Iain M. Banks %I Orbit %D 1987 %G ISBN: 1857231384 (pb) %P 471 %K science-fiction
Review written: 1999/12/14
June 25, 2004
The Man who knew Infinity: a life of the genius Ramanujan by Robert Kanigel
You might think: what would a science writer living in Baltimore know about how to present the life of a South Indian mathematical genius who traveled to England from India in the early 1900s.
You might think: how would anyone understand the psyche and the drives behind a person who was born into a demon-haunted late 19th century and was so enamoured with mathematics that he left to go to a completely alien place where even the food was not palatable.
You might think: perhaps this biography of Ramanujan will ignore his own story to concentrate on the more accessible lives of the famous Cambridge mathematicians like Hardy.
You might think: how can anyone make us understand why Ramanujan eventually died at an early age succumbing to tuberculosis; remaining a vegetarian in war-torn England even when he was consumed by malnutrition.
Well, think again.
This book is a tour-de-force in science writing. It is amazingly detailed in every aspect and Kanigel could not have done a better job if he was channeling Ramanujan himself. Kanigel is obviously fond of Ramanujan having spent so much time documenting his life, but he also has the necessary external point of view in many places which makes you thankful that this is not a mere hagiographic survey.
The math is dumbed down a bit as is necessary for a mass market book like this. However, the explanations of Ramanujan's math exploits are usually done well. At least interesting stories are not eliminated altogether because the math was be too hard to explain.
Here is one (non-mathematical) story from the book:
Even the prevalence of body odours among the English mystified him -- until, the story goes, one day he was enlightened about it at a tea party. A woman was complaining that the problem with the working classes was that they failed to bathe enough, sometimes not even once a week. Seeing disgust writ large on Ramanujan's face, she moved to reassure him that the Englishmen he met were sure to bathe daily. "You mean," he asked, "you bathe only once a day?"
%T The Man who knew Infinity %T :a life of the genius Ramanujan %A Robert Kanigel %I Washington Square Press %D 1991 %G ISBN: 0671750615 %P 438 %K mathematics, biography
Review written: 1999/08/04
The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax by Geoffrey Pullum
This is a collection of 23 essays written by Geoff Pullum which originally appeared in the `TOPIC ... COMMENT' column in the journal `Natural Language and Linguistic Theory'. Pullum's columns ran in NLLT for six years. If you have ever read a paper on linguistics (published after 1950) then this book is required reading.
Pullum's essays are organized into four broad sections:
- `Fashions and Tendencies' which contains essays about the practice of linguistics, for example in "Formal Linguistics meets the Boojum" he parodies the strange retreat from formalisms in formal linguistics.
- `Publication and Damnation' consists of essays about the day to day work of working linguists who spend their days "Stalking the perfect journal".
- `Unscientific Behaviour' catalogs among other topics how the subject of whether natural language is contained within the set of context-free languages was explored by linguists (in "Footloose and Context-Free") and how certain myths about language have a life of their own (in the eponymous "The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax").
- Finally, `Linguistic Fantasies' contains a loosely connected set of essays including a list of science fiction books about linguistics (in "Some lists of things about books") and a fascinating fictional(?) tale of how one linguistics book was written (in "The incident of the node vortex problem").
The subtitle of the book promises "Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language" and it delivers. You can find current writings by Geoff Pullum on similar topics appearing on the language log.
%T The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax %T :And Other Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language %A Geoffrey K. Pullum %I The University of Chicago Press %D 1991 %G ISBN: 0226685330 (hc) %G ISBN: 0226685349 (pb) %P 236 %K science, linguistics
Review written: 1999/08/02
June 16, 2004
The Fall of a Sparrow by Salim Ali
Salim Ali is the most famous ornithologist in India. He has won almost every science award in India and quite a few from outside the country as well. He won the J. Paul Getty Wildlife Conservation Prize in 1975 for seminal contributions to natural history. His "Book of Indian Birds" is perhaps still the best resource for birdwatchers in the Indian subcontinent.
This book is his autobiography along with a few essays where he expounds on the marvels of birdwatching. I am used to reading only biographies of scientists, so it is a strange experience to listen to Salim Ali's exploits in the first person. I was amazed at how interesting this book was to me, since I have never been interested in ornithology. Apart from the science, this book intersects with an interesting part of Indian history as well. From his birth in 1914 to his career as a professional birdwatcher in the post-colonial 1950s. His memoirs move from Bombay (Dhobi Talao!) to Burma, from Germany to Hyderabad, from Afghanistan to the Himalayas and from Central India to motorcycling in Europe.
Here is an excerpt:
In my later days it has somehow been generally taken for granted that because I like birds I am bound to be revolted by the thought of anyone killing a bird, leave alone thinking of killing a bird myself. This assumption is far from correct, and it sometimes puts me in embarassing situations. It is true that I despise purposeless killing, and regard it as an act of vandalism deserving the severest condemnation. By my love of birds is not of the sentimental variety. It is essentially aesthetic and scientific, and in some cases may even be pragmatic. For a scientific approach to bird study it is often necessary to sacrifice a few. I do not enjoy the killing, and sometimes even suffer a prick of conscience...
%T The Fall of a Sparrow %A Salim Ali %I Oxford University Press %D 1985 %G ISBN: 0195621271 %P 265 %K science, ornithology
Review written: 1999/08/04
June 10, 2004
The Forge of God by Greg Bear
Greg Bear takes the stereotypical `Invasion from outer space' theme and treats it with a novel hard-sf point of view. It has several original thoughts about such an invasion, but there isn't enough story there to justify the length of the book. It reads more like a prequel to another book (this is the first book in a trilogy). Some of the interesting technologies used in the plot include Von-Neumann style self-replicating robots as well as some interesting (borrowed) ideas about a generative formal grammar for speciation, similar to the quasi-species model of Manfred Eigen (the original paper was published in Naturwissenschaften. 1971. Vol.58. P. 465).
This is the kind of book that might be interesting to you if you've ever wondered if a high-brow version of "Independence Day" was possible. Since this is a novel, you should expect more logic than a summer offering from Hollywood, but don't expect much more than some light summer reading.
The plot meanders along at a pace that is too measured for this kind of novel. Too many characters are introduced with the hope that the magnitude of the events can be portrayed through them, but this attempt fails. However, interesting things keep happening long after you think that the rest of the book is going to be predictable.
Some of the same game-theoretic themes about the rationale for genocide at a planetary scale are explored in somewhat greater detail in "The Killing Star" by Charles Pellegrino and George Zebrowski and the Beserker series of novels by Fred Saberhagen.
%T The Forge of God %A Greg Bear %I Tor Books %D 1987 %G ISBN: 0312930216 (hc) %G ISBN: 0812524330 (pb) %P 474 %K science-fiction
Review written: 1999/07/10
June 09, 2004
Feersum Endjinn by Iain M. Banks
A cosmic dust cloud called the Encroachment threatens all life on Earth while two factions fight to control what might be the only escape route. At the same time the data corpus and virtual reality environment called the Crypt is threatened by an unknown force called the chaos (the so-called Fearsome Engine of the title).
Banks' bizarre vision of virtual reality, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology and biological engineering takes a bit getting used to. To compound the difficulty, one of the main characters who talks in the first person entirely uses a pseudo-phonetic script throughout the book. An example is given below.
They reckin u can c the c from thi veri hiest hites of thi habitabil castle, but tho I seen this screend I nevir seen it wif ma own Is.
However, once you meet Banks half-way, the ride through this novel is an well worth it. Highly recommended if you are already an Iain M. Banks fan. If this is your first Iain M. Banks novel, then drop it and pick up "Use of Weapons" or "Consider Phlebas" before this one.
Banks has an interesting take on the intersection of a virtual reality environment with the base-reality. He makes the real-time in the Crypt to be much faster than the real-time in the outside world so a month inside the Crypt corresponds to a few minutes in the base reality, which is the exact reverse in other books, like for example, "Permutation City" by Greg Egan.
For the Iain M. Banks regulars, in a way similar to "Against a Dark Background", this novel this is not a Culture novel but unlike that book this is not a space adventure novel. Although it might perhaps represent an incipient Culture called the Diaspora.
%T Feersum Endjinn %A Iain M. Banks %I Bantam Books %D 1994 %G ISBN: 0553374591 %P 279 %K science-fiction
Review written: 1999/08/04
May 17, 2004
QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter by Richard P. Feynman
The QED in the title stands for Quantum Electrodynamics and this is a book explaining this physical theory which underlies phenomena as diverse as heat, magnetism, electricity, light, X-rays, ultraviolet rays, indices of refraction and coefficients of refraction among other properties.
This book has the clearest descriptions and explanations of the so-called wave-particle duality that I have read. It is not as easy to read as Feynman's other book of lectures "The Character of Physical Law", however the payoff is greater as well. By the end of this book you might just get a real feeling of exactly how counter-intuitive Nature can be.
This book is a transcription of four lectures given by Feynman at UCLA to a non-expert audience. However, Feynman does not pull any punches and does not dilute the subject matter to the point that it becomes vacuous. By the end of the book, you are actually comfortable with his non-notational method of computing the probability of photon transmissions.
Feynman's style is as usual conversational and informal, although the figures and the text do not flow together very well since each figure has a detailed description of its own and it feels like it was added later as an afterthought even though the text refer to the figures often. This is perhaps a side-effect of this book being transcriptions of the original lectures.
%T QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter %A Richard P. Feynman %I Princeton Science Library %D 1985 %G ISBN: 0691083886 (hc) %G ISBN: 0691024170 (pb) %P 158 %K science, physics
Review written: 1999/07/26
May 15, 2004
Axiomatic by Greg Egan
A collection of short stories. Very enjoyable, but not as consistently good overall as "Luminous", another collection of short stories by Greg Egan.
My favorites in this collection were:
- "The Hundred Light-Year Diary", which uses the interesting premise that time will run in reverse when the universe contracts. This premise was proven to be false by Hawking, I believe, since the story was published;
- "The Caress", which combines bio-engineering with art history (the story takes its name from an 1896 painting by the Belgian symbolist artist Fernand Khnopff);
- "Seeing", an interesting neuroscientific speculation about visual processing in the brain.
- Also, "A Kidnapping" fore shadows some of the plot elements that he used later in "Permutation City".
%T Axiomatic %A Greg Egan %I HarperPrism %D 1997 %G ISBN: 0061052655 %P 293 %K science-fiction
Review written: circa 1999
May 12, 2004
The Decipherment of Linear B by John Chadwick
In the year 1900, archaeologist Arthur Evans discovered several clay tablets at Knossos in Crete with writing in an unknown script. Civilization in Crete (named Minoan after its legendary ruler) was at the time (well before the late Bronze Age) more advanced than Greece. Legend tells of Athens' subjection to King Minos of Crete. The tablets of Minoan writing went through distinct historical changes: there was an early `heiroglypic' writing, then the script matured into pictorial signs called Linear A, which then was replaced by a modified form called Linear B. This book is the story of how the tablets in the Linear B script were read.
The Minoans were not Greek and spoke the Cypriot language and so the established hypothesis was that there was some relation between Linear A and B and the Cypriot script. The Cypriot script did play a role but amazingly enough, an outsider to the field: Michael Ventris, showed using some novel cryptographic techniques (described in detail in this book) that the language in Linear B was in fact a Mycenaean dialect of Greek.
Chadwick an early supporter of Ventris explains the method and the results in accessible detail. Some of Chadwick's early discussion of the background is quite muddled, which is unfortunate since this book is best single source for this information. The decipherment process itself as documented here is an intellectual treat.
Also amazing is the story of the decipherer: Michael Ventris. Born in 1922, he studied to be an architect in London and after earning his diploma worked on the design on new schools. Meanwhile, in 1952 he claimed to have discovered the key to the Minoan script (amazingly the first decipherment of the Mayan script also occured in 1952, see "Breaking the Maya Code"). Since he was an outsider to the field, and his views were contrary to the academic establishment his views were vindicated by his peers only by 1955. Soon after his theory became accepted, while driving home alone one night his car collided with a lorry, and he was killed instantly. He was 34 years old.
This book is a lite version of the book John Chadwick co-authored with Michael Ventris called "Documents in Mycenaean Greek" (Cambridge University Press, 1956).
%T The Decipherment of Linear B %A John Chadwick %I Cambridge University Press %D 1958 %G ISBN: 0521398304 %P 164 %K science, linguistics
Review written: 1999/08/09
May 11, 2004
Breaking the Maya Code by Michael D. Coe
Like a lot of good science books, this book is a good detective story. The ancient Mayan language in written form was found on several ruins in South America in the 18th century but these inscriptions were not read until the 1950s. This book is the story of this decipherment. The subject matter of writing systems and Mayans is quite a challenge to present in a pedagogically sound way, but Michael Coe is thankfully competent enough to tell this story. And he tells it very well indeed.
Coe's introduction to writing systems in general (in Chapter 1: The Word made Visible) is extremely well written. As an aside: for some new work on the topic of writing systems there is a book coming out in 1999 by Richard Sproat ("A Computational Theory of Writing Systems": Cambridge University Press) which tries to give a general theory that covers all known writing systems.
Coe also gives a reasonable insight into the ancient Mayans (he also has another book devoted entirely to this subject) although reading up on the Mayans before reading this book is perhaps a good idea (if you haven't already suffered through several idiotic documentaries about the Mayan astronauts).
There are many surprises in the story (as it should be in a good detective story). It is inconceivable that scholars for more than 200 years preferred theories about the Mayan language involving mythical lands such as Atlantis rather than accepting that the people living there now spoke essentially the same language as the Mayans. Even more surprising that although the ruins were discovered in the late 1700s, only in 1952 the first beginnings of a real decipherment was accomplished by Yuri Knorosov in an article published in `Sovietskaya-Etnografiya' (despite Stalin's stifling influence on the content of this and other journals of the time).
Further reading in this topic includes "Understanding Maya Inscriptions: A Hieroglyph Handbook" by John F. Harris and Stephen K. Stearns and "The Decipherment of Linear B" by John Chadwick.
%T Breaking the Maya Code %A Michael D. Coe %I Thames and Hudson %D 1992 %G ISBN: 0500277214 %P 304 %K science, linguistics
Review written: 1999/08/04
May 09, 2004
Permutation City by Greg Egan
The blurb on the back of the book proclaims it to be a book about virtual reality. This is misleading: its about more than just another stereotypical cyberpunk retread.
Artificial life, cellular automata, Turing machines, aliens that are not alien at all, the anthropic principle and some metaphysics about solipsism are thrown into the plot for good measure.
Greg Egan is most comfortable playing with speculative physics which he combines here with extrapolations about self-replicating software. Greg Egan's personal web site contains Java applets (!) to explain his more mathematical speculations. His later novels such as "Diaspora" and "Schild's Ladder" are very similar in their indulgence in his special brand of speculative physics and healthy contempt for those who dislike the addition of mathematical recreations to fiction.
Some of the ideas here have been explored by Greg Egan in some of his short stories. For example, the virtual reality parts of this book have been used in "The Kidnapping" (in his short story collection "Axiomatic"). And his `Dust' theory has also been explored in an earlier short story.
Update 2004/05/18: A lot of the material is drawn from the various uses of cellular automata in models of complex systems in physics, such as those associated with the Santa Fe institute on the study of complexity. These models have appeared in sf before, e.g. "Moving Mars" by Greg Bear (published 1993). However, in this novel Greg Egan turns this set of models into generative devices and as such the ideas in this novel might actually prefigure the discussion in Wolfram's book about the relevance of cellular automata in particular and computer science in general to all fields of scientific inquiry. In fact, Greg Egan has written a review of Wolfram's book (also on his personal web page).
Link: Greg Egan's web page. (Warning: loads up some Java applets).
%T Permutation City %A Greg Egan %I HarperPrism %D 1994 %G ISBN: 006105481X %P 340 %K science-fiction
Review written: 1999/08/04
May 06, 2004
Lost Moon by Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger
Pure lunacy. The story of getting a crippled spacecraft headed for the moon back to earth safely.
Reading about the Apollo 13 disaster in this book strangely had the opposite effect to what I was expecting. The story is not about heroism or miracles but rather about training, design and expertise which surprisingly turns out to be much more interesting.
This is a must-read for anyone interested in space travel since few other books describe it in such fascinating detail. Even though Jim Lovell is one of the authors, the presentation is in the third person since there are many viewpoints from which the story had to be told. So it is less of a memoir and more of an honest journal of the events (although there is a great story about Lovell in his early days trying to dead-reckon his way at night without instrumentation onto the deck of a carrier). In fact, the astronauts were (understandably) petulant during most of the trip home often losing their patience with the ground crew. Also interesting is the fact that amateur astronomers would try and pin-point the location of the Apollo spacecraft by trying to locate condensed urine streams.
Of course, most people since the release of the movie about Apollo 13 will not consider reading the book. The movie does help in visualising many details about the spacecraft, but the details in the book were not reflected in the movie. Also, there were many places where the movie where the facts were distorted, I assume, for dramatic effect. Ken Mattingly, the astronaut who was not allowed to fly due to a predicted attack of the measles is given a much larger role in the movie at the expense of the real people (John Aaron and Arnie Aldrich) who solved the problem of powering up the command module.
%T Lost Moon %T :The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13 %A Jim Lovell %A Jeffrey Kluger %I Houghton Mifflin and Company %D 1994 %G ISBN: 0395670292 %P 378 %K science, spaceflight
Review written: 1999/07/20
March 19, 2004
The Night is Large: Collected Essays, 1938-1995 by Martin Gardner
Martin Gardner, of course, is famous for his mathematical recreation columns in Scientific American. He is also famous for the Annotated Alice books.
This is a collection of 47 essays spanning almost 70 years. The essays have some recurring themes which is either good or bad depending on whether you agree with Gardner's treatment of these themes.
For instance, he defends Platonic mathematical realism in many of his essays ("Mathematics and the Folkways", "How not to talk about Mathematics", "Computers near the Threshold ?", among others), defending it from the view that mathematics or any science as a purely solipsist human construct without any reality outside human brains. It is hard not to sympathize with this view for any person remotely connected with scientific activity. However, the controversy was still alive and well in the late 1990s, see The Sokal Hoax for more on this debate. But in none of his essays that deal with this issue does Gardner address any of the arguments that are put forth by other kinds of mathematicians like intuitionists or formalists. In fact, in defending the Lucas-Penrose arguments he also defends a narrow Platonist view that a mathematician can see, without proof, that certain statements of mathematics are true, which can then be used to see that certain artifacts like thinking machines are impossible. For more on this issue from another point of view read the essay by Edward Nelson called "Mathematics and the Mind" (available from Edward Nelson's web page).
Another common theme is the debunking of the fringe pseudosciences or other untenable positions. Since none of these were particularly controversial, these essays were not so interesting to me. Many of arguments used I had seen before. However, there were some essays in this theme which were novel and which I enjoyed, for instance, "The Laffer Curve" which talks about various half-truths that lie behind supply-side economics and the role of tax-cuts to rejuvenate the economy, which is a topic that seems to be one of the central dividing lines between left and right in politics.
In "WAP, SAP, PAP and FAP" Gardner takes on the proponents of the anthropic principle, and also "The Curious Mind of Allan Bloom" and "The Strange Case of Robert Maynard Hutchins" where the motivations behind a couple of tirades against the neglect of the `Great Books' of the western world in modern universities are explored with great dispatch.
Other enjoyable essays about literature and language were "The Irrelevance of Conan Doyle", "Lewis Carroll and his Alice books" , "H.G. Wells in Russia", "Coleridge and The Ancient Mariner", "Puzzles in Ulysses" (about James Joyce's penchant for wordplay) and "The Royal Historian of Oz" (Gardner wrote one of the first biographical essays about L. Frank Baum). These essays were very informative, although Gardner lacks Borges' flair for talking about literature. Also it is interesting that Gardner treats Lewis Carroll with the same cultural relativism that he argues against elsewhere (in "Beyond Cultural Relativism").
One common theme which I found particularly annoying was Gardner's belief which he is not shy to state as a fact, that there are some mysteries such as the nature of time ("Can Time Stop? The Past Change?"), or the nature of consciousness and `free will' ("The Mystery of Free Will", and "Computers near the Threshold?") which according to Gardner can never be discovered by puny human brains. Note that Gardner supports Penrose, even though what Penrose is saying is not that a theory of consciousness can never be discovered but that all will be explained when Penrose will discover how quantum mechanics relates to this issue. The Mysterians can only stand up, nay-say for a while, and then sit down and let the people working on these `unsolvable' problems continue with their work.
The back of this book has quotes from Noam Chomsky, Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, Raymond Smullyan, Douglas Hofstader and Arthur C. Clarke praising Martin Gardner and this book. High praise indeed.
%T The Night is Large %T :Collected Essays, 1938-1995 %A Martin Gardner %I St. Martins Press %D 1996 %G ISBN: 031214380X %P 586 %K science, philosophy
Review written: 1999/08/01
February 04, 2004
Luminous by Greg Egan
A collection of short stories by one of the best science fiction authors of the 1990s. I found the following stories in this collection to be particularly interesting:
- "Mister Volition", which brings to life (literally) a theory of consciousness attributed in parts to Marvin Minsky and Daniel Dennett;
- "Luminous", which deals with industrial espionage and number theory(!);
- "Reasons to be Cheerful", a neuroscience fable about the control of your own emotions and what that entails.
The short stories published by authors in various rags are the hidden store of ideas for the larger and more onerous novels that germinate from them, mostly for the lucrative rewards. Only a fraction of the interesting ideas that Greg Egan explores in his short fiction have made it into his novels. It's time to get in on the ground floor ...
%T Luminous %A Greg Egan %I Millennium %D 1998 %G ISBN: 1857985516 %P 288 %K science-fiction
Review written: circa 1999
January 30, 2004
Battle Royale by Koushun Takami
42 students remaining.
42 students from Shiroiwa Junior High School awake on an island. They are told that they are involuntary participants in a game, a game in which they each get a randomly assigned weapon there can be only one survivor.
At first glance, it seems to be a thinly disguised version of the "Lord of the Flies". But the underlying motivation for the setting seems to be quite different. While "Lord of the Flies" was about human nature, this work is about politics. The story is set in the year 1997, not in contemporary Japan, but a Japan that is part of a brutal dictatorship, called the Republic of Greater East Asia, a thinly disguised reference to the Greater Asia Prosperity Sphere that the Japanese Empire wanted to create in the years leading upto the Second World War. In this novel, America is an enemy state, which implies that the novel is set in an alternate history where Japan did not lose in the Second World War.
Unlike Germany after 1945, many observers of Japanese culture have commented that Japan has been hesitant in acknowledging the atrocities committed during the war. This denial is especially true in school textbooks, which leads to the premise of this book. It seems as if it is only in the fringes of Japanese pop culture, in novels like these and Yakuza "exploitation" movies, has this issue been addressed at all. The mainstream culture, directly or indirectly via post-apocalyptic plotlines, is usually transfixed by the horrors of the atomic bombs.
In keeping with the tradition of exploitation movies, the style of the writing, intentionally or not, is extremely melodramatic, from the dialogue to the dated and much too sincere references to rock and roll music as a clarion call for freedom (in this case, from the state, not your parents). What is clearly intentional is the violence, not unfamiliar to those exposed to Yakuza movies, but in this setting intended to create a controversy. This it did, in Japan, but only when the movie based on this book was released. The over-sincere writing and the neat plot twists in the ending jars with the rest of the novel, and is contrary to the cynicism that is usually part of the genre.
%A Koushun Takami %T Battle Royale %I Viz, LLC %P 616 %D 1999 %D :english translation 2003, by Yuji Oniki %G ISBN: 156931778X (pb) %K science-fiction
Review written: circa 2003
January 26, 2004
Boardinghouse Nevermore by Robert Musil
In the short story Boardinghouse Nevermore, Robert Musil writes:
How revolting are the words harmony, symmetry, perfection, noble bearing! We have stuffed them so full of meaning, they stand before us like fat women on tiny feet and cannot even move.
If Musil had a blog, perhaps he would use a title that he has used before: Ill-Tempered Observations. Good name for a blog, isn't it.
January 21, 2004
Trouble and her friends by Melissa Scott
On the surface, it seems like any other cyberpunk novel. There is a lot of 'jacking in' to the net, and characters use sight, smell, sound and emotions to navigate the network. However, there is something more here: the main focus of the book is the cracker/hacker subculture which is explored with obvious appreciation. The tensions between crackers and the authorities forms the main backdrop. This atmosphere is a somewhat obvious metaphor for gender and sexuality issues, but this aspect is not overbearing or falsely sincere.
Most visual descriptions of the net in cyberpunk (especially William Gibson) betray lack of understanding of basic network protocols. Not so in this book. The descriptions of navigating the net are impressively original, extrapolating and borrowing from non-fiction books about the contemporary net (some of the inspiration seems to come from "The Cuckoo's Egg" by Clifford Stoll, the real-life story of a sysadmin tracking down some crackers from Germany).
On the downside, there isn't much of a plot, the Wild West analogies get a bit tiring after a while and it could easily have been about seventy pages shorter, but these are minor points.
%T Trouble and her friends %A Melissa Scott %I Tor Books %D 1994 %G ISBN: 0312857330 (hc) %G ISBN: 0812522133 (pb) %P 379 %K science-fiction
Review written: circa 2000
January 13, 2004
Schismatrix Plus by Bruce Sterling
Life moves in clades. A clade is a daughter species, a related descendant. It's happened to other successful animals, and now it's humanity's turn. The factions still struggle, but the categories are breaking up. No faction can claim the one true destiny for mankind. Mankind no longer exists.
A collection of short stories and a novella called "Schismatrix" written by Bruce Sterling in the early 80s. All the stories are set in a common future universe where the human species has cleaved into the Shapers and the Mechanists. The Shapers have "reshaped" themselves through genetic engineering, adopting such enhancements as superior intelligence, longevity and odor-free perspiration. In the other corner lurk the Mechanists, who prefer to gradually replace their mortal flesh with prosthetic limbs and artificial organs. Both factions have colonized the solar system and most of the actions takes place off-earth on the various orbital conglomerates.
It was not entirely clear why the schism had developed, but as established it provides a Cold War setting (this was written in the 80s) but also a setting for the kind of political science-fiction that Sterling has in mind where there is no pause from technological and social change. Everybody has to change constantly, or become obsolete.
I am thankful for the inclusion of the short stories which are set in the same logical universe. Sterling is stronger when writing short fiction and there are some gems in this collection.
An especially good short story in this collection is "Swarm" where the hoary cliche of a hive-like alien species is handled with renewed vigor and with a bold moral about intelligent life.
I also liked "Spider Rose" and "Cicada Queen" for their wonderful post-human characters.
Here are the list of short stories in this collection (along with original publication dates):
- Swarm First published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, 1982.
- Spider Rose First published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, 1982.
- Cicada Queen First published in Universe 13, 1983.
- Sunken Gardens First published in Omni, 1984.
- Twenty Evocations First published in Interzone, 1984.
Thematically similar cousins of these short stories are the `Near-Space' stories by Allen Steele (e.g. "Sex and Violence in Zero-G") and "Vacuum Flowers" by Michael Swanwick.
%T Schismatrix Plus %T :Includes Schismatrix and Selected Stories from Crystal Express %A Bruce Sterling %I Ace Books %D 1996 %G ISBN: 0441003702 %P 304 %K science-fiction
Review written: 2000/05/02
January 12, 2004
Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
The plot itself is one part cyberpunk (an `homage' to William Gibson), and three parts techno-fiction (sf with detailed descriptions of technological artifacts and gadgets). The prose is fast and flashy and almost distracts you from the central premise which is ludicrous and betrays lack of knowledge in both neuroscience and linguistics. The continual comparisions of the human brain to a von Neumann computational architecture and the oversimplification of descriptions of software get to be a bit annoying.
On the other hand, it is extremely enjoyable to read especially if you like techno-fiction and are in the mood for some tongue-in-cheek cyberpunk. This is some pretty good head-candy.
This book is always hailed as being seminal and I had some trouble figuring out why. The only answer that comes to mind is that the good hard-sf before Stephenson were usually writing about speculative physics. The ranks of hard-sf were filled with people from hard science backgrounds. Stephenson was one of the first group of people with computer science background to delve into the field of science-fiction (yes, Vernor Vinge and Rudy Rucker were there first, but somehow were not read widely at the time and only associated with the cyberpunk revolution much later; the other two: William Gibson and Bruce Sterling do not have a CS background). What makes Stephenson especially compelling is that he is one of the first sf authors who really extrapolates the information age. `Intel' is everything where access to information is equal to intelligence.
Whatever its merits, this book is a lot of fun to read. The basic plot point of a neuro-linguistic virus was already explored by Samuel Delany in his 1966 novel "Babel-17". However, Stephenson's book is a much more enjoyable read.
At least after reading this book you will know which sf book inspired the idiotic skate-boarding scene in the movie "Hackers".
%T Snow Crash %A Neal Stephenson %I Bantam Books %D 1992 %G ISBN: 055308853X (hc) %G ISBN: 0553562614 (pb) %P 440 %K science-fiction
Review written: 1999/08/24
December 03, 2003
Distress by Greg Egan
This novel combines many different hard-sf genre elements like bio-engineering, cyberpunk and nanotech, but the main plot thread deals with the so-called anthropic principle and the Theory of Everything.
In taking up the anthropic principle, Greg Egan addresses the inherent problems in that conjecture and uses his fiction to explain how these might be resolved. And he does give an interesting take on this topic. But in the end, in my judgement, all that Greg Egan seems to accomplish in this novel is to impress how absurd the anthropic principle really is. The discussion of the anthropic principle in his short story "Wang's Carpets" was much more interesting. For more information about the anthropic principle see Martin Gardner's essay "WAP, SAP, PAP, and FAP" (in his book "The Night is Large").
The main problem with this book is that Greg Egan has written it before. The plot here is a retread of many plot elements from his earlier "Quarantine". I also thought that "Quarantine" was a much better book, explaining and using the philosophical import of quantum mechanics in a much more sensible way.
Also, Greg Egan seems to be extremely fascinated with cults. They form the main plot device in this novel and in many of his short stories.
%T Distress %A Greg Egan %I HarperPrism %D 1995 %G ISBN: 0061052647 (hc) %G ISBN: 0061057274 (pb) %P 342 %K science-fiction
Review written: 1999/12/21
November 16, 2003
"Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade" by Mamoru Oshii
Jin-Roh is a deceptively simple drama: a look at a resistance movement against a repressive government told through the lens of the Red Riding Hood fable. Written by Mamoru Oshii (a well-known director of famous anime, "Patlabor", "Avalon", among others), directed by Hiroyuki Okiura and produced by Production I.G.; as Oshii says, "the only way to do this was in animation".
Showa 30's, the name for the alternate history that covers the period between the end of WWII and the Tokyo olympics, as stated by Oshii, a different Japan than after the olympics. This is the setting used in Jin-Roh and it also appears in "The Red Spectacles" (Jigoku no banken: Akai megane) and "Kerberos", both earlier movies by Oshii (recently released as part of a DVD boxed set with three early Oshii movies). This period also covers the social unrest of the 60s. Jin-Roh was also in some sense an adaptation of Oshii's graphic novel "Hellhounds: Panzer Corps" (Kenrou Densetsu).
Here's a slightly edited excerpt from the essay "History's Unquiet Spirit: Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade" by Carl Gustav Horn
In [his] review of Jin-Roh, ... Mark Mays wrote for the Nashville Scene, "The forces of modernization have always tried to eliminate the bestial nature of man ... Oshii suggests that this only works if our fellow beasts will agree to that proposition. The beasts in the alternate reality of Jin-Roh believe that they can never be eliminated."
... Jin-Roh is a dark pool reflecting those very years -- more than forty years past -- that were, according to the received critical wisdom, a height to which Japanese film has never returned. But what Jin-Roh is conjuring through a chill distorted glass is what was really going on in Japan in those days -- the reality never seen in the samurai films that were winning Academy Awards.
Oshii describes Jin-Roh's alternate history as being set somewhere within the "thirties" of the long reign of the late Showa Emperor, Hirohito -- that is, between 1955 and 1965. Japan was then still a largely working-class society, and even as contemporary America by and large enjoyed the peace and prosperity of the Eisenhower, Japan was rocked by social upheaval.
Left-wing parties often made use of the pressure of strikes and massive demonstrations, among whose ranks marched a young university student someday to be known as the brilliant director of Princess Mononoke, Hayao Miyazaki. A picture survives of Miyazaki with a (naturally) hand-drawn protest sign showing a woman smacking riot police with a hammer. In Jin-Roh, as Fuse and Kei read Rotkäppchen to each other, and the camera passes over the streets outside, we see a shot of an elementary-school kid in a baseball cap. He would have been just the age of Mamoru Oshii in 1960 -- and he gazes in fascination as a protest march walks by.
But the Left faced a quick and sometimes ruthless response. That very year Oshii was a boy, perhaps cheering for the Nankai Hawks, a young neo-Nazi assassinated the head of the opposition Japanese Socialist Party, Inejiro Asanuma, on live television. Many would have said that the far right had allies in high places: the highest, even -- Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic party was led in 1960 by a convicted war criminal, Prime Minister Nobosuke Kishi, who, once back in power, had tried to give the national police the right of arbitrary arrest.
David E. Kaplan and Alec Dubro have documented how Prime Minister Kishi even proposed to mobilize in secret, with the support of Japanese organized crime, an irregular right-wing army of 30,000 counter-demonstrators to be supported with Japanese Self-Defense Force helicopters and aircraft. With all that in mind, Oshii's script, and Jin-Roh's opening sequence of street riots, bombings, and terrorists cut down by the machine guns of the government's secret death squad, the Capital Police and their Special Unit, seems not too far from real history -- or from an unresolved past.
November 03, 2003
The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe
Isaac Asimov's Hugo award winning novel "The Gods Themselves" was a collection of three stories, each with distinct characters and set apart in time and space, one even set in another universe. As Pamela Sargent points out in her afterword to this book, if only this book was presented to the sf audience as a single novel, it might have been an instant hit like Asimov's novel, rather than the sleeper it turned out to be.
Considered by many to be Gene Wolfe's best single work, this judgement is made even more impressive by the quality of Wolfe's other novels. Unlike his other novels, this is not sf disguised as fantasy, but rather straight sf with complex questions raised about individual identity and how it relates to the identity of entire civilizations. The understated tenor of the writing means that you have to pay extra attention to the details and Wolfe certainly does not pander at all, making reading this complex set of stories even more enjoyable.
The first novella in the trilogy is The Fifth Head of Cerberus, the story of a coming of age, but of a clone -- being taught his way by a robot nanny of sorts, and his brother David. By the end of the story, we are aware of the complex relationship between the planet and it's dual sister planet and the inhabitants who existed on these planets before the colonists landed. The second novella, "A Story", by John V. Marsch switches perspectives to the apparent civilization of the original aborigine inhabitants of the planets in a style that shifts between myth and history. The final novella, V.R.T., is another switch of perspective to an explorer whose diary is being closely read by a torturer (shades of Wolfe's future characters). The explorer is searching for proof of the previous inhabitants and preserves the story of his search in a travelogue.
All three novellas merge only in the details of the place, and the central theme of identity of a civilization, rather than in the characters. An impressive journey for the patient reader.
%A Gene Wolfe %T The Fifth Head of Cerberus %I Ace Books %P 277 %D 1972 %G ISBN: 1857988175 (pb) publisher: McArthur & Co %K science-fiction
October 01, 2003
The Character of Physical Law by Richard P. Feynman
An excellent peek into the pedagogical mind of the most intriguing and colorful physicist of the last century. This book contains useful explanations about the meta-language of physics and what it describes. Feynman also gives a great analogy between the Babylonian and Greek way of doing mathematics and how to use math in physics.
Feynman touches on many disparate topics ranging from the classical physics of gravitation to magnetism to quantum mechanics. His pedagogy however is driven by the following quote from the first page of the book:
What I want to discuss in this series of lectures is the general characteristic of these Physical Laws; that is another level, if you will, of higher generality over the laws themselves. ... Now such a topic has a tendency to become too philosophical because it becomes too general, and a person talks in such generalities, that everybody can understand him. It is then considered to be some deep philosophy. I would like to be rather more special, and I would like to be understood in an honest way rather than in a vague way."
This book is a transcription of Feynman's Messenger Lectures originally given at Cornell University and recorded for television by the B.B.C.
For more details on the part of this book that deals with quantum mechanics pick up another book by Feynman called "QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter".
%T The Character of Physical Law %A Richard P. Feynman %I MIT Press %D 1967 %G ISBN: 0262560038 (pb) %G ISBN: 0679601279 (hc) %P 173 %K science, physics
Review written: 2000/04/04