Oh that was painful, but I finished it for my book club, and for science. And make no mistake: the science in this book is mind-bendingly excellent. ROh that was painful, but I finished it for my book club, and for science. And make no mistake: the science in this book is mind-bendingly excellent. Robert L. Forward's ideas (life on a neutron star, contact between cultures who exist at different time-scales, etc) are the kind of top-notch speculation that makes science fiction great.
But his writing is dreadful beyond belief.
I have never come across a writer in such desperate need of a co-author. Seriously, this book reads as if it were written by Sheldon on Big Bang Theory. Forward handles his aliens well enough, but when it comes to writing human beings he seems to understand that humans have these things called "personalities" but he isn't quite sure what they are or how they work. To be fair, many of the other greats of SF (Asimov, Clarke, Niven, etc.) aren't known for Hemingway-levels of depth in characterization, but at least their characters could probably pass a Turing test. I'm not sure that Forward's could. All of Forward's characters speak their thoughts aloud to themselves in stilted, perfectly grammatical monologues on a par with "Oh my. I seem to have fallen and I cannot get up." The man seems to have a disdain for using contractions the way some people are uncomfortable using profanity.
Urgh. How did this ever get past an editor? Like I said, what Forward needed was some other writer to use this draft as a plot outline and write in actual human touches for the humans, and this could have been a fantastic novel....more
Imagine if Arthur C. Clarke and John Scalzi wrote a book together. You'd come up with something like The Martian.
Man vs. Nature with Science in one haImagine if Arthur C. Clarke and John Scalzi wrote a book together. You'd come up with something like The Martian.
Man vs. Nature with Science in one hand and Snark in the other. The premise is simple but fraught with danger - not just for the hero but also for the audience. After all, one-man castaway stories run the risk of becoming dreadfully dull. Andy Weir sticks the landing, and manages to keep ramping up the difficulties for his stranded astronaut while allowing the protagonist enough victories to keep him (and the reader) from sliding into despair. I blew through this book in no time flat, but it never felt like mindless popcorn. Far from it: there was almost as much scientific meat in this book as in Mary Roach's Packing for Mars, only told from the point of view of a lonely astronaut with nothing but a crop of potatoes and hours of 70s television for company. The ending left me wanting an epilogue or two just as an excuse to stick around in the story for longer.
In fact, I loved this book enough to rant about it for a while:
This is a book that will restore your faith in science fiction. What's more, this book will renew your faith in Hard science fiction, the kind that's mostly been relegated to the pages of magazines like Analog while disappearing from bookstore shelves. Even better, because of the wit and humanity with which Weir writes while maintaining his strict commitment to gritty realism, I've at last got a hard-SF book that I'd feel comfortable, nay enthusiastic, about recommending to non-SF readers in general. I hope hope hope that with a movie in the works, Weir may have done for crunchy, real-science SF what Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven did for westerns - namely, letting mainstream culture take a genre seriously again.
The first thing this book brought to mind was David Brin's underappreciated noir-comedy masterpiece Kiln People, which also dealt with a future socieThe first thing this book brought to mind was David Brin's underappreciated noir-comedy masterpiece Kiln People, which also dealt with a future society skewed from our own by body-substitute technology. Brin's book was about people making short-term duplicates of themselves to take care of groceries, jobs, and other drudgeries (including murder), while in Lock In the purpose served by the robot stand-ins is far more vital and humanitarian - namely, providing bodies for people "locked in" by a debilitating virus. Scalzi's book is, of course, much shorter and to-the-point than Brin's, but I'm honestly not sure if that's a feature or a bug.
I came into Lock In having already read Scalzi's prequel short-story "Unlocked," which did most of the heavy lifting in terms of world-building and exploring all the social ramifications of the Haden virus on society - stuff I would usually prefer to have in the meat of the novel itself. Lock In jumps right to a crisis point for the Haden victims, and I'm not sure I would have understood all the ramifications from the cursory sketch of the story world Scalzi gives in the book if I hadn't already had the background.
The book itself is a fast-paced, action-packed mystery story that's very entertaining in all its twists, but it feels like it's over far too quickly. This is a book that demands sequels not because there are any plot threads left dangling, but because the author hasn't by any means explored his basic concept to its fullest. I think my overall opinion of the novel will increase beyond simple enjoyment of its bubblegum value if Scalzi comes back to this universe and digs a little deeper. If he doesn't, then I'm going to be pretty disappointed.
Quibble Corner: As in Old Man's War there is an overuse of coincidence to keep the plot going. The detective protagonist is not just a Haden's victim, but just happens to be the poster child of Haden's victims, just happens to run in the same social circles as the victims/suspects, and just happens to have rich parents and more personal resources than any other detective who might have been assigned to the case....more
Given the overwhelming prevalence of fantasy in YA lit, I’d personally love to see a swing towards some solid, future-looking SF. Having read a novelGiven the overwhelming prevalence of fantasy in YA lit, I’d personally love to see a swing towards some solid, future-looking SF. Having read a novel earlier this year that got it all wrong, it’s refreshing to come across a book that gets just about everything right. I can only hope this catches on as a genre again.
I’m not a Heinlein worshiper, but that’s clearly where Allen Steele draws his inspiration (as one would expect), even going so far as to almost quote him directly in a spot or two. However, Steele cribs from the good parts of Heinlein and doesn't get bogged down in baby-boomer nostalgia for the way the future used to be. The themes are all there – the hard science, the hard work, the young man learning personal responsibility – but updated for the 21st Century. I can’t imagine that any novel in Heinlein’s time would have used the U.S. as the antagonist, had a villain in a power-mad Vice President whose name just happens to be an anagram of “Sarah Palin,” or included a surprise Angry Birds reference for those paying attention. Steele doesn't blatantly leave any loose threads hanging around for a sequel, but he has reopened the door to a science-based future just waiting to be explored. ...more
I adored this book, but I can easily see where a lot of readers wouldn't. 2312 is a triumph of worldbuilding over storytelling, but Robinson's everythI adored this book, but I can easily see where a lot of readers wouldn't. 2312 is a triumph of worldbuilding over storytelling, but Robinson's everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink worldbuilding (expanding on the milieu of his Mars trilogy) creates such a rich, detailed future that I didn't mind exploring it a little aimlessly at times. Unlike his Mars books, Robinson focuses on a smaller handful of protagonists and hangs the story on what first seems to be a standard genre adventure framework - solving the "whodunnit" of a terrorist attack on Mercury. Nothing is that simple, however, so anyone expecting a ticking clock adventure story ending, with Bruce Willis triumphant, is going to be disappointed.
Meanwhile, you get to spend time with people who walk just ahead of sunrise on Mercury (for fun), travel the solar system in hollowed-out asteroids designed to mimic extinct Earth ecosystems, surf a wave in Saturn's rings, play lawn-bowling with people who can't quite pass a Turing test, and cruise the canals of Manhattan.
Interesting note: I read this book while spending a month in East Africa, and Robinson's description of a balkanized, desperate, and struggling Earth really resonated with what I was seeing around me in present-day Tanzania, Zambia, and Kenya. The only real problem I had with the story was that in my mind's eye, the two main characters looked just like Amy Wong and Hermes from Futurama....more
Brin needs to write more. Two reasons: 1) He’s really good. 2) If it hadn’t been 10 years since his last novel came out (the outstanding, underappreciBrin needs to write more. Two reasons: 1) He’s really good. 2) If it hadn’t been 10 years since his last novel came out (the outstanding, underappreciated Kiln People) then the weight of expectations for this one wouldn’t have been so high. To make the portentousness worse, we’ve got Brin in full-on Message Mode, apparently trying to recapture the lightning-in-a-bottle that was his 1990 novel Earth, to which Existence can be seen as a thematic (though not literal) sequel.
And yet, the man does not disappoint. In addition to being a truly epic novel, Existence is also a master-class in Futurology, and Brin gets to do this because as a futurist, he’s got a much better track record than most. He does the usual SF trick of extrapolating from present trends to guess where society is going, only he does it on a much broader scale than other authors. Plus, he spends a great deal of the novel examining the many, many failure modes possible for human civilization AND introduces what’s got to be the most original alien-contact scenario I’ve ever come across while positing multiple solutions to the Fermi Paradox and implying that, in the context of the book at least, many of them are true. After all, it’s a big galaxy out there. For comparison’s sake, I’d say that Existence falls midway in between the nihilistic doomsday scenarios of Pellegrino & Zebrowski’s The Killing Star and the optimistic, gung-ho, gosh-wow scientific discovery of James P. Hogan’s Giants Novels.
That’s a lot to swallow for one book, and that’s without even going into the smart flash mobs, emerging A.I.s, space battles, viral chain letters, and Neanderthals. What keeps it from getting bogged down is Brin’s refreshingly light voice and his ability to create sympathetic, interesting characters, each of whom brings a unique point of view to the proceedings. Unfortunately it’s clear that for this book at least, the characters only appear for as long as they’re needed to get across Brin’s Big Ideas, and then he discards them fairly casually. This differentiates it from Earth, which followed through much better on its character’s individual arcs. However, the argument could be made (and I would) that in Existence, the main character is in fact the human race itself.
Now write me some more space opera, please. Pretty please? ...more
Just what I needed after a seemingly endless string of fantasy and paranormal books - an old school, Analog style, hard-SF adventure with some great BJust what I needed after a seemingly endless string of fantasy and paranormal books - an old school, Analog style, hard-SF adventure with some great Big Science concepts. The centerpiece are the titular dragons, life forms discovered in the accretion disk of SS Cygni, and the expedition/safari to bag one and bring it back. Along the way there's an interesting approach to wormhole-powered slower-than-light travel, and AI based on the personality of Ernest Hemingway, and an Earth future totally transformed by biotechnology.
As for the biotech, I don't quite buy that one aspect of Brotherton's world building. I'm sure there's a revolution of some sort coming down the road, and that given the option people would start modifying their own bodies in new and shocking ways, but some of the applications used in the book seem a little "jet-packy," if that makes sense. (Living creatures being used as beds and chairs, for instance.)
What makes the book kind of a slog through the middle section, though, are the dysfunctional characters. Flawed characters are always good for drama (and only extreme personalities would willingly volunteer for a 500-year mission) but Star Dragon's cast is so deeply messed up as to be completely unsympathetic for a big chunk of the book, and Brotherton seems to spend a lot of time writing from the point of view of the most detestable, least likable characters in the cast. The finale is suitably rousing, however, and most of the characters achieve some measure of redemption by the end....more
Back in the 80s when I was swimming through Asimov, Herbert, and Clarke, I distinctly remember picking A Fall of Moondust offFinally Got Around To...
Back in the 80s when I was swimming through Asimov, Herbert, and Clarke, I distinctly remember picking A Fall of Moondust off my high school library's shelf and reading the first page, then putting it back to save for later.
A Fall of Moondust might be the closest thing to a suspense thriller Arthur Clarke ever wrote. Due to a freak moonquake, the tourist bus/spacecraft Selene gets buried 15 meters below one of the lunar "seas" in a region of dust with bizarre, liquid-like properties. Parallel plots ensue focusing on the Selene's passengers and crew buried alive with limited air, the engineers on the surface desperately trying to locate and rescue them, and the news reporters vying for first dibs on the story (or tragedy) of the century.
A Fall of Moondust sits right on the cusp of the Golden Age of SF and the actual, legitimate Space Age. It retains the verve, gusto, and quaint 1950s characterizations of the former, but (especially because this is Clarke) the solid, real-world sensibilities of the latter. The science may be a little off regarding the properties of actual lunar dust, but for 1961 the speculation is mostly spot-on. While we may not have achieved permanent lunar bases and tourism yet, Clarke absolutely nails the importance of sensationalist news reporting in a world of easy global communication (which is not surprising given that Clarke is credited with the original idea for geostationary communication satellites).
Another author may have sacrificed some of the science in order to ramp up the human tension and make that the focus of the story, but that isn't Clarke's style. Nevertheless, his characters aren't merely science-spouting robots, and they aren't supermen either. Clarke recognizes that solving the problems brought on by human foibles would be just as important in this kind of disaster situation as it would be to solve the engineering problems, and he gives both aspects equal time.
I can imagine that if Alfred Hitchcock had ever decided to make a science fiction movie, he might have used something like this book as a place to start....more
Here's something you don't see much of any more - Social Science Fiction. The World Inside is a product of the era that also gave us Logan's Run and THere's something you don't see much of any more - Social Science Fiction. The World Inside is a product of the era that also gave us Logan's Run and THX-1138, and is something of the same ilk. Several centuries into the future, the human race has moved into giant monolithic city-buildings called "urbmons" that each house almost a million people. Society has made some rather extreme adaptations to living in such close confinement: every freedom is supressed except for one - sex - and on sex, the only restriction is that no one is allowed to say "no."
Silverberg posits an interesting situation and commits to it, exploring as many consequences of his idea as he can come up with. The book is structured into seven chapters that act as inter-connecting short stories, each focusing on a different inhabitant of Urbmon 116. It lacks a traditional plot structure, but Silverberg is going for the "literary" here, and it mostly works. The World Inside is a book that keeps you thinking.
As intriguing a vision of the future it presents, The World Inside is very much a product of its time. Published in 1971, it straddles the psychedelic '60s and the swinging '70s in a lot of its attitudes. So far as I can tell, there are no non-Euro-American characters, and while there's an awful lot of sex, women are relegated to a passive, domestic role with essentially no power. Whether those were deliberate choices by the author or just a 1960's blind spot, it's hard to say....more
Great. That's all I need right now. Another new writer I have to start following.
It's been a long time since I tried to swallow a 600 page book, and tGreat. That's all I need right now. Another new writer I have to start following.
It's been a long time since I tried to swallow a 600 page book, and the first thing that shocked me about Pushing Ice is how fast a read it is. It takes a standard Arthur Clarke style scenario - an alien object speeds out of the Solar System and a spaceship crew has to catch up, rendezvous, and study the artifact. In this case, however, the artifact snatches said spaceship crew and drags them along with it at relativistic speeds into the deep future.
What makes this book flow so well is that Reynolds balances the "wow, gee whiz" stuff with a good bit of human drama and well-developed characters. The main struggle isn't between humans and their environment (though there is that) or humans vs. aliens (though there's some of that too) but between two human characters who start off as best friends and end up as bitter enemies. Reynolds doesn't paint either as a hero or villain, and both make glaring mistakes and bad decisions as often as they do the right thing.
That said, the author is prone to a little repetition, and while his aliens are satisfyingly non-human, they fall too easily into white-hat, black-hat camps. Also, I'm not sure that the human crew would have really put up with their squabbling leaders for as long as they did without booting them both out of power and holding a general election. Nevertheless, Pushing Ice is a good, solid, mind bending, epic, hard-sf read. More, please!...more
This book is something of an odd duck. I could describe it as science fiction, even "hard" science fiction, but not in the sense that people normallyThis book is something of an odd duck. I could describe it as science fiction, even "hard" science fiction, but not in the sense that people normally use those words. Rather, this book is fiction about science, and how the scientific process works. The science in the book itself is barely science-fictional at all. Other than that, Bellwether is a screwball romantic comedy.
Connie Willis would return to this kind of sly humor later, and more successfully, in the fantastic To Say Nothing of the Dog, but you can see her warming up her comedic muscles in this earlier work. The characters are researchers in a confused, managed-by-acronyms, corporate lab farm, who delve into chaos theory, the root causes of hair-bobbing and other fads, and the group dynamics behavior of sheep. Lots and lots of sheep.
Despite all the humor and satire, there seems to be a dark thread of cynicism about the human race underlying the novel's theme. The moral of the story, if there is one, is that we're all sheep, all of us following the latest fads and trends right over the cliff, whether we realize it or not. Oh well, as Vonnegut said: So it goes....more
So much for the future. Forget space travel - in fact, forget traveling very far from your home, except by horse or sailboat. Anything else requires cSo much for the future. Forget space travel - in fact, forget traveling very far from your home, except by horse or sailboat. Anything else requires cheap fuel, which probably won't be around for much longer. You can also give up on pizza night. When the cost of transporting food becomes as prohibitive as the cost of transporting anything else, we won't be eating much of anything that we can't grow in our own backyard. Oh, but wait... we don't have backyards any more since (in urban areas, at least) we paved over all our arable farmland to build subdivisions, shopping malls, industrial complexes, and parking lots.
Basically, we're screwed.
Terry Goodkind commented that people will believe something because a) they want it to be true, or b) they're afraid it might be true. I believe the future of The Windup Girl because it scares the crap out of me. In the 22nd century, energy is scarce and food is scarcer. "Calories" are now currency, and to make matters worse, a cabal of big-Agri companies, not satisfied with flooding the market with their patented, infertile crops, have released engineered plagues into the environment with the goal of wiping out any food source for which they don't own the monopoly.
With the help of a renegade gene-hacker, the Kingdom of Thailand has managed to keep out the plagues of the West and remain a viable nation, but its grip on independence is slipping due to corruption from within. Into this mix comes Emiko, a genetically-engineered New Person - a "windup" - one of a new species designed to not only live, but to thrive in a future altered beyond recognition from our own. The question is: will the windup girl and her like be able to survive the death throes of the original human race?...more
Dystopia’s been quite the rage lately, what with the overall feeling that civilization’s about to slide into an energy-starved, polluted, underfed apoDystopia’s been quite the rage lately, what with the overall feeling that civilization’s about to slide into an energy-starved, polluted, underfed apocalypse (see: the works of Paulo Bacigalupi), but science fiction isn’t just about providing dire warnings; part of its job is also to propose hypothetical solutions.
Metatropolis reads as a semi-hopeful rebuttal to The Windup Girl. The authors admit that yes, human civilization cannot and will not survive indefinitely in its present form (it never does) but the five authors also make the assumption that people Will Find A Way to survive and thrive in the future, and they try to work out what that way is.
A lot of it hinges on “distributed resources” and such that sounds more than a little like communism without the charismatic dictators, a la Lenin or Mao. Jay Lake addresses the Charismatic Leader problem right away, but his personality cult – an overt Christ-figure – has the decency to inspire for a while and then get out of the way. In Tobias Buckell’s story, he introduces a couple of fun ideas: the conversion of disused skyscrapers into vertical farms and gardens and the idea of “turking” as a way of dividing complicated tasks between dozens of unconnected individuals who individually have no idea of whatever kind of scheme they’re a part of. Elizabeth Bear provides the closest thing to a weak point in the anthology with a story that rehashes some of the themes from the first two, yet is heavy on preaching and low on story.
John Scalzi, as can be expected, brings the snark and delivers the most fun (and blue-collar) addition to the book with a story about high-tech, near-future pig farming (which I enjoyed all the more because I was recently made to read Robert Heinlein’s dreadful Farmer in the Sky). Karl Schroeder provides the capstone with a story that earns Metatropolis a five-star-rating all on its own, by proposing cities within cities and virtual parallel worlds layered on top of our own by taking social networking and MMORPG concepts to their logical next steps. Schroeder’s story in particular offers a world that I can easily see becoming a reality with only a little more technology than we have at present, but with a social order so alien as to make it seem like diving through the layers of reality in Inception while fully awake. ...more
Now here's some good sci-fi for you. World-building is a big deal in science fiction, but one mistake some authors make when their fantastical settingNow here's some good sci-fi for you. World-building is a big deal in science fiction, but one mistake some authors make when their fantastical setting takes center stage is to sacrifice character for the sake of the "Wow, look at this!" factor. This is something Karl Schroeder does not do.
Book 1 ended with Venera Fanning cutting herself adrift into the wide open spaces of Virga, the giant zero-g gasbag lit from within by artificial suns that is the setting for this series. As Book 2 opens, she "washes up" on the surface of Spyre, the largest of Virga's rotating cities. Spyre is home to a multitude of tiny nations walled off from each other and drenched in centuries of tradition, inbreeding, and paranoia. Venera is a woman schooled in the uses of power, and to find her way home she will have to shake the calcified culture of Spyre to its core.
Schroeder pulls off a couple of impressive stunts here. First, he gives us a main character who isn't the least bit sympathetic (she was almost a villain in the first novel) and makes her compelling. Second, by focusing on how the science of his setting might affect human culture, he creates a place that reads as a cross between Ringworld and Gormenghast and feels more believable than either.