Monday, September 28, 2009

You have much to teach us, Johnny 5

It is widely agreed, I think, that the most prominent technological trend generally unanticipated by science fiction is the enormous growth in computer technology.  This results in older science fiction often having technology that seems like a mismatched jumble of the astonishing and primitive: interstellar civilizations with faster-than-light travel where microfilm is the state-of-the-art in data storage is a common example.  I'm not bothered by it, but it certainly jumps out.  (And there are exceptions, including what is arguably the most prescient SF story ever- Murray Leinster's astonishing "A Logic Named Joe," which predicted home personal computers, the internet, search engines, and internet telephones.  Not bad for a story published in 1946, when a cutting-edge computer cost more than five million inflation-adjusted dollars and weighed 30 tons.)

What brought this to mind was an amusing example I was recently reminded of.   A friend of mine caught the movie Short Circuit 2 on television few days ago.  Not exactly rigorously hard science fiction, but it was, in its time, one of the more prominent popular depictions of the idea of artificial intelligence.  (And perhaps the high-water mark of the  obsession with wacky comic relief robots that loomed like a vast black shadow over much of the 1980s. )  Protagonist Johnny 5, a self-aware robot with at least human-level intellect, boasts at one point that he possesses "5oo hundred megabytes of memory."

I'm typing this on the computer I use for work and most other things writing-related.  It's a few years olds, and was not a top-end model even when it was made.  It has 160 gigabytes of memory.   I have a 1 gigabyte USB flash drive shorter than my pinky finger.  I paid about $20-30 for it a few years ago; compared to what you can get now for the same price, 1 gigabyte is nothing impressive.

A figure intended to make audiences think "amazing computer technology from a secret government lab" when I was a child is now dwarfed by cheap consumer electronics you can buy in a Wal-Mart clearance aisle and carry in your shirt pocket.  It makes me wonder what technological trends (and soical trends, for that matter) present-day science fiction is missing, and what glaring omissions will strike readers 40 years from now as the equivalent of "Wow, 500 megabytes!" or interstellar starships that calculate their trajectories with microfilm records and a slide rule.  If anyone has any guesses, I'd love to hear them.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Monday, September 21, 2009

Review: The January Dancer by Michael Flynn

I've reviewed Michael Flynn's space opera The January Dancer at BSCreview.  Check it out.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Review of Kingdom Beyond the Waves by Stephen Hunt

kingdombeyondthewavesStephen Hunt’s steampunk/fantasy novel The Court of the Air was one of the best books I read last year (see my review), so I was quite excited when the follow-up The Kingdom Beyond the Waves made its recent arrival in the United States.  It is set in the same world as its predecessor, and ideally I’d recommend reading them in order to get a better feel for Hunt’s setting, but The Kingdom Beyond the Waves is a self-contained story that works well on its own.

Like The Court of the Air, The Kingdom Beyond the Waves is set in a world where magic and steampunk technology exist side-by-side.  Sorcerers who draw energy from the ley lines of the earth exist alongside industrial mass production, steam power, airships, primitive firearms, and huge mechanical computing devices.  The focus is once again on the Kingdom of Jackals, a mercantile nation kept safe by its monopoly on the jealously guarded technology to build airships.

The story focuses on Amelia Harsh, an archaeologist who has dedicated herself to the search for lost Camlantis, a glorious ancient civilization that the academic establishment of jackals regards as a myth.  Regarded as a crank for her obsession with Camlantis, she has been shut out of academia and deprived of funding when an unexpected benefactor appears: Abraham Quest, the greatest industrialist in Jackals, a renowned philanthropist, humanitarian, and social reformer, and the man whose brilliant manipulations of the stock market led to the bankruptcy and suicide of Amelia’s father.  Amelia is reluctant to work with him, but he can offer what she has sought all her life- ancient records revealing the place where Camlantis once stood and the chance to vindicate her theories at last.

Unfortunately, what had been fabled Camlantis 10,000 years ago is now a deadly, almost impenetrable jungle filled with hostile inhuman natives, huge predatory reptiles, and the agents of a vast collective mind that rules the deepest parts of the jungle and tries to subsume anyone who wanders to close into itself.  Harsh must travel upriver into the jungle via U-boat, accompanied by her old friend Commodore Black, Quest’s force of deadly drug-enhanced foreign mercenaries, a U-boat crew recruited from convicted slavers who have been promised clemency if they survive, and a steam man jungle guide of dubious mental stability.

Into these events is drawn Cornelius Fortune, a reclusive aristocrat who lives a secret life as Furnace-Breath Nick, feared vigilante and scourge of the brutal revolutionary regime that rules Jackals’ neighbor and greatest foe, Quatershift.  When a brilliant inventor he has rescued from the prison camps of Quatershift and brought to Jackals suddenly vanishes without a trace, Fortune is confronted with deadly political machinations involving the Jackelian criminal underworld, steam man bodies vanishing from their graves, and mysterious attempts on the life of Abraham Quest.  Somehow, these events are also connected to ancient Camlantis, and both Cornelius Fortune and Amelia Harsh will have to confront the legacy left by that ancient the utopia- a legacy that could mean the death of every human being on the planet.

The Kingdom Beyond the Waves is an excellent follow-up to The Court of the Air.  Like The Court of the Air, it is very fast-paced and has lots of action, though it didn’t feel quite as frantic as its predecessor, perhaps because at least some of the concepts were already familiar to me from the previous book.  Nevertheless, the rapid progression of events, continuing revelations, and the book’s sheer volume of creative ideas give the book the same manic quality that I enjoyed in The Court of the Air.

The characters are not especially deep or complex, but nevertheless they are interesting and succeed well in inspiring emotional investment.  The Kingdom Beyond the Waves is somewhat dark in tone, but less so than The Court of the Air, and like its predecessor its relentless energy allows it to be dark without being depressing or dispiriting.  Some of the prominent themes of The Court of the Air are seen again here, with both books reflecting a sense of striving and hope combined with a distrust of utopianism.

Like its predecessor, The Kingdom Beyond the Waves does a great job of being extremely dense in both events and ideas without seeming overstuffed, and of being diverse and varied without seeming jumbled or incoherent.  In Hunt’s hands it feels perfectly natural that airships, lost civilizations, sorcery, a heterodox archaeologist/pulp adventurer, submarines, a race of intelligent steam-powered robots, a jungle ruled by an evil hive mind, and a character best described as “The Scarlet Pimpernel, if The Scarlet Pimpernel had been a shapeshifting steampunk cyborg” all show up in the same story.

Just like its predecessor, I can’t recommend The Kingdom Beyond the Waves enough.  It’s a fantastic book for people who like either fantasy or steampunk, or for anyone who likes fast-paced adventure stories.  Stephen Hunt has very quickly become one of the most exciting authors in fantasy, and I can’t wait to see the third book in the series, The Rise of the Iron Moon, reach the United States.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Saturday, September 5, 2009

New home for Solaris Books

I've been kept busy lately by some work-related stuff, along with the seven or eight distinct illnessess that have all apparently taken up residence in my digestive system simultaenously and started battling for supremacy, but I'm back in action.  Look for new reviews both here and at BSCreview very soon.

Here's some very good news, via SF Crowsnest: Solaris Books has found a buyer.  It was announced a few months ago that their parent company, the Black Library, was going to start focusing solely on its primary purpose as the fiction-publishing arm of Games Workshop.   Solaris' new owner is British game developer Rebellion Developments.  Rebellion has experience with publishing, through creating their own SF/Fantasy/Horror imprint Abaddon Books and by acquiring seminal weekly comics anthology 2000 AD and RPG/tabletop game company Mongoose Publishing.  2000 AD is the source of Judge Dredd, among other things, and Mongoose is the publisher of the current edition of the legendary Traveller and the new RPG based on David Drake's Hammers Slammers stories, so presumably the new guys in charge know their way around the SF field.

(Though their greatest accolade may be this line from the Rebellion Developments Wikipedia page:  "Their first known title was Alien Vs. Predator for the Atari Jaguar, which was considered one of the few good games for that console."  Seldom has a single sentence been so coldly factual and hilariously brutal at the same.  Poor Jaguar.  I guess the world just wasn't ready for your 64 bits of processing power and godawful controllers.)

I've really come to like Solaris over the past year or so, and it's through Solaris that I've discovered a number of authors, such as Andy Remic, Eric Brown, and Jeffrey Thomas.  I'm very happy to see it will continue.

Stumble Upon Toolbar