Well, The Dog Stars deserves a place near the top. It is a lyrical and mostly melancholy first-person tale of life after pretty much everyone is gone, in which most of those who are left aren’t folks you really want to be anywhere near.
Okay, I’ll jump straight to the obvious resemblance. Like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Heller eschews conventional punctuation and syntax. That and the subject matter pretty much demand comparison.
I gave McCarthy’s book one star. I hated it — no, I despised it. If you want all the details, check out my review. If there was one thing that bothered me most, it was McCarthy’s dismissal of the importance of scientific plausibility. I mean, if he had gone completely allegorical, I would have pretty happy with the story. But McCarthy is famous for his gritty realism, but to claim that humans have somehow survived when even the fungi and microbes that rot fruit are extinct — WTF? And somehow there’s supposed to be hope or redemption at the end? I’m not going to spend any more effort on the rant, so there it is.
Oh, other than to note that my niece nailed the comparison:
This book is like The Road, if The Road wasn't a gruesome wasteland of despair and had a shred of hope at the end.
(That’s her whole review. She also gave McCarthy’s effort one star. I’m very pleased to be related to her.)
Heller’s book has a global pandemic as it’s backstory. No spoiler there, it’s part of the blurb, and besides it took place nine years before the action starts. Creeping climate change plays a smaller but critical role. But this isn’t a science- or technology-laden book — I’m just quite satisfied that he didn’t mess up the context.
A lot of people complained about the strange syntax of that other book, and I suppose this one could come in for similar distaste, but I didn’t find either one difficult to read or distracting. Heller even provides something of an explanation; the protagonist survived the flu that killed most everyone else, but discovered that his thoughts didn’t cohere as they had before. His prose reflects that, and contributes a bit of stream of consciousness to the narrative. I think it works fine.
What I do recall from The Road is the beauty of McCarthy’s language. No mistake: the guy is a master wordsmith. Well, Heller is no slouch on that, either. He might be talking about the feeling of flying a small plane, his dog, fishing, or the vista of nighttime stars long after the powergrid has failed, and suddenly he grabs your heart and squeezes. Folks here at Goodreads have tagged four dozen or so quotes from this book. The narrator has a gentle, almost childlike, spirit, and the writing reflects that nicely.
I loved the book. But, on reflection, I can’t give it five stars. The flaw that bothers me is a common one, and many might find it trivial, but flawed it is nonetheless.
None of the significant characters in this book are “normal”. Everyone has a superpower, except for those few who represent the pathos of victimhood. Okay, when I say “superpower”, I obviously don’t mean in the comic book sense. But while the protagonist is presented as if he were an Everyman, he actually has an astonishing range of skills that anyone trying to survive the end of the world would die for (quite literally). Expert hunter, fisherman, pilot, carpenter and mechanic. The other major characters: more of the same.
Now, I get that his skill at fishing gives the author the chance to wax lyrical about that, and he does quite nicely. But I would have respected Heller more if instead, perhaps, he had only started fishing after the collapse and struggled with it at the same time he marveled at it, and expressed frustration that he found such beauty so late. I’m sure it’d make the author’s job tougher, but hey — you want that fifth star or not?
In 1977, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle wrote Lucifer's Hammer, a novel dealing with the collapse of civilization after the Earth is hit by a massiv...moreIn 1977, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle wrote Lucifer's Hammer, a novel dealing with the collapse of civilization after the Earth is hit by a massive comet.
When it was written, the world’s major anxiety was nuclear weapons: The possibility that the United States and the Soviet Union (with a much smaller role played by China) would annihilate humanity with a massive exchange of explosions and radiation was a pervasive nightmare. Lucifer's Hammer was a clear response to this anxiety. It allowed the authors the chance to explore many of the likely consequences of nuclear war without triggering the enmity of either the “peace-nik” or “warmonger” crowds. Curiously, it wasn’t until several years later that the “nuclear winter” hypothesis made a cometary impact an even more appropriate stand-in for a massive nuclear exchange.
The book also pointed out that “nature” could mete out punishment far in excess of anything humans could inflict on themselves. We’re relative pikers at creating Extinction Level Events.
Flood, by Stephen Baxter, is a well-intentioned effort to replicate this.
Today, climate change is the fear, whose most visible consequence would be rising sea levels. Baxter takes this latter phenomena and extrapolates a runaway “Flood” scenario to make it much, much worse. As with Lucifer's Hammer, each step of the escalating threat is lovingly detailed, and eventually long stretches of time are elided to show the consequences and resolutions of earlier crises. Both books end with elderly survivors watching the youth of a post-apocalyptic generation with hope, despair and affection.
Unfortunately, Baxter didn’t write a very good book.
The book’s strength is, oddly for a “hard” science fiction effort, in the characters. Each is a well crafted and unique personality. Most are personable enough that we care about their fates, sometimes grudgingly, others are distasteful enough that we also care about their fates, although perhaps with animosity. But our affection or disdain won’t last nearly as long as the book — the end simply takes too long to reach. The first half or so moves adequately fast, when the extent of the disaster is still being revealed, but once we are clued in to the world’s ultimate fate... the details of how individuals react are undoubtedly necessary, but not riveting enough to keep things interesting.
For fans of hard science fiction, perhaps the biggest failure of the book is the wholly manufactured crisis. We’ve been told by trustworthy scientists that a major cometary impact is only a matter of time, so Lucifer's Hammer doesn’t take a huge leap of faith. But after billions of years of peacefully waiting in the Earth’s mantle, why would Baxter’s flood decide to bubble up at all, much less now?
For many others, the problem is simply the length of the book — or at least the perceived length. There are many thousand-page books that stay engaging throughout, which is something this five-hundred page novel did not.
My recommendation: If you want the better apocalyptic story, read the thirty-year-old Lucifer's Hammer. If you really want a plausible depiction of how the world might end after this very implausible disaster, then Baxter’s slow novel is serviceable. (less)
Definitely should be read with — and after — the somewhat better The Peace War, which takes place in the same timestream and introduces some elements...moreDefinitely should be read with — and after — the somewhat better The Peace War, which takes place in the same timestream and introduces some elements important to this book. The novella The Ungoverned (online here) connects that earlier book and introduces the central character used here. All three are in the compendium Across Realtime.
This one is a detective story that takes place in the far, far distant future, long after most of humanity has mysteriously disappeared. The surviving remnant isn't quite sure where everyone else has gone, and then a murder throws into serious question what they should collectively do about it.
A pretty clever book. Vinge is old-school SciFi, and his cardboard characters show it.
For those in the San Francisco bay area: Borderlands Bookstore's Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Club met on Sunday, 20 November, 2010, at 6 pm to discuss Marooned in Realtime. (less)
The eighties was a great time for apocalyptic fiction. Reagan came to office in 1981 and was definitely a sabre-rattler. Scifi writers looked at his t...moreThe eighties was a great time for apocalyptic fiction. Reagan came to office in 1981 and was definitely a sabre-rattler. Scifi writers looked at his tough guy act and gazed into their crystal balls at the possible outcomes. Peace breaks out? Meh, not too interesting. But WW3 certainly had possibilities for drama, didn't it?
In The Peace War, Vinge looks at a variation on WW3. Instead of nuclear Armageddon, he has a defense contract discover a miracle technology that effectively gives them ultimate power.
The technology is the "bobble" (think "bottled up in a bubble"). The new masters of the universe can create massive silvery force-field bubbles to seal off any trouble spot — as small as an aircraft or as large as a city — and the problem is gone: poof, and suddenly there's a sphere that is impermeable and irreversible, reflecting all radiation and all force.
Of course, the ante bellum powers-that-be don't want this transfer of control, so the result is still apocalyptic, but with some interesting twists. One is that the trauma causes the population to crash to the extent that the new rulers never get the chance to really set up an all-encompassing administrative state. Some areas are carefully controlled, but others are left effectively outside of any control.
Central coastal California is one of these zones, and it is here that a relic scientist, still dreaming of the old technological glory days and wanting to fight The Authority, stumbles on a child prodigy that might become his apprentice and successor in the fight.
This book is pretty good for its post-semi-apocalypse. Vinge gave some serious thought to which parts of our society's technology would collapse and which stood a chance of surviving. Anyone can question his conclusion, but I like his blend. Cars are gone, since horses can do most of the same stuff with less economic infrastructure. Light bulbs can be replaced by candles and gas lamps. But the highest of the high-tech has no good fallback, and is still useful, right? So you get the curious suggestion that "tinkers" will be creating very advanced electronics and then hauling their products to their customers in a horse-drawn carriage.
Vinge does his usual job of coming up with middling-to-very innovative social and technological conditions for us to ponder. He also does his usual mediocre job of creating his cast of characters. His people are always complex and sympathetic enough to keep us from snickering too loud, but he really doesn't have the chops to develop fully realized humans. The heroes are just too clever and far too lucky, the villains are usually simplistically single-minded and arrogant instead of purely evil, and somehow just the right cast of characters happens to all be in the same place at the same time.
Definitely a fun and pretty quick read, but mostly forgettable. The "bobble" is certainly a memorable scifi concept, though. Proof? I was well over half the way through this book before I hit a scene that made me realize I read it way back when. (I remembered precisely how a character had two fingertips cut off, and how that event would later assist one of the other characters with closure.) The "bobbles" had stuck in my mind, but when I started this re-read I'd simply assumed they'd been use several times as a standard scifi trope.
Finally, this is something of a prequel and companion to both the novella The Ungoverned (available here) and Marooned in Realtime. Both take place in Vinge’s “bobble” universe; the latter book borrows one of the characters from The Peace War and one from The Ungoverned. Among the three works, however, The Peace War is the better book.
Disappointing. Very sparkly, lauded with witticisms and cleverness, but the characters were astonishingly superficial and the plot almost non-existent...moreDisappointing. Very sparkly, lauded with witticisms and cleverness, but the characters were astonishingly superficial and the plot almost non-existent — and what little was there wasn't particularly interesting.
A 3 1/2 star book, downgraded to three because Stross ultimately doesn’t deliver much more than a caffeinated theme park ride of the singularity.
I dou...moreA 3 1/2 star book, downgraded to three because Stross ultimately doesn’t deliver much more than a caffeinated theme park ride of the singularity.
I doubt that Accelerando will ever be seen in quite the same way as the early cyberpunk books, but it is certainly similar in its hyperkinetic and chaotic creativity. Stross tosses in a billion and one tasty tidbits of near-future circum-singularity and presses the “Will it Blend?” button.
And, as one would predict, the result is a very intriguing if chunky mess.
For those that aren’t geek-positive, a crucial definition is in order:
A singularity is another name for a black hole: a stellar object so massive that its own gravity compresses it to such density that it, in some sense, “breaks” time and space. Like “infinity”, it is something about which we cannot know. The Technological Singularity (aka “Rapture of the Geeks”, cf.wikipedia) is a metaphorically similar event postulated to be in, perhaps, our somewhat near future. The idea is that we will eventually create artificial intelligence that is beyond our own capabilities, which will then create its own successor (or upgrade itself). Repeat this process, and the result is an exponentially accelerating (ergo, the title) intelligence that quickly grows beyond our control or even our ability to comprehend. We cannot predict anything about our future beyond the emergence of that intelligence: we may be pets or pests.
Accelerando is about the lives of a few individuals just before, during, and for some time after that event.
The nature of the drama means the book is more geeky than even most scifi. But if you can handle the technobabble (and much of it can be elided), this book does a good job of communicating how confusing such an event could easily be. Since these memes will inevitably leak into our nerd-friendly pop culture, it might be an good book for anyone that wants to keep up with the zeitgeist.
And the zeitgeist is important to this book, especially in the early chapters: much of the melodrama is provided by the interactions of rock-star nerds. Stross was obviously conceptualizing the short stories this book came from during the Dot Com boom. The world he depicts is close enough to what seems to be on our horizon that you can almost taste it.
This is both strength and weakness. The opening chapters flirt so closely with plausibility that it pulls the reader in, giving credence to the world he is creating.
But a kind of Zeitgeistian Heisenberg principle is also at work here: the tighter he tries to nail the mood of the time, the more suspect is the trajectory out of that time. Nothing new: the cyberpunk novels of the mid- and late-80s are so infused with the excitement and anxieties of those times that they can be hard to swallow: samurai and keiretsu, gated communities, virtual reality and corporations supplanting governments — where are they now? Similarly, examine much of the scifi of the late sixties and early seventies and it’s all about sex, drugs and the man untrustworthy authority figures.
In twenty years folks will shake their heads at Accelerando and wonder at our obsession with computer technology. He even has his characters examining data from distant galaxies and wondering whether mega-lightyear-spanning civilizations (Kardashev level II or III) are attempting a side-channel timing attack on the virtual machine the universe is being run on. (I mean, c’mon: a timing attack? From inside the VM?) Okay, you don’t actually need to understand any of that jargon; it just means that in order to sustain his extraordinarily high throughput of geek-speak, Stross has to apply human-comprehensible attributes to entities that really should have grown beyond them. [Snide aside: if everyone prayed at once, would that be a DDoS attack on God?]
But ultimately what kicks this book from four stars down to three is that he doesn’t even sensibly apply his own posthuman cognitive technology.
By the middle of the book humans have the ability to instantiate copies of themselves as software to perform menial cognitive tasks, after which those “ghosts” are reintegrated. Shortly thereafter, people can upload themselves completely, leaving the body behind or letting it diverge as a separate individual.
Obviously, with that level of control, there would be no excuse for people to be blindsided by their own subconscious. Any intelligent person would have side-band agents monitoring their neurology (simulated or real); while they might still get irritated at others, for example, they should be able to be explicitly and consciously informed of that irritation before it even propagates to the autonomous nervous system. Losing one’s temper should become an astonishingly rare event among posthuman adults. Yet several of Stross’ central characters are members of a seriously dysfunctional family who are forever angry with one another. While it is easy to imagine posthumans still getting emotional, their AI-mediated self-awareness should dramatically change the experience and processing of affective state.
Accelerando is a good book, but not a great one. However, it does a decent job of illuminating the singularity, a concept that will probably continue to grow in cultural importance, and thus is recommended higher than its fundamental quality would indicate. (less)
Well, I waited too long to write this to remember all the details of my complaints, but this basically felt like a mostly-tolerable first effort.
The nature of the apocalypse is never adequately explained, and while that might be fine in some cases — allegorical, or magical realism, or somesuch — it really didn't work here. There was no hint of out-of-the-ordinary story telling going on until the finale started slipping conveniently over such matters. It seemed like the author simply lacked the discipline to finish the story in a manner consistent with the setup.
The author has enough skill in character development and storytelling that he's certainly worth following, but this volume should have been shelved for a decade and then reconstituted with more mature skill.
A minor point: I do appreciate the author's willingness to entertain tough developments. His use of euthanasia is well done, although the moral quandaries should have been at least alluded to. Dialog isn't necessary — for example a sigh, a delicate silence and a frown would adequately communicate the difficult decisions that the author elided.