Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Let's Play FTL: Faster Than Light

Hey, all. Having realized a few months ago that I still wasn't quite as much of a dork as I might be, I've recently begun to dabble in Let's Play videos. Since it's science fiction-related, I thought I'd post a recent ongoing one here, a perilous interstellar journey through Subset Games' unforgiving space combat/strategy/roguelike-like game FTL: Faster Than Light! With the Federation torn by civil war, the fate of the galaxy lies in the hands of me, my loyal first mate/friend from college Dave, and the brave crew of the USS Alderaan. God help us all.

The original recording of this predates some valuable lessons learned about audio quality, and I have a voice that might charitably be described as "G-man from Half-Life after he'd eaten a bag of sugar and been punched in the lip," but if you enjoy this sort of thing I encourage you to check it out anyway. And if you like it, I hope you'll consider subscribing to keep up with future episodes.

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Thursday, May 22, 2014

Richard Biggs, rest in peace

Today is the 10th anniversary of the death of actor Richard Biggs, who played Dr. Stephen Franklin on the classic science fiction TV series Babylon 5. Babylon 5 was one of my favorite shows growing up; had it not existed, this blog might not either, and Biggs' character and performance was one of the many things I loved about it. Sadly, he died at the age of only 44.

This video was made by editor/producer John E. Hudgens, who was responsible for a number of Babylon 5 promotional videos and created this tribute to Richard Biggs when he was unable to attend Biggs' memorial service in person. Many thanks to him for making it available online.

Rest in peace.

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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Neal Asher's books finally getting published in the US

Some very good news for American science fiction fans: Someone is finally publishing all five books in Neal Asher's Ian Cormac series in the United States of America- Gridlinked, The Line of Polity, Brass Man, Polity Agent, and Line War. Previously, people here who wanted copies of these books have had to resort to importing foreign editions of most of them. 

I say “most of them” because Tor Books made the odd decision to release the first book in the series, Gridlinked, in the US and then just skip to the third one, Brass Man, before seemingly giving up on American publication of the series entirely. Anyone reading Brass Man before the The Line of Polity is probably going to be quite confused.

Now, my working assumption- by no means an irrefutable one, but a sound starting point in the absence of strong evidence to the contrary- in most matters is that people who have a significant stake in understanding a subject will know it better than those that don't. Incentives matter. So I'm entirely open to the possibility that publishing the first book in a series as a mass-market paperback, skipping the second book, publishing the third book as a trade paperback, and then skipping the rest of the series somehow makes financial sense. But heck if I can figure out why or how.

Happily, that situation has been rectified by Night Shade Books (now under the auspices of Skyhorse Publishing), who have already done fine work bringing some of Asher's other books to the States. The Line of Polity and Polity Agent are now available in American trade paperback editions, with Line War scheduled for release this October. Two stand-alone novels set in the Polity universe, Hilldiggers and The Technician, and the second book in the Spatterjay series, The Voyage of the Sable Keech, are also scheduled for this or next year. Hopefully there will be even more to come.

I've been a big fan of Neal Asher's work since stumbling on Gridlinked at Barnes and Noble back in 2006- it was one of my very first reviews, in fact. The need to import most of his books has long been irritating, and his lack of a physical presence in bookstores largely prevents people here from finding him the way I did. If you're interested in science fiction featuring interstellar societies, artificial intelligence, transhumanism, insanely hostile planetary ecologies, imaginative and incredibly creepy aliens (“The Engineer,” dear God), lots and lots of action, and- despite being an author best-known for large-scale space opera mayhem- some quite affecting and unusually realistic portrayals of people seldom done justice in fiction (e.g. a recovering victim of extreme psychological trauma in Orbus or a child on the autistic spectrum in Shadow of the Scorpion), check him out.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Book Review: The Judge of Ages by John C. Wright

The Judge of Ages is the third book in the science fiction series by John C. Wright that began with Count to a Trillion and continued with The Hermetic Millennia. (See my review here.) It follows directly from the second book and assumes familiarity with the offense and concepts of its predecessors, so it's definitely a series that should be read in order.

In 11,000 AD, the Armada of an unimaginably advanced civilization of machine intelligences from the Hyades will complete a journey of nearly 8,000 years and arrive on Earth as conquerors. For almost all of that time, Menelaus Montrose- 22nd-century Texan lawyer/duelist turned space traveler and subject of a more-or-less successful self-administered experiment in intelligence augmentation- has fought against his former friend and shipmate, self-proclaimed Master of the World Ximen del Azarchel, for the future of the human race, each using post-human brilliance and the science of historical prediction gleaned from an alien monolith discovered on humanity's first manned expedition beyond our solar system, in a long struggle to shape the course of cultural and biological evolution.

For almost all of that time, del Azarchel and his allies have worked tirelessly to turn humanity into a servile race that will submit to the invaders and survive, rather than risk extinction trying to defy them. For the Hyades are themselves only the vassals of an even mightier civilization,  who are themselves subordinate to the unimaginably advanced civilization that rules our entire galaxy from the globular cluster M3.

While his trusted lieutenants gather people from across the ages who wish to escape their own era in a network of underground cryogenic tombs, Montrose has slept away the centuries and millenia in cryogenic suspension beneath the earth until times when his intervention is needed. He lives for the hope of creating a human civilization that can stand against the Hyades- and of living long enough to someday be reunited with his wife Rania, departed on a desperate 70,000 year voyage to M3 to make an appeal on behalf of the human race.

It is the year 10,515. Montrose and hundreds of his sleeping clients have been awakened by tomb raiders seeking the legendary Judge of Ages- the godlike figure Montrose has become in the myths of cultures spanning thousands of years, said to slumber beneath the earth until he arises to pass terrible judgments on entire eras and civilizations. Accompanied by human and posthuman allies from across eight millennia of radical transformation and turmoil, Montrose must regain control of his tombs and protect his clients so that he can resume his battle for the human race- a human race that appears disturbingly absent on the barren, frozen surface of the Earth he's awakened to. Meanwhile, del Azarchel is still working to turn humanity into a race of perfect slaves for the Hyades, who are just centuries away.

I liked The Judge of Ages quite a bit. The central premise of the entire series is one of the more intriguing ones I've run into in recent years, and Wright continues to do interesting things with it. We learn more about some of the post-human inhabitants of the Earth and just what's happened to reduce the world to its desolate and seemingly uninhabited state, as well as the true nature of Azarchel's machinations and the scope of Montrose's response, both of which turn out to be even vaster than they previously appeared.

And I realize that “vaster than they previously appeared” sounds sort of absurd in the context of an 8000-year conflict between supergeniuses where human evolution itself is the battleground and entire sapient species are casualties, but therein lies one of the great strengths of the book and series. Wright throws out interesting ideas with wild abandon, from little details about future technologies or societies to much larger things with important consequences to the entire story or setting, and yet does so in such a way that even bizarre or outrageously grandiose concepts still seem natural and reasonable within the logic of the story. It combines thoughtfully worked out consequences of technologies and other ideas and the constraints of reasonably hard science fiction (there's no FTL, antigravity, or my personal bugbear, nanotech-as-magic) with the sort of wild exuberance I'd usually associate with old pulp space opera or early Marvel Comics.

(Wright's writing in general often seems to have this quality, whether he's doing science fiction or fantasy, where there's such a proliferation of stuff that the story seems like it ought to either be crushed under its own density or go careening out of control and over the side of a cliff, but doesn't.)

There are some excellent action scenes, and Wright uses the collision of technologies and biologies from across his future history- powered armored and other relatively conventional science fiction weapons like railguns, a monstrous race of posthumans capable of radically modifying their own biology and ruthlessly optimized for conflict, colossal 22nd-century dueling pistols with bullets that have their own engines and countermeasures and accompanying escorts of smaller defensive bullets, a self-replicating computer system that's been gnawing at the iron core of the earth long enough to have significant influence on the planet's magnetic field, among other things- effectively in this regard as well.

I still like Menelaus Montrose a lot as protagonist and viewpoint character. It helps that his odd backstory allows him to serve as a sort of audience surrogate in a very strange world without being ignorant, ineffectual, or bland in the way such characters often are. He's able to quickly understand and adapt to the bizarre conditions he finds himself in thanks to his augmented intelligence, but his original background is in a society much closer to our own then to its successors. Consequently, he appreciates just how bizarre his world and his own story are (from the perspective of a 21st-centuryish human) in a way most protagonists of far future science fiction do not, without being a bewildered primitive or inept fish out of water. He approaches things with a combination of wry, seemingly detached humor and a very serious sense of purpose, and the mixture works well.

I also enjoyed a lot of the supporting characters, and especially Montrose's archnemesis Ximen del Azarchel. Wright's portrayal of him is extremely charming and likable, so much so that when he appears in a scene it's quite easy to temporarily forget the atrocities he's committed. There's also a certain point in the story where, at a key moment, Azarchel does something that is clearly tactically unwise- but his characterization is strong enough that, rather than seeming like an author writing himself into a corner and turning his villain into an idiot to get out of it, it felt completely natural and appropriate given the situation.

My chief criticism is the pacing in the first part of the book. After the scope and scale of the story thus far, the first chapters of The Judge of Ages felt somewhat claustrophobic. Montrose spends quite a bit of time as a captive down in his tombs as he tries to get in position to begin an uprising against his captors, and while I still enjoyed the section I felt it went on too long and weakened the momentum and tension built up by the end of the second book. Things certainly pick up, and taken as a whole the book is still quite strong, but it would've benefited from spending less time on that part of the story and more on some of the events and revelations later in the book.

That aside, though, I really liked The Judge of Ages and would strongly recommend it, and the entire series, to anyone interested in science fiction. (Though as I said above, be sure to read the series in order.) I'm really looking forward to seeing where Wright goes next with it.

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Monday, December 23, 2013

The Star Wars Holiday Special teaches us to hate Christmas, life

Christmas is upon us! There's just too much cheer and good will this time of year, which means it's once again time to balance things out with an update of my traditional holiday post on The Star Wars Holiday Special. (Originally posted at Pointless Side Quest.) Please to enjoy, for a certain value of "enjoy."

It's the Christmas season once again. It's a wonderful time of year but, sadly, there is a dark side to Christmas. I'm not talking about the weather, or the parents rending each other apart like rabid beasts at Toys R Us, or the built-up resentment that can explode at family gatherings, or those horrific modernized versions of Christmas carols that every place of business in the state of Illinois is apparently required by law to defile my eardrums with for the entire month of December. No, I speak of something much worse...

The Star Wars Holiday Special has appeared on American television once, in 1978, and oozed into various foreign markets to make similarly brief appearances over the next few years. It has never been rebroadcast in the US and has never been released on home video in any format. George Lucas, who would probably release a boxed set of the prequel trilogy with an added bonus DVD containing 90 minutes of footage from the parking lot security cameras of Skywalker Ranch and call it the "Star Wars Ultimate Edition" if he thought anyone would buy it, disavows it and has refused to make it available.

Scorned by legitimate society, it exists only in the form of unauthorized copies made from VCR recordings of the original. Like so many other blasphemous tomes of daemonic horror bearing unspeakable eldritch knowledge never meant for the eyes of Man- Friedrich von Junzt's Unaussprechlichen Kulten, Abdul Alhazred's Necronomicon, Kevin J. Anderson's Jedi Academy Trilogy- it circulates covertly in the dark corners of the world (I think that's an entirely fair description of most file-sharing networks) where students of the grotesque and unnatural risk their very sanity to seek it out.

It was in 2006 that I acquired a copy of The Star Wars Holiday Special, complete with the original 1978 commercials. It should have been a fine year: Neal Asher, David Drake, and Stephen Baxter all had multiple new books rolling off the presses. Ace Combat Zero came out for the PlayStation 2, and the release of the PlayStation 3 paved the way for me to actually buy one three years later. Iron Maiden, Evergrey, In Flames, Norther, Strapping Young Lad, Tool, Motorhead, Blind Guardian, and Týr released new albums.

Instead, there would be only the taste of ashes.

Now, one thing I share with several of my friends is the ability to enjoy crap. From 1950's skiffy schlock, to watching a near-comatose Richard Burton mumble his way through the uncut version of The Exorcist II, to Sylvester Stallone's arm wrestling epic Over the Top, to the climactic scene of The Satanic Rites of Dracula where Christopher Lee is killed by running into a small shrubbery, to Oscar-winning actor George Kennedy and a bunch of stupid teenagers trapped on a boat where they are picked off one by one by an evil hybrid cat/rat/godawful puppet in The Uninvited, to a seemingly endless horde of Godfrey Ho "ninja" "movies" created by buying the rights to various Asian films, redubbing them, splicing them together with new footage of white guys in brightly colored and sometimes rhinestone-studded pajamas running around and doing flips in what appears to a small municipal park, and feebly attempting to tie them together and pretend that the resulting Frankensteinian abomination was a coherent story, we've seen it all. We take that sort of thing in stride.

I want you to have that context in mind when I say that my first two attempts to watch this had to be aborted within the first half hour because the guys I was watching it with couldn't stand it any longer.

The plot, such as it is, is that Chewbacca is returning to his home and family on the Wookie homeworld of Kashyyyk to celebrate "Life Day," one of those vague holidays characters in kids' fantasy shows would celebrate when it was snowing and they wanted to do something festively nonsectarian. But the system is in the grip of an Imperial blockade fleet commanded by recycled movie footage of Darth Vader, and... Well, basically, there's a string of largely unrelated, godawful variety showesque events set in something that resembles the Star Wars universe featuring various C-list celebrities until things finally shudder to a halt what seems like several geological epochs later.

It's got all of the heroes from the movie making their return, plus James Earl Jones as the voice of Darth Vader. The only major actors from Star Wars not present- unless one also counts David Prowse, who appears only in the form of reused movie footage, or Carrie Fisher, whose soul appears to have departed her body and wandered off for most of her screen time- are Alec Guinness as Ben Kenobi and Peter Cushing as Tarkin, whose characters were saved from appearances here by the sweet, merciful embrace of death.(Which makes it suddenly seem very suspicious that Kenobi and Tarkin both met their ends because they conspicuously chose not to protect themselves from imminent danger, and either possessed supernatural powers that included the ability to sense horrible, cataclysmic events or hung out with people who did.) What could possibly have gone wrong?

There are some things the human mind cannot explain, only try to describe. Some of the thrilling spectacles we're treated to include:

Over ten minutes of Chewbacca's family screaming at each in Wookie, sans subtiitles! This is what the show leads off with. Little-known fact: Lucas actually wanted the first 20 minutes of the original Star Wars to focus on R2-D2 making random beep-bloop noises while doing routine maintenance on the Tantive IV's cafeteria vending machines, but was forced to start the movie with an exciting space battle instead when the studio said that his original cut of the film was too long.

Chewbacca's elderly father Itchy groaning in ecstasy while watching virtual reality porn! You have no idea how badly I wish I was making that up. NO idea.
Ever wondered what an elderly Wookie having an orgasm looks like? Of course not, but now you know anyway.

Reused footage from the movie!

Reused footage from the movie tinted bright green, so that a shot of the Millennium Falcon approaching Yavin can double as a shot of a bright green Millennium Falcon approaching Kashyyyk! Alternately, if you're a die-hard Star Wars fan desperately trying to escape from the implications of this monstrosity actually being a canonical part of the Star Wars universe, it could be interpreted to mean that the entire special is actually taking  place inside the Matrix. In which case it's arguably a better Matrix film than Matrix Revolutions.

Several minutes of Chewbacca's repulsive son Lumpy watching miniature holographic acrobats! That's right, Chewbacca's immediate kin consists of two guys named "Itchy" and "Lumpy." Presumably, the name "Chewbacca" is a human-pronounceable approximation of the Wookie word for "Scabby" or "Oozing."
Lumpy! I've already mentioned his role in the Special's events, but the very existence of this... this thing appalls me so much that it warrants its own entry. With the possible exception of that loathsome, soulless homunculus wrought in obscene parody of a human child from Son of the Mask (the CGI baby, not Jamie Kennedy), nothing has ever filled with such instinctive horror.


Harvey Korman in a dress! And in two other separate parts, as an amorous Tatooine cantina patron and a cyborg instructional video announcer (a cyborg who announces in an instructional video, that is, not an announcer in an instructional video about cyborgs) who appears to be suffering from some sort of degenerative motor neuron disorder. Not since Peter Sellers in Dr. Stranglove has there been such a multi-role tour de force.

The musical stylings of Bea Arthur! This is actually the closest we get to a high point.

Harvey Korman trying to get into Bea Arthur's pants! Though anyone hoping for some actual on-screen Hedley-on-Maude action will be disappointed, sadly.

An animated segment featuring the  most repellently butt-ugly animation in human history! It does have the first-ever appearance of Boba Fett, which some people may be interested in. Frankly, I've always considered Fett one of the most overrated characters in fiction. It's a damning indictment of how low our society's standards have fallen when possessing some basic tracking abilities, dressing like the Rocketeer, flying around in a big metal shoe, and being killed by a blind man is enough of a résumé to be declared Biggest Badass Ever.

One odd thing is that the cartoon, like a number of other segments, is actually introduced as something being watched by Lumpy. Which implies that this segment depicts events that are fictional not only to us but to the characters, and that the cartoon itself actually exists within the Star Wars universe.

Which, I just realized, means that Jefferson Starship does, too.

A brief appearance by an incredibly bored-looking Harrison Ford, who doesn't even try to conceal his utter contempt for the proceedings!

Mark Hamill wearing more makeup than Queen Amidala, Bozo the Clown, and Dick Clark combined!
Usually I'd be reluctant to say something nasty about this, since it's probably to conceal the injuries Hamill had suffered in a car crash the previous year. But The Star Wars Holiday Special exists on a plane where human concepts of morality and decency are not merely absent, but meaningless. If you gaze into the bellowing unsubtitled Wookie abyss, the bellowing unsubtitled Wookie abyss gazes also into you.

Carrie Fisher singing a festive Life Day carol set to the tune of the classic Star Wars theme while clearly stoned out of her mind! But you don't have to take my word for it:

She's no Bea Arthur, I'll tell you that much.

Eventually, Chewbacca makes it home for the holidays with his repellent family. No one learns a valuable lesson about The True Meaning of Life Day, if in fact it has one.

I really can't do justice to how teeth-gratingly bad it is. I have no strong personal stake in Star Wars. I liked the original movies and a few of the tie-in books, but I've never had the strong emotional attachment to Star Wars that some people do. I didn't like the prequel trilogy but never had the sort of "I have sworn a Sicilian blood oath of vengeance upon George Lucas' and his entire family line because he murdered my family, burned down my village, and deflowered my house pets" response that is often seen on the Internet. (I reserve that for MechWarrior: Dark Age, MAY ITS NAME AND ITS SEED BE ACCURSED FOREVER.)  The idea of crap with the name Star Wars on it is not some sort of personal affront to me. Given that sitting through this made me want to gouge out my own eyes and just run through the streets of Chicago gibbering like a lunatic until my heart and/or lungs burst, I can only imagine how devoted Star Wars fans must feel about it.

Merry Christmas, everybody!

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Monday, November 4, 2013

Book Review:Terminal World by Alastair Reynolds

Terminal World is a science fiction novel with steampunk elements by Alastair Reynolds, author the Revelations Space series, House of Suns, and others. It's completely stand-alone and doesn't require knowledge of any of Reynolds' previous work.

In the distant future human civilization is clustered around the great city of Spearpoint, built on the surface of a huge spire extending up into the heavens. The laws of nature are not constant, with Spearpoint divided into different zones where different levels of technology are possible, from the ultraadvanced heights of the Celestial Levels at the top to Horsetown, were even simple mechanical mechanisms break down. Humans can live in any of them, but leaving your native zone without medication or an unusually adaptable constitution is dangerous  due to “zone sickness,” a painful and potentially lethal condition that occurs as your body is forced to cope with natural laws subtly different from what it's accustomed to.

The main character is Quillon, a pathologist working in the mid-level Spearpoint community called Neon Heights. The story begins when he is presented with a dying “angel,” a transhuman resident of the Celestial Levels who fell to Neon Heights. Before dying, the angel delivers the message to Quillon that was the real reason for its “fall.” He knows that Quillon is an angel as well, the last survivor of a project to reengineer natives of the Celestial Levels to survive and function in lower zones- and now one faction among them is looking for him.

Quillon has no desire to go back and seeks out aid from Fray, an ally in Neon Heights' criminal underworld who has helped him keep his real identity hidden. Fray introduces him to Meroka, an expert in covertly getting people in and out of Spearpoint. They flee the city, pursued by angels with far cruder versions of Quillon's adaptations, and escape into the world beyond. But there is no safety to be found in the world outside Spearpoint- a cold, hostile place with its own zones on a much larger scale, where bands of bandits and psychopaths prey on the sparse population, cyborg monstrosities harvest living human body parts to replace their own, a militaristic, nomadic society called the Swarm rules the sky from an armada of dirigibles, and zone boundaries can shift unpredictably.

But soon there is no safety to be found in Spearpoint, either, when the world is unexpectedly struck by a zone shift of unprecedented severity, this time affecting Spearpoint itself- as Quillon realizes, watching the great glowing spire of his distant home, as its lights start to go out...

I enjoyed Terminal World. The plot had no trouble keeping my interest, and way it unfolds as the story of Quillon's escape becomes part of much larger events is effective and Quinlan himself is a compelling character.. The story's revelations about its world's history and true nature are interesting and well-paced, and the reasoning eventually given for why things work as they do makes sense and doesn't feel too handwavy or arbitrary.

The central premise of the Zones is intriguing, as is the strange hybrid setting Reynolds creates with it. Travel between zones is extremely difficult and dangerous, so much so that even with sufficient “antizonal” drugs  people who do so frequently eventually develop mental problems as the accumulated stress of too many transitions starts to take a neurological toll. There's a painful feeling of division and separation throughout the setting. People in the lower levels of Spearpoint and its surrounding lands look up at the electric lights of of far wealthier societies that are mere miles away but forever denied them, and can spend their life savings for a short once-in-a-lifetime excursion upwards for mundane but life-saving medical procedures.

The fact that it also provides a justification to have “angelic” transhumans, an ancient structure that reaches beyond the atmosphere, and cyborgs that hunt people for their organs in the same setting as aerial battles fought by giant steampunk dirigibles is also pretty cool, naturally.

Speaking of which, the “vorgs,” or carnivorous cyborgs, that live beyond Spearpoint are especially interesting. Vorgs are ancient intelligent machines that have survived by replacing many of their original components with living matter better able to adapt to the lower zones. They're absolutely horrifying- grotesque, predatory, intelligent but seemingly possessed of no desires or drives other than survival, utterly without conscience- and simultaneously the most pitiful figures in the story.

Quillon is an interesting protagonist, and I enjoyed seeing how he developed. He's a cold, isolated, seemingly callous man by necessity rather than nature, after spending years in hiding and exile, and the events of the story affect him in ways I found both compelling and believable.

I'd recommend Terminal World for fans of science fiction, as well as any steampunk fans interested in a story that mixes in science fiction elements or has a setting different from the usual alternate history Victorian trappings of the genre. If you're a fan of Alistair Reynolds' more conventional science fiction  works like Revelation Space or House of Suns, I'd encourage you to give this a chance even if you're not interested in steampunk; it's still very much the sort of story and worldbuilding you'll probably like if you enjoy his other work. It's an all-round strong book with plenty to offer lovers of both genres.

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Monday, August 12, 2013

Book Review: A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan

A Natural History of Dragons is a fantasy novel by Marie Brennan, author of fantasy novels including Doppelganger and the Onyx Court series.

It takes the form of a memoir written by its main character Isabella, Lady Trent, prominent naturalist and the world's foremost scientific authority on dragons. Born into an aristocratic family in Scirland and consumed from an early age by an interest in science thought unbecoming of a Scirland woman, Lady Trent recounts the development of her youthful fascination with dragons, her struggles with the expectations placed on a woman of her class, and her first adventure abroad to the distant land of Vystrana on a scientific expedition with her husband and his companions.

However, what starts as simply an attempt to study the local wildlife quickly becomes more dangerous than expected. The local dragons have recently become much more violent and aggressive towards humans, for reasons unknown. In the small village

Strange phenomenon begin to terrorize the small village the expedition is using as their base begins to experience strange, frightening phenomena after Lady Trent trespasses on nearby ruins left by a long-dead civilization that worshiped dragons as gods. Bandits and smugglers lurk in the countryside, while the local lord has started keeping strange company and taking an interest in their activities

I liked A Natural History of Dragons. It's very entertainingly written, sufficiently so that it's fun to read even when there's a lull in the story. The plot kept my interest, and the I found the characters engaging and enjoyable to spend time with. The central premise, dragons that are natural rather than supernatural creatures been studied scientifically, is intriguing and carried out very well,  and the dragons themselves are interesting and well-realized.

The book is written in the style of a 19th-century memoir, so the narration is much more of a “character” in its own right than is typical of most fantasy books, and this works very much to the story's advantage. Lady Trent's narration is quite entertaining, and hearing the story from her perspective decades after the fact makes the younger Lady Trent the story is about- an extremely sheltered, inexperienced aristocrat- much more interesting. It also helps with exposition, since the memoir format makes it feel much more natural for the narrator to occasionally stop and directly explain some bit of backstory or setting, and Lady Trent's wry authorial voice prevents it from feeling like a dry infodump.

The setting is basically 19th-century Europe with different names and geography (and dragons, obviously), and it's not particularly interesting in itself, but it's well-described and works for the story being told. “Fantasy” elements are fairly minimal (aside, presumably, from a few differences in the way chemistry works), which initially seems odd for a book about dragons but actually fits the premise quite well. Lady Trent and company ares natural historians of the early Industrial era, studying an exotic species using the same methods their colleagues would use to study any animal; it would change the whole atmosphere of the book if dragons didn't obey the same natural laws as any other animal, or “It's magic” was a viable explanation for strange phenomena. 

I'd recommend A Natural History of Dragons for anyone interested in unusual takes on classic fantasy tropes, as well as fans of quasi-Victorian settings or narrative styles. People who are (as I am) primarily fans of science fiction rather than fantasy may also enjoy it for its approach to the story. It's a lot of fun.

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Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Iain Banks, 1954-2013

I was sad to hear about the recent death of Iain Banks, published under the name Iain M. Banks when writing science fiction, author of science fiction books such Use of Weapons, Against a Dark Background, Consider Phlebas, and Look to Windward. He passed away on June 9th at the age of only 59. You can find more about him at his official website.

My first experience reading Iain M. Banks was Excession, which is generally agreed to be a a suboptimal entry point for readers unfamiliar with the universe where most of Banks' science fiction is set. Neverthless, I still enjoyed it quite a bit and was struck by the vividness and sheer scale of his imagination. I set about finding more of his books, which was not an easy task- at that time few of his books were in print in the United States, and the scarce used or imported copies were often quite expensive, so it was always exciting to finally hunt down one in my price range.

Banks' imagination produced some of the most striking and memorable images in science fiction, at least for me, such as the Planets of the Dead where the ruins of extinct civilizations are frozen in amber by the godlike but indifferent Dra'Azon in Consider Phlebas and the bewildering patchwork of societies and chilling sense of the vastness of both space and time in Against a Dark Background. The universe of the Culture, the setting of most of his science fiction, is a huge and imaginative place filled with interesting species, cultures, and technologies, where individual human dramas exist side by side with godlike AIs, galaxy-spanning civilizations, and weapons that can destroy the stars themselves, without one aspect weakening or overshadowing the other.

He could also be a writer of great emotional power. I can count the number of novels that have made me cry on one hand; one of them is Look to Windward.

Banks was an unusual figure in that he was both a well-regarded author of mainstream novels (such as his debut The Wasp Factory and The Crow Road) and a science fiction author, and unlike some authors with a connection to both worlds he never seemed at all embarrassed or apologetic about being an SF author. His science fiction is unabashedly science fiction, written by and for someone who respects and understands the genre.

Thank you for everything you gave your readers, Mr. Banks. It meant a lot to me, as it surely did to many people. Rest in peace.

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Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Book Review: The Hermetic Millennia by John C. Wright

The Hermetic Millennia is a science fiction novel by John C. Wright, author of the "Golden Age" trilogy (The Golden Age, The Phoenix Exultant, and The Golden Transcendence) and a fantasy trilogy beginning with Orphans of Chaos, among others. It is the second book in his "Eschaton Sequence" and a direct sequel to his previous book Count to a Trillion, which should definitely be read first.
For 8000 years, transhuman genius, gunslinger, and former space traveler Menelaus Montrose has waged a secret war for the future of the human race against his former comrades, the crew of humanity's first manned interstellar spacecraft, the Hermetic. Fifty lightyears from Earth, the human race found a source of all but limitless energy and wealth in the form of an entire star made of antimatter and dramatic evidence of alien intelligence on a monolith orbiting it, inscribed with a vast library of knowledge far beyond humanity's.
The Hermetic was sent to investiagte the monolith and, using stellar lifting equipment sent ahead of them by unmanned craft decades previously, begin mining the star. They succeeded- but returned to earth over a century later not as explorers but as conquerors after a mutiny killed the original captain and much of his crew.
With control of the only interstellar spacecraft, the vast knowledge gleaned from the monolith, and enough antimatter to either Usher the earth into a golden age of almost unlimited energy or turn its cities to ash, they became the masters of the world while Montrose slept in cryogenic hibernation to preserve his life and sanity after an ill-advised decision to inject himself with an experimental serum that restructured his brain to superhuman levels of intelligence but left him dangerously unstable for much of the expedition. Finally awakened decades later, his former comrades- now calling themselves the Hermeticists- welcomed him into their new elite, but Montrose soon becomes disaffected with them as he sees the oppressive world they've created and starts to regain his memories of what happened on their expedition.
In 11,000 AD, an invasion fleet sent by an unimaginably advanced civilization of machine intelligences in the Hyades Cluster will reach Earth. The monolith was a trap, and by successfully mining the nearby star humanity alerted the monolith's builders to our existence and our possession of sufficient technological sophistication to be useful subjects. We will serve them, or be exterminated. Even if we could fight them off, they are only one among many vassal races of a still greater power, which is in turn subject to an even more advanced civilization in the M3 globular cluster.
With the intent of the Hyades civilization coldly laid out in the monolith left for us to find and the apparent impossibility of defeating them demonstrated by the staggering knowledge contained in it, the Hermeticists begin a project to save the human race: Reshaping our biology and culture to make us the best slaves possible, so that the Hyades civilization will find it worthwhile to let humanity survive in some form rather than snuffing us out.
Equipped with his transhuman intellect, advanced knowledge in the alien monolith, the physical and financial resources acquired in his brief stint as one of the Hermetic elite, and skills acquired from his early days as a "lawyer" in a devastated 22nd-century Texas where the practice of law frequently involved quasilegal duels fought with pistols that were practically entire artillery batteries unto themselves, Menelaus Montrose is the only man on earth who can stand in their way. And so for millennia, as civilizations, societies, and entire posthuman species rise and fall, Montrose has used all the vast mental and physical resources at his command to wage a slow struggle against his former crewmates, trying to steer humanity onto a path that will allow it to resist the threat from Hyades long enough for humanity's one hope- an expedition to M3, 33,900 lightyears from Earth- to succeed.
In the year 10,500 AD Montrose finds himself unexpectedly awakened to discover that his hibernation chamber has been found and dug up by the dominant civilization of this time- and, with it, those of thousands of others from across the ages who, disaffected with their own eras, chose to sleep away the millennia in cryonics facilities maintained by Montrose's agents. Now, Montrose must recruit aid from the wildly diverse array of post-humans who have been awakened with him in order to free himself and continue his struggle. And the fleet from Hyades is not far away...
I liked this book a lot. I love the whole concept of the series, with its vast scope in both space and time and, and Wright executes it well. The central conflict between Monrose and the Hermeticists is interesting, there's some exciting action sequences, and Wright incorporates a lot of interesting and inventive ideas into it and into the larger backdrop it's set against.
Much of the book is episodic in format, with people of different eras telling their own stories as Montrose meets them and recruits them into his planned rebellion. We encounter a bewildering array of post-human species and cultures, from the militaristic, eugenicist Chimera, to the almost mindlessly hedonistic Nymphs, to grotesque beings that can incorporate parts of other organisms into themselves, to group-mind beings, and more. Interspersed, and sometimes intersecting, with these are stories of Montrose's periodic awakenings during each era to counter the machinations of Hermeticists.
Most of the post-humans are pretty interesting, and the way the author presents them makes them more compelling. Some of them initially come across as caricatures or stock archetypes- the Proud Warrior Race, the Innocent Hedonists, the Hive Mind, the Embodiments of What the Author Thinks Is Wrong With the World- but they have more depth than that. Many of them are monstrous, morally and sometimes physicaly, but they are not monsters; Wright does a good job of portraying all of them with at least some degree of dignity and sympathy, and the book is much stronger for it.
Menelaus Montrose is a highly enjoyable, likable protagonist, and its enjoyable watching him put his talents to work to understand and survive the situation he's thrust into upon being awakened. I thought his characterization was effective in portraying a man with a naturally idealistic temperament hardened by his youth in an impoverished, violent, borderline post-apocalyptic world ravaged by decades of religious conflict and biological warfare. He works well as a primary viewpoint character, since he comes from something at least vaguely resembling the world as we know it
His personality and disposition- hopeful without being saccharine or Pollyanna-ish, strongly concerned for others, trying to think of himself as just a person unlike any other despite his augmented intelligence and the godlike stature he has gained in myths of the legendary "judge of Ages" created by his periodic and sometimes dramatic returns over the millennia- provides an interesting contrast in tone with the setting of the series. (As do many of the other characters, to a lesser extent.)
The galaxy revealed in Count to a Trillion is a terrifying, brutal place, with relationships between species governed by utterly amoral considerations of economics and game theory. The purpose of the human expedition to the civilization in M3 is not to appeal to their sense of mercy or justice, but to the same calculations laid out in the monolith explaining why we are currently nothing but the Hyades civilization's chattel. Interstellar invasions are staggeringly costly endeavors even for races millions of years beyond us, and it's far more efficient to interact peacefully with a species if they can make plans and commitments on the vast timescales required for a galaxy-spanning civilization limited by the speed of light.
The pitiful insignificance and vulnerability of the human race amongst such vast, superior, ancient, and utterly uncaring powers is almost Lovecraftian, cosmic horror by way of hard science fiction. The history of humanity and posthumanity across the millennia is scarcely kinder. The Hermeticist's create and then discard sapient human species as they try to shape humanity into something that they think will survive the arrival of the invasion from the Hyades, each failure consigned to extermination by its successors
The contrast between the warmth and humanity of most of the characters and the cold heartlessness of their world (the very first scene even begins with the protagonist encased in a cryonic hibernation chamber) is very effective at making both stand out, and adds a lot to each.
I greatly enjoyed The Hermetic Millennia and would strongly recommend it to anyone interested in hard science fiction, space opera, or stories about transhumanism, though you should definitely read Count to a Trillion first. I greatly look forward to the next book in the series, The Judge of Ages.

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Saturday, February 9, 2013

Book Review: The Fractal Prince by Hannu Rajaniemi

The Fractal Prince is the second novel by Hannu Rajaniemi and the sequel to his science fiction debut, The Quantum Thief. It continues the story of Jean le Flambeur, a daring adventure and thief in an advanced advanced far-future solar system. It is a direct sequel to that book, and I very strongly recommend reading its predecessor first.

The story focuses on the city of Sirr, the last surviving human settlement on Earth in a future where the planet has been ravaged by out-of-control nanomachines, called “wildcode,” and most of human civilization resides elsewhere in the solar system. Decades ago the Sobornost- a vast collective of uploaded human intelligences, or “gogols,” that is the dominant power in the solar system and seeks to eventually absorb all of humanity- was thwarted in its attempt to absorb Sirr when the wildcode rose up against them, forcing the Sobornost and Sirr into an uneasy truce. Much of Sirr's economy is based on the gogol trade, seeking out the buried still-operational computers running virtual reality afterlives that wealthy people of past eras uploaded themselves into and trading their occupants to the Sobornost.

Tawaddud, estranged daughter of one of Sirr's leading citizens, is given a chance to return to her family's good graces by serving first as a companion for Abu Nuwas, a prominent gogol merchant whose political influence is important to maintaining relations with the Sobornost and then as a guide for a Sobornost envoy. However, what starts as a mere social task soon becomes much more grave as internal unrest and violence begin to wrack the city, and tensions rise with the Sobornost- who would still gladly seize control of the city, its inhabitants ,and the entire planet if given the opportunity.

Meanwhile, legendary master thief Jean le Flambeur is still bound to the service of Mieli, a warrior from the Oort cloud who, for reasons of her own, is in the service of a Sobornost gogol with her own agenda. With her sentient spacecraft Perhonen, Mieli rescued Jean from captivity in a Sobornost virtual prison and heklped him recover some of his lost memories that his prior self had hidden away in storage on Mars. (See The Quantum Thief.) Now she and Jean must perform the task that Jean was broken out for: gaining access to the Kaminari Jewel, a data store with the key to unimaginably advanced technology vital to the ultimate goals of the Sobornost and it's godlike ruler, the Founder Matjek Chen. But the kaminari jewel is a product of the Zoku, a wide-ranging subculture of posthumans implacably hostile to the Sobornost, and won't reveal its contents to just anyone. The key Chen needs, whatever it is, turns out to be somewhere on Earth...

I enjoyed The Fractal Prince a great deal. The story is interesting and cleverly constructed (I won't specify how). I liked the characters, both those returning from The Quantum Thief and the new faces. It's also quite moving in parts- especially, rather surprisingly, the parts involving Matjek Chen.. There are some very exciting action sequences and elements reminiscent of heist movies, both of which take full advantage of the possibilities offered by the books ultra-advanced setting.

It's also very enjoyable and impressive from a purely stylistic standpoint. Rajaniemi's writing is filled with beautiful or clever moments without ever seeming self-conscious or eager to actively call attention to itself, and keeps events barreling along at high speed without ever seeming merely utilitarian.

Part of that is accomplished by throwing the reader into the deep end and expecting him to swim on his own, to an even greater degree than usual for far-fure science fiction. There are a lot of concepts and terms that the reader is left to figure out on his own, through context or previous knowledge. I think Rajaniemi does it very well, but if you don't enjoy that sort of complete-immersion worldbuilding you may find the book frustrating. For the same reason, it's also not a book or series I would recommend for someone who is relatively new to the science fiction genre.

The book further fleshes out the setting first seen in The Quantum Thief in some interesting ways. We learn more about Mieli's culture, a Finnish-influenced society settling the distant Oort Cloud, and see Earth for the first time. Sirr is a very interesting setting, like a fantasy out of the Arabian Nights recast in a post-apocalyptic, posthuman future where the grotesque remnants of past ages lurk in the desert and ruins like ghouls and those with the knowledge can bend reality around them to their will with mysterious "words of power" that command the omnipresent swarms of nanomachines. It's quite cool, and Rajaniemi does a good job of incorporating these fantasy-like elements without making Sirr seem less like science fiction- it still fits naturally into the rest of the ultra-high tech setting, rather than coming across like a fantasy world that's been transplanted into the far future with the word "magic" scratched out.

There's a great deal more about the Sobornost, a vast society of uploaded human minds, or gogols, dominated by "copyclans," uncountable minds originating as copies- or copies of copies, or copies of copies of copies, etc.- of just a few people, the Founders, branched off at different points in their progenitor's own vast lifetimes for different specialized purposes. It's a very interesting look at a radically different sort of society that is nevertheless comprised of individuals who are more or less psychologically human, some of the ways in which it functions, and the reason that the Sobornost uses human gogols for computing tasks that one might have expected to be the province of AIs or just mindless software.

We also learn more about the ideals and goals that drive the Sobornost, the “Great Common Task,"which are very human and yet suitably grandiose for rulers who exist in billions of simultaneous iterations and get their building materials by casually ripping globs of matter as massive as Earth out ofthe Sun.

One of my favorite bits is the Sobornost's abhorrence for the unpredictability of quantum mechanics. (This is just one of the implications of the Great Common Task, not its primary motivation or guiding principle,, but it's one that figures prominently.) For instance, there's a scene in which a higher-level Sobornost gogol speaks with some of his juniors who are running ultra-detailed virtual worlds inhabited by conscious simulations of people who lived in the pre-Sobornost era. A passing question as to whether the detail goes "down to the quantum level" leads to a panicked response from one of the researchers explaining the lengths they've gone to to avoid such "contamination." It's a brief thing, but the sense of paranoia and ideological intolerance it evokes is palpable.

That initially seems like a bizarrely esoteric thing to be angered by but, on reflection, makes perfect sense- dislike for the unpredictable or uncontrollable or messy is a common enough trait, one sometimes taken to an extreme. Take human beings with that sort of mentality and scale them up until they have the power of gods and intellects that fill computronium brains the size of moons, and the sorts of things flesh-and-blood humans try to impose order on pale into relative insignificance. It's the kind of moment I love in science fiction, where something that initially seems unreasonable, out of place, or downright absurd suddenly fits perfectly.

(I still remember, back when I was a little kid listening to Carl Sagan explaining what atoms were like in Episode 9 of Cosmos, being genuinely unsettled by the revelation that an atom's electron cloud contained almost all of the atom's volume but almost none of its mass, and that everything I thought of as solid was actually almost entirely empty space. So I can empathize with the idea of being offended by the behavior of subatomic particles more than most, perhaps. The chilling climax of this dramatic reenactment starring Agent Smith and Morpheus conveys it better than I ever could.)

Rajaniemi does interesting things with ideas like mind uploading and artificial intelligence, especially in the way he integrate some of them into the heist thriller elements of the book. Conflicts can leap from the virtual to the real and back as minds abandon their physical bodies or take them up again, move and copy themselves through computer systems and virtual reality environments, or transmit themselves as data from one physical substrate to another to stay a step ahead. People can radically alter their own personality and memories, take on temporary mental personae- in effect, actually be someone else- while their higher "metaself" oversees them, or go into states of altered consciousness appropriate to particular situations. Individual minds can be copied en masse, either entirely or in limited partial versions.

There's also a refreshing diversity of opinion on the philosophical ramifications of such copying. Some people are casually accepting of it, while others find the idea of being copied deeply violating. The Founders of the Sobornost have built an entire society around it and treat subordinate gogols-- including fully conscious copies of themselves- as casually disposable. Other issues are also raised-- for instance, the extent to which an earlier iteration of yourself who did things you can't remember doing was "you." The book doesn't focus on these things, but they are dealt with in an interesting way.

I strongly recommend The Fractal Prince and its predecessor, The Quantum Thief, for seasoned fans of science fiction, especially if you're interested in far-future settings or subjects like artificial intelligence, mind uploading, and posthumanism, or just like a fast-paced adventure story or crime/heist thrillers, provided you don't mind some fairly dense world-building. It's entertaining, finely written, has an intriguing and imaginative setting, and strongly rewards reading more than once.

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