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.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Tau Zero by Poul Anderson

Tau Zero is one of those books that I had always meant to read, but never really got around to it. It recently came up (somewhere) and I remembered how I had wanted to add it to my collection, but this time decided to do something about it. Book acquired, I set down to read it.

This book, like a lot of Poul Anderson’s work, comes from a different era of SF: to borrow a term from the Comics industry, it is best described as the Silver Age (around 1950 to the mid-to-late 70s). This is the era that most of the big names in SF did their most productive work. Characterization takes a back seat to the Idea of the book (indeed, the Idea could be considered to be one of the characters) as the author uses the cast of characters as a vehicle for exploring whatever Idea they are presenting.

Tau Zero refers to the ratio of time dilation a traveler experiences as they approach the speed of light. Tau Zero is the speed of light (and thus is unachievable), but theoretically one can come very close to it.

The premise of the book is that a Bussard Ramjet spaceship, traveling to a star only 32 light years away (a there-and-back journey of 64 years, though the crew only experiences around 10 years of travel). During this trip, the ship encounters a hazard and is no longer able to decelerate. Furthermore, at the speeds they are traveling at, they cannot deactivate the magnetic scoop, as the hard radiation generated by even the sparse matter in interstellar space will kill them in a matter of hours, nor can the EVA while under acceleration due to the hard radiation emanating from the engines. So in short they are stuck in constant acceleration, going faster and faster, while Tau gets smaller and smaller. While they hatch a plan to shoot for intergalactic space (where hopefully the vacuum is more rarefied than the space between stars), in order to present the crew with a reasonable time-frame, they have to build their acceleration even higher. Soon, minutes inside the ship equal years in the background time-frame, and 10,000 years pass in the universe.

Finding Intergalactic space is not rarefied enough, they shoot instead for the space between galactic clusters, before they can affect repairs. Worse however, is that their journey – expected to be less than 100 years in their original mission, is now taking hundreds of millions of years. Further problems arise…how to decelerate in time to NOT miss a galactic cluster (or galaxy for that matter). The only thing to do is to keep accelerating. Soon billions upon billions of years pass, while it has only been months aboard ship. The crew witness the death of the universe: new stars fail to form, and old stars gutter and die out. They encounter galaxies – now passing through them a few minutes at a time – populated by red dwarfs. Soon even their light fades away.

Worse still the universe undergoes a retrograde, contracting under the influence of gravity, to form a new singularity from which a new universe can be born. The crew survives this (I guess they’re just going too fast), and use the expansion of this new universe as a brake upon their speed. Tau drops, they find a suitable planet – timed to be old enough in its evolution to support an industrial civilization, but still very young in the stellar neighborhood that reborn Humanity could be the first on the scene of intelligent, starfaring civilizations.

Overall, the book is very effective in exploring the phenomenon of time dilation. The story is interspersed with descriptive text exploring time dilation. But it is definitely a product of an earlier generation of Science Fiction: I found the characters in some places forced; the dialogue awkward. Still, the central character in this story is the science, and its affect upon the crew, so perhaps that can be forgiven.

This book was first published in 1970, so the march of science has continued since then. Anderson proposes a contractionary period leading up to a new Big Bang, but current thinking on the problem suggests this is not correct: evidence suggests that the universe is expanding at an increasing rate – galaxies and clusters are moving away from each other at an increasing rate – so the eventual death of the universe will not be in a new Big Bang, but rather in a degenerate era of star-corpses, radiating the last of their heat into space, where the focus of energy is not through stellar fusion, but rather the activity of black holes as they rip apart the dark, brown dwarfs left in the universe.

Still, if one reads this book in the context of when it was written, it can be forgiven that the science is not up-to-date, and the story can still be enjoyed. While I personally would be utterly fascinated with a story set in this degenerate era, as the human crew struggles to survive in an era without light, that might be a story for another time.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Starbound by Joe Haldeman

Following on the heels of Marsbound by Haldeman, I read Starbound as soon as I was done with the previous book. As this is a sequel, it was a logical course of action...

In Marsbound, we discover intelligent life on Mars, life that was bio-engineered to be the mouthpieces of an advanced alien civilization based on silicon-oxides and existing in a sort of cryo-state: nearly immortal because at those temperatures, nothing moves fast and chemical reactions occur at a snail's pace. The cost of immortality? Living an existence where 1 minute is actually 8.

Carmen and Paul, along with 3 military types, 2 scientists, and 2 Martians, crew an interstellar ship with the purpose of contacting the ET civilization. Their message? Please don't kill us!

So the ship makes the journey of 24 LY to Wolf 25, contact the "Others," and open a dialouge, of sorts. The message is that the Others can't be bothered with treating humanity as anything other than a child civilization, and you'd better not get on our wrong side, or you'll be punished...

The book ends with the "free energy" system that Earth had reversed-engineered from Martian artifacts being "turned off" by the Others, and in fact, all energy sources above biological being robbed of their capabilities. This because the Others had found out that the Earth had built a defensive warfleet, to defend the Earth against Other aggression, while the crew offered their message of peace. Thus the Other's response is to blow up the moon, and deny Earth any sort of spacetravel -- even low Earth Orbit -- for the next 13,000 or so. And rob humanity of technology in general.

I really enjoyed these 2 Haldeman books, but found the ending to be really unsatisfying, so much so that I'm hoping there will be a third book to tie it all up.

What is really dissatisfying about the series is the attitudes of the Others. Haldeman I think goes to great lengths to differentiate their "mentality" (to quote the great, late Marc Bloch) from that of humanity (or even the Martians). What would we have in common with, say, tool-using octopi?

I'm not sure he was entirely successful though. In the end the Others come across as being less interested in exploration, and more interested in "The Game" (there was a throw-away line -- perhaps more important than I would have guessed at the time -- that the Others enjoy games, played by bio-constructs -- in which the objective is not to win, but to learn the rules of the game). Not only does this make it look like they were just playing with humanity ("testing us," as Spy, one of those bio-constructs, mentions), but it also makes them look like a civilization inhabited entirely by immortal children. Arbitrary and capricious.

In the end, I don't regret reading the books, and I think it is one interpretation on how a first-contact scenario might play out. But I'm hoping for a 3rd book that will propel this series from being merely interesting to "great!"

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Marsbound by Joe Haldeman

The name Haldeman should be a familiar one to Sci-Fi literature fans: he wrote the widely regarded The Forever War. Winning the Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards (source), this book was as much about Vietnam as it was about SF, cleverly using the plot device of time dilation to illustrate the alienation of soldiers returning home from war.

Marsbound is a somewhat different book, and explores both early colonization of Mars, as well as "first contact." There is nothing original about the storyline, but Haldeman tells it well. It is from the first-person perspective of Carmen, daughter of two scientists that go with them to the Mars colony, along with her younger brother Card. And of course along the way she meets Martians.

When I first started reading this book, I almost thought it was a juvenile SF. The fact it was from the perspective of a teen-aged girl reinforced it. But as the character grew, so did the plotline. By the end it wasn't quite a juvenile I had thought it was. Furthermore, Haldeman's direct, basic, and uncluttered writing style kept it simple and at a good pace. I was easily able to read over 100pgs a night (I usually read for 2 hours) and the book came in at 304pgs, so it only took me a few days to plow through it.

There's some very interesting science-fictional concepts in it, such as the nature of the "Others" (only hinted at in this book) and of course the purpose of the Martians. Overall a good book, and I'm already reading the sequel Spacebound.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Old Argument: Or, the Disconnect in Historical Movie Audiences

I think the argument is as old as the internet, perhaps even older than that. The scenario should be familiar: a new historical movie comes out, which triggers an argument between two sides -- those that are dissappointed by how historically inaccurate the movie is, and those that claim "it's just a movie."

While both sides of the argument have just as valid viewpoints, I in almost every instance side with those that argue against historical inaccuracy. The point of this blog post then is not to necessarily argue that the opposite viewpoint is wrong or bad, but to explain to that audience why it is important to some people.

One of the points argued is that it's just a movie, and the way I interpret that statement is that it's all just a fantasy, and one should not be too concerned by it. I think this highlights a fundamental disconnect between the two groups in terms of the appreciation of history. I think for the vast majority of movie-goers, the purpose of a movie is to indulge in some fantasy, to escape the drudgery of their every day life and to be entertained for 2 hours. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this desire, but it is important to differentiate how and why people are entertained. One person's epic storytelling can be another person's ponderous snooze-fest.

For someone that has an appreciation of the historical period of any particular movie, the same sort of motivation is also in play, I think. Both audiences want the fantasy, want the experience of going someplace they could otherwise never visit. The real difference, however, is that for someone that is actually knowledgeable of the period in question, the fantasy is broken -- the immersion and the suspension of disbelief  are shattered. Simply put, the goal of the fantasy is no longer met by a history fan, and the movie suffers badly for it.

This brings me to a central and important point for the movie producing audience: the cost and effort to make a reasonably historically accurate movie is the same as making an inaccurate one (usually: there are exceptions, such as 300 where an accurate movie could not be made within the context and goal of the movie). Furthermore, those that go to a movie expressedly for the purpose of escapism will not notice or care if the movie is accurate or not: they just want an exciting and well paced movie.

Ultimately, the real reason historically accurate movies are ignored is not because such a movie will be bad (despite the arguments of the detractors; "If I wanted to see a documentary..."), but that the audience that really appreciates an accurate movie is very small, not worth the effort to cater to, and the vast majority of the viewing public, as well as the movie producers just don't care.