Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Star Wars: Darth Plagueis by James Luceno

I got back into playing Star Wars: The Old Republic, and felt the urge to read another Star Wars novel. With the current storyline stalled after the conclusion of the Fate of the Jedi storyline, I turned to this book to satisfy my craving for genre fiction.

Genre fiction (that is, fiction set within a specific shared universe, or genre of a broader class of fiction) is a lot like watching your favorite TV show: it may not break new ground or give greater perspective on the human condition, but it is fun and often not too challenging.

Star Wars: Darth PLagueis is a sort of "prequel" to the Movie Prequels, detailing the activities of Darth Sidious' master. I won't dwell too much on the plot of this book, however.

In terms of writing, I think Luceno is one of the better writers in the Star Wars stable. I had read Labrynth of Evil (a previous Star Wars book) and enjoyed it. But surprisingly, Luceno is one half of Jack McKinnley, pseudonym for the writer of the Robotech series of novels. I had begun reading them in the 6th grade, and sometimes wish I still had them. Although a novelisation of Robotech, in many ways they seemed a bit more adult and sophisticated to my 12 year old mind. I suspect re-reading those books would be a lot like re-reading the Dragonlance Chronicles series: the magic was left behind more than 2 decades ago. Luckily Luceno's writing has evolved.

The Fountains of Paradise by Arthur C Clarke

Arthur C. Clarke is one of the old, great luminaries of Science Fiction. As has been eulogized about Ray Bradbury recently, Clarke along with Bradbury, Asimov and Heinlein elevated Science Fiction from the irrelevance of pulp to a serious literary genre. While SF has never really left its pulp origins (witness all of the genre and media tie-in fiction, like Star Wars novels, or Wahrammer 40K), the elevation of works from Clarke as well as his colleagues has uplifted all elements of the genre, in my opinion.

I picked up this book when I started to become interested in the idea of space elevators. Clarke gives a nice summary of the idea (up to 1978, of course), but the recent announcement by a Japanese firm with the intent of building a space elevator (as unrealistically optimistic as that might be from my perspective) made me want to read this book.

Like many of Clarke's books, the excitement and "action" of the prose does not involve conflict or battle, but rather the challenge of scientific and engineering problems. As such, someone looking more for a space opera/action novel might be put off by this, but nonetheless someone with an interest in a bit of hard science, and it's approach in SF will probably enjoy this book.

One interesting element -- and one that didn't seem to really belong in this book -- is an exploration of the idea of (realistic) first contact, in the form of a long-duration space probe. Of course Clarke visited this subject in much greater detail with Rendezvous with Rama, it again appeared here (though with an eventual pay-off in that we meet the actual the epilogue). It didn't seem to fit because it didn't really go anywhere in terms of the space elevator. Other than to suggest the irrelevancy of religion...

The technical description of the elevator is well done, with some illumination on subjects like orbital mechanics, and the like. The "fiction" here is the substance Clarke invented to make his elevator work -- a form of crystal aligned diamond cable. This would seem to be the only real fictional construct of the book (the rest is projections on current technology, including cheaper -- but still costly -- surface-to-orbit spaceflight, and Martian colonization), though like any good SF the advance of science may have made a material that promises the structural integrity needed for a space elevator...

I found the book to be pretty decent, but not one of Clarke's best. Not quite the page-turner that Rendezvous with Rama or 2001 were, or even Songs of a Distant Earth. Still, after the first half of the book, it picked up quite a bit more and became more of a page-turner.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Unincorporated Man by Dani & Eytan Kollin

The Unincorporated Man stands as a winner of the Prometheus Award, given for remarkable Science Fiction of a Libertarian bend. Reading this book, it can be plainly seen why it won this award.

I generally don’t like to get into politics when discussing SF literature, but there are times when a book IS political, and that must be considered when reading. As such, this book firmly occupies the far right spectrum of American politics (which has its own peculiarities when viewed internationally). For full disclosure, I consider myself to be mostly centrist, with a slight liberal and slight libertarian bias. While some issues I lean hard left, others I lean hard right, so often the “left-right spectrum” is inadequate to fully describe political leanings, but I hope this gives a benchmark, and helps explain how I come to view this book.

I've seen the book described as a "utopian/dystopian" story, and I think that depends entirely on where you political outlook is. As can be surmised this book is decidedly on the hard right. It describes a future in which the government is constitutionally limited to be as ineffectual and unobtrusive as possible (indeed, many aspects we today see as necessary roles of government -- like currency, the justice system, and law enforcement -- have been given private options in this setting). Indeed, the setting has been wrapped around
Libertarian truths, to sometimes a ridiculous and satiristic extent (government officials are always portrayed as talent-less and self-important, the term "tax" and "Tax Collectors" are bogey-men -- even if the main meme of the book effectively suggests a 5% flat tax, even if they don't like the term). In short, the future suggested here is very Corporatist, where corporations and business transactions dominate human interaction in a way that it has never before in history.

That's not to say there are no issues with this society. The main theme of this book is that, in the future, ALL citizens are required to "Incorporate" themselves, in the same way a business incorporates. Shares are created (100,000 at birth, which can be sub-divided later in the same way corporate stocks can split). Five percent of these shares go to the government (which they use for revenue -- effectively taxation even if the characters of the setting refuse to call it thus), 20% to the parents, and the rest for the individual to sell off, if they choose, to raise capital for things like education, luxuries, emergencies, and whatever else one would need to raise capital for.

On the surface admittedly there is an intriguing appeal, much in the same way Heinlein's military service for suffrage has an appeal. But both are, in my opinion, inimical to the functioning of a free and deliberate society. The obvious problem is that this amounts to appalling slavery, a slavery of choice. If lets say you sell off your remaining stock down to the legal limit (which in this setting has been decreasing for decades -- originally 45%, now down to 25%), your stockholders could effectively intervene in your decisions, down to mandated psychic and health exams in order to "protect their stock."

While admittedly this system rewards talent with resources to exploit that talent, it also means that talent can be more effectively exploited by others for their own gain. In the above scenario, lets say as a kid you were very talented and intelligent, getting good grades and testing out to an above average IQ. You sell your stock to get into Medical school, where again you excel, but requires selling the maximum amount of stock you have in order to fund this very expensive education.

As these inputs develop your capabilities, so does your stock increase (you are, in effect, making yourself more "valuable" financially). When done with your education, predictably you go on to a successful career, further boosting your stock. But with 5% held by the government, another 20% by your parents, and 50% by outside investors, you are entitled to only 25% of the fruits of your labor -- the rest go to other entities. Thus the struggle to buy back enough of your stock to hit "majority" and thus a measure of independence is a struggle that could take decades to accomplish -- far more a sacrifice than say paying off student loans!

This system does not exist without heroes looking to tear it down. Enter Justin Cord, a billionaire that had himself "frozen" from our own time, and takes advantage of better technology to cure his 21st century ails and grant longevity. He also pre-dates Incorporation, and is the only "free" human in the setting.

Literarily speaking, Justin Cord in my mind comes off as being a bit of a Marty Stu. He is effective at whatever he does, still is fabulously wealthy, and is able to break traditional cultural taboos of the time because, quite frankly, he's awesome.

This is, in effect, a Time Travel novel, just with the mechanism being served by cryonics rather than a macguffin machine. And like a Time Travel novel, cliches still abound. The character is pleasantly surprised that the Beetles are still as popular as ever, there are still Trekkies, and native Italians still can't make a good pizza. I have to admit, when I read these, there was a little eye rolling going on...

Getting back to the political scope of this novel, I couldn't help but feel there's a bit of naivete going on here. I view hard-core Libertarianism in the same light as Communism: it might work in theory, but in practice, comrade...

Ultimately it will depend on how much on the right the reader lean whether they have the same opinion. But I have to admit, not being that far right leaning, there were a few "Oh, not that canard again!" moments.

Critically speaking, I think there was too much the authors were trying to pack into this book at the same time. I would have rather have seen a reduction down to the main theme of the book, exploring the "Incorporated" society from all aspects -- for example, start off the first third of the novel with an examination of the positive aspects of this society, the second third the negative, and leave the end for tearing down this edifice. Also not much time is given to the poor, how they fit into this society, and how society decides to care for them, or even if the do at all. There are some mentions here and there, but what happens to a "penny" (reference to the value of their stock, i.e. a "Penny stock") whose stock rating is nearly worthless, how they struggle to advance in a society that is entirely profit driven, or even if they can advance at all?

In the end, if you enjoy Libertarian SF, this might be a good book to pick up. For me, while I enjoy reading speculations that do not necessarily agree with my political point of  view, there were just a few too many cliches and canards here, making it a readable if flawed book.

I also understand there is a sequel, so watch this space for that review, when it comes.