▸ science fiction

Read: I am number four

With all the excitement this summer, culminating in leaving my job at Jacobs University Bremen and my moving back to Berlin after 15 years or so working in Thuringia and then Bremen, I fell a bit behind with my reading list and with my “bookkeeping”. To keep things short (as some time has already passed since I finished the book), I am number four, the book, is much better than I am number four, the movie. Still, I will remove all the other Lorien Legacies novels from my to-buy list…

Read: Fallen Dragon

Galactic empires; time travel; genetic and technological (self) enhancements; a romantic, tragic hero; and a strong moral: what is there not to like?

At first it took me a while to see the link between the different time strands; I blame the medium. Reading an ebook is different from reading the printed text. The link was rather obvious, the protagonist at different ages, different levels of experience and maturity.

One aspect that made Hamilton’s Fallen Dragon interesting was the political and economic system in place in this future vesion of our society. Not so different of what we have now, therefore the more credible. Nations states still exist, yet the decisions are made by and within the big companies, “public” services are provided rather by them, consumed by their employees and owners; participation in society and economic and social progress is via stakeholding in a company. Being an owner is having a voice, being able to progress through the ranks within the company, determining one’s own fate, being able to escape. There are, of course, prositive and negative sides to this way of organizing society. Hamilton very frankly spells them out, at least a few of them, without pushing the reader too strongly in a particular direction; embracing or condeming it. After all, freedom of choice and assuming responsibilty can arise from within this systen and from opposing it.

Read: Accelerando

Charles Stross' Accelerando reminds me a lot of the work by Vernor Vinge, Peter F. Hamilton, and a bit also Poul Anderson. This is a good thing as I like these authors, and probably the reason why I took up the book in the first place after reading the teaser on the back cover. On the other hand, as Anderson and Vinge are clearly Stross' predecessors his story may not be that original any more, I was really reminded a lot of these authors.

Accelerando is an edited collection of short stories; therefore the chapters are rather independent from each other and could be read without the others. As they each provide the “historic” context for the following chapters it is still a coherent work. As it turns out, splitting up the text into a number of episodes is indeed a good thing, it makes the text easier to digest. All the techno and science babble makes it otherwise rather tedious to read; the overuse of jargon definitely subtracts from the entertainment value of the text.

Overall Accelerando was a pretty good read. Stross did however not come close to Vinge, Hamilton, or Anderson.

Read: Sixty Days and Counting

After reading Robinson’s Fifty Degrees Below I was hoping the “science science fiction” trilogy would get better with its concluding volume. It didn’t.

The trilogy started as science fiction about science. You got a glimpse at academia, research and administration, and the plot’s background addressed a serious, topical issue: global warming. That was the first volume. Unique and interesting enough to get me on reading despite the novel’s flaws. The second volume, I still do not know what to make of the second volume.

And now, the third volume is even worse. Sixty Days and Counting is strangely anticlimactic. It is not science fiction about science any more but an odd mix of political thriller, conspiracy theory novel, spy novel, new age self improvement, and rant against capitalism. Yes, the ranting about the evil economic system, the evil capitalists' exploitation of the poor 99% that put me off in the first volume is back. The transitions between the genres do not succeed and the book would not be a good example for any of these genres.

Bottom line: Sixty Days and Counting was a waste of time and I am seriously concerned about my memory as I was pretty sure that I liked Robinson’s Mars trilogy. It was well written and absolutely enjoyable. Can a writer deteriorate that dramatically?

Not Read: Absolution Gap

It is very, very rare that I do not finish a book. But Reynold’s Absolution Gap has to be put away. I just can’t take it any more.

It’s long. It’s a huge tome. It’s slow. The story crawls at a snails pace. It’s three books in one and I care only for one of the three plots.

I have started to read this book years ago. And I have stopped. And picked it up again. And stopped. The story moves so painstakingly slow, it fails to arrest my attention for more than a couple of pages. Most of the characters are, I don’t know what, uninteresting. And, of course, the narrative jumps from one plot (or timeline) to the other. Is there no straight forward story telling any more?

If there was only a simple way to find all the segments that belong to the one plot that I find interesting I would read it and skip the rest. Unfortunately, the typography of my copy does not allow this. I would be more or less forced to speed-read through the boring stuff. I do not think it’s worth the effort. Hence, now half-way through I put Absolution Gap down and will not pick it up again.

Read: Fifty Degrees Below

In for a penny in for a pound. Despite not having been overly enthusiastic about the prequel Forty Signs of Rain I continued Kim Stanley Robinson’s science fiction series on science, politics, and climate change. This happens when you (that is I) buy all books of a series before even starting to read the first. And yes, I know what sunk costs are. Maybe I am just curious whether things improve.

Some did. Some did not.

There is less of the insights in US academics and science administration. I would have liked to read more of it. This was what drove me to pick up the next volume of the series. There is less of the annoying anti-economics, anti-markets vibe. Though the author’s attitude is still obvious I consider this an improvement. The main character – although every person from the first novel still appears there is now a clear main character what results in fewer switches in perspectives (good!) – is very strange; completely, absolutely not credible. The whole book I was wondering why, why is this guy doing this? Consequently there was no connection at all. I, as the reader, felt as an outside observer constantly shaking my head. This killed most of the potential enjoyment.

Hence, when I am going to pick up book number three I hope the see, maybe, another protagonist and more science.

Read: Forty Signs of Rain

Science fiction about science. Real science with all the administrative (un)pleasantness; grant committees deciding about funding, making and breaking academic careers, pushing research from the public domain towards commercial monopolization with intellectual property rights protection and trade secrets. Lobbying government officials for funding and policy change. Rain. Certainly not a space opera, my usual Science Fiction reading.

It works. At first I was not so sure. While mentioning Game Theory and its application to, for instance, agenda setting may have gotten me hooked, a perfectly superfluous rant about the woes of neoclassical economics, the afflictions caused by it by believing in its oversimplifying assumptions, got me less sympathetic with the author’s cause climate change. Who the heck knows this strangely specific term neoclassical economics and who know about the other schools of economic thought? Yes, I do. Though I would be part of a very small minority indeed.

The story build up very slowly. It’s the first novel of a trilogy, so the author can take his time. He does. There are three story sub-plots which develop step by tiny step and only for two of them I see how they will connect later. Only at the very end things begin to accelerate, otherwise the novel remains remarkably uneventful. Thus, in a strange way Robinson manages to keep me turning the pages and looking forward to the next two books of the trilogy. Strange because I feel more compelled by the story’s background, the workings of the NSF and science politics, than the looming disaster that the trilogy is all about.

Read: Rainbows End

For some it may be utopia for others it is dystopia what Vernor Vinge pictures our society may look like in just a few years. Rainbows End offers an account of what technological (and medical) progress can mean for society and the individual.

There are several themes, though not necessarily original all of them are thought provoking. There is the “who watches the watchmen” theme in a world where computing power and interconnectedness allows the monitoring, profiling, and manipulation of individuals and crowds in real time. There is the advancement of personalized medicine and its failure to be beneficial for everyone to the same degree. There is the “smart devices and dumb people” theme (or should I say differently skilled people?); the technological progress puts a high toll on the older generation whose skills become obsolete (and subsequently needs a re-education to fit in the new world) and a high toll on the younger generation who lacks basic skills of today’s world. And there is the sad escape from reality into the virtual world, many distinct virtual worlds leading to a segmentation of society, a living side by side without a living with another.

Vinge’s novel is not an easy read and many things remain open, questions unanswered. Yet, this just contributes to a certain feeling of satisfaction: the novel not just entertains it makes you think. Well done!

Read: Lord of Light

Speaks the king to the priest: “You keep them ignorant, I keep them poor."

Take some technologically advanced settlers; give them a means to reincarnate, i.e. transfer their mind, memories and skills to a fresh body once their old one becomes too frail, thus give them relative immortality; make them the rulers of their world. What will they do?

Roger Zelazny explores one possibility. In the Lord of Light the original colonists establish themselves as the gods of a Hindu society. By improving upon their own abilities in a hostile environment and obtaining a fresh body every once in a while they become the gods of their own descendants. Their descendants, however, do not share the god’s technological sophistication. There is neither a printing press nor indoor plumbing. In brief, they are kept ignorant. Hence, the more absolute is the power of the gods, the more complete is their domination of their world and people.

If it were not for the protagonist, Sam, a renegade First who wishes to bring a time of enlightenment, to accelerate development and free man from the shackles of their gods Light of Light would be a rather dystopian novel. Though he, too, tricks his fellow man. By introducing Buddhism as a rival religion to weaken the power of the false gods he employs the same shoddy tactics. Keep man ignorant about their fate.

I cannot help but wonder: Is this the true purpose of religion?

Read: Replay

Even though science fiction is one of my favorite genres I seem to have read rather few SF novels recently. High time for another classic.

Grimwood’s Replay is such a classic.

Some science fiction novels or series just do not let their protagonists die, the protagonists enjoy or suffer from relative immortality and the story spans several thousand years telling the tale of changing society and technology. Other achieve basically the same by reincarnations or regeneration. Time goes on and on. The characters stay the same.

Grimwood does the opposite. Time repeats itself, again and again. It’s the protagonist that changes with each replay of his own life. Always dying at the same time, the same day in 1988, and then regaining consciousnesses in his own younger body to live his life again with the full knowledge of all his earlier experiences. Doing things differently, taking other paths than before he first seeks riches, then meaning, then happiness.

Grimwood achieves the perfect balance between detail and advancing the story. There is no razzle-dazzle, everything seems rather credible. Replay is thus an almost modest account of this afflicted man’s journey through life.

By withholding an explanation for the repeated replays Grimwood leaves the reader with one question: Why? Not getting an answer to this question may be disappointing for some. I think, however, it is a good choice.