Guess what time it is kids? It’s time for yet another round of my rapid fire book reviews.
Btw, I’m quite astonished how many geeks out there don’t actually read books. I have talked to many people who were otherwise perfectly normal: into science fiction, video games, tabletop games, anime and etc. But when I asked them for book recommendations I quickly realized that they were mostly persisting on a diet composed of technical books, magazines and graphic novels. What gives? When I was growing up, reading real books was absolutely crucial. Not knowing your Tolkien and your Herbert was unthinkable. Terry Pratchet and Douglas Adams were almost as frequently quoted at the gaming table as Monty Python skits. How is this no longer part of being a geek? I hate to sound like the after school special here, but reading is good for the branes! It makes them think good!
Singularity Sky by Charles Stross
I absolutely loved Glasshouse so I decided to pick up another book by Charlie Stross. Btw, the man has a blog and he can be quite funny at times. He seems to be quite internet savvy, so I’m surprised he actually titled one of his upcoming books Rule 34. Should we tell him what it means? Or maybe he already knows and this is intentional? Anyway, I digress.
Singularity Sky is built around a very interesting concept: what happens when two civilizations, one low tech, one high-post-singularity-tech come together and start trading. The New Republic is a multiple-world nation that exists in a galactic civilization. It was established by neo-Luddites who ban most forms of advanced technology. They try to keep their cultural and technological sophistication at around the Victorian era level. Of course they do employ some modern machinery for trade and defense. For example they do have a modern space fleet, atomic trains and etc. The idea is to use technology when and where absolutely needed, but abstain from it at all other times. Their leaders think that living without the luxuries offered by modern medicine, electronics and recreation equipment makes their people strong and pure (or something like that). Unfortunately one of New Republic colony worlds comes into contact with The Festival – a very advanced deep-space faring community. It’s members are infovores – they travel across the galaxy seeking information. They like to park themselves in an orbit of an inhabited planet and trade with it’s inhabitants. If you tell them a story they will make your fish come true. They can do that because they have advanced nano-technology that can assemble just about anything out of loose materials they mine from nearby asteroids and moons, and vast data banks full of templates for any crazy contraption you could dream up.
Unsurprisingly the shit quickly hits the fan. At first poor, downtrodden citizens of the New Republic predictably ask for things like money, gold and other riches and within days the world becomes so saturated with precious materials that they become worthless. Eventually people start asking for other things – like super powers, flying castles and (if they are smart and educated) their own cornucopia machines – nano-assemblers capable of making anything out of anything. This does not sit well with the ruling class so they decide to send a military force to wipe out the Festival and restore order.
Very interesting idea, but the book is nowhere near as good as in Glasshouse. It is a pretty decent science fiction spy novel but it seems to drag a bit in the middle, and then ends very abruptly. So you have this intense buildup leading up to a very low key, anti-climactic finale. Maybe it’s just me, but I think it would work much better in a more condensed form as a short story where the buildup wouldn’t be so prolonged and the ending wouldn’t seem so abrupt.
Still, it is definitely a good read. Stross is very imaginative and I love his vision of the future populated by post singularity AI-gods, nano nechnology, quantum entanglement communication devices and interesting take on FTL travel. If you decide to pick it up, keep in mind it is not Glasshouse. Dial your expectations at a bit below half of your Glasshouse appreciation and I think you should be fine.
Marooned in Real Time by Vernor Vinge
Vernor Vinge is the guy who sort of coined the term singularity, so not surprisingly his novel revolves about that subject. Or rather it is a book about a small group of people who have missed the singularity event completely. How do you miss it? Well, given sufficiently advanced technology you can do pretty much anything. These folks used bobbles – powerful, impenetrable and indestructible stasis fields that stop entropy and allow people to travel forward in time. You can bobble yourself up and wake up a hundred or a thousand years into the future and you won’t age a day.
Bunch of people bobble themselves up for too long overshoot the singularity event. They wake up only to realize everyone is gone. Earth is no longer inhabited and all the people (save for handful of bobbled castaways) just abruptly dissipated without any evidence of a mass migration, a world war or a globe spanning species extinction event. Everything points toward an instant technological rapture but it’s nature and mechanics are unknown to those who were left behind.
The survivors band together and bobble forward, popping up every other century to find a good time period to stop and re-start human civilization. At one point someone is trapped outside the stasis field, and perishes as the rest of humanity slumbers inside. The last cop on earth – a late twenty first century detective is hired to discover whether foul play was involved, and if yes, who did it.
The book is definitely worth reading for several reasons. Firstly it has a very interesting spin on time travel (forward only). Secondly, Vinge has really interesting things to say about technological singularity. If you are a science fiction buff and a futurist you will be interested. Thirdly, it is a pretty good detective novel – complete with Sherlock Holmes style reveal in the third act. The characters are interesting, they all have their own history, agenda and skeletons in their closet. So there is a real tangible human element attached to the ongoing singularity discussion. It makes the book a light and fast read.
Consider Phlebeas by Ian M. Banks
Ian M. Banks does not fuck around. You see, most authors grow attached to their characters and refuse to kill them unless it would make for a gut wrenching, dramatic scene in the third volume of their epic trilogy. Mr. Banks is not one of these authors. He kills main characters by truck load. Sometimes he kills them so fast that he doesn’t even have time to give them any convincing characterization. Then he introduces some new characters and kills them as well. I am serious here, this book is a bloodbath, and I was not expecting this.
It’s actually hard to describe what this book is about in just a few words. There is an ongoing war between two galaxy spanning civilizations. On one side you have the Culture: society of radical technocrats ruled by super-bright AI’s. On the other hand you have Idrians – a theocratic, expansionist alien empire. During one of the battles, one of Culture’s AI’s gets separated from his allies and takes refuge on a forbidden planet. That planet is a protectorate of a unimaginably powerful post-singularity AI-god and off limits to anyone without an invitation. Idrians however have an ace in their sleeve – they happen to employ a post-human spy who used to live on the forbidden planet, but then left in search of adventures. So they task him with locating and capturing the Culture mind so that it can be tapped for valuable intel. Of course his mission goes horribly wrong before it even starts and there are many, many casualties before he even sets out to visit the forbidden planet.
If I had to classify this book, I would call it an action-oriented space opera. It is definitely fast paced, dynamic and violent. But it is not completely devoid of cool SF ideas. For example Banks introduces the concept of Culture orbitals – I talked about them in my Megastructures post. Essentially they are huge ring-worlds that orbit a star without actually encircling it.
Basically, I loved everything about the Culture. I also liked the quite original and gruesome doomsday cult that makes a brief appearance in the second act. On the other hand I absolutely hated the whole Future-Yu-Gi-Oh card game bullshit. I don’t know – for some reason, I can’t stomach made up card games, especially when the author describes them as if they were the best thing ever. I just find these things so kitschy and contrived. I appreciate the fact that the author is trying to come up with a brand new game that would be played in the distant future, but… No, just no. Having the characters play classic games like poker, chess or go is an old and overused science fiction trope but it works far better than the alternative. Actually scratch that – no one ever uses go in that aspect. And they should – the rules are simple but the game play is incredibly deep – and it’s obscure enough that if you don’t tell people what it really is, they might even give you credit for inventing something awesome.
Not surprisingly I decided against picking up Banks’ next book set in the Culture universe because it was titled “The Player of the Game”. Guess what that book is all about? Yeah, it’s about the thing that I hated the most in Consider Phlebas.
In other words the book is a mixed bag. It’s fast paced, has some really cool ideas and some really crappy bits like the stupid card game. Banks skims a bit on characterization and so only two or three characters in a cast of about twenty or so actually have personalities or some sort of back story. Sometimes I had hard time keeping track of who just died (or walked into the room, but the former happens more often in this book), and had to flip few pages back to find out the two line description that introduced this character. All in all it is pretty readable. You can probably pick it up, and breeze through it in a few evenings even though it is actually quite thick of a volume. Take it to the beach or something. Just don’t expect anything too deep or thought provoking. Actually no, I lied. There are few philosophical bits and visionary concepts in there but they are well hidden under a mountain of dead characters and obscured by that atrocious card game thing.