At some point I heard that Cory Doctorow's short story, The Man Who Sold the Moon had won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, a pretty significant pAt some point I heard that Cory Doctorow's short story, The Man Who Sold the Moon had won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, a pretty significant prize. What I don't remember is why I thought that meant it was worth tracking down (I don't make a point of hunting down most award-winning fiction), but I'm glad I did.
Of the four stories which I actually read within this fat tome, it was the one that made it worthwhile.
Now, I wanna say: the reason I'm abandoning this book is simply lack of time. Many of the other short stories might be quite worthwhile, so I don't want to dissuade anyone else from reading the collection.
But just in case you only want to read Doctorow's story, he's a bit peculiar in that he makes it available for free on his website, boingboing. Read it here; it's very good. Curiously, that's also the name of a book by old-school scifi author Robert Heinlein in which he expounds on his libertarian politics (it isn't particularly good story). Any connection other than the name escapes me, although I probably read Heinlein's story only once, three decades or more ago.
The rest of this is what I started when I expected to read the whole book. It's mildly critical of the preface and first story, both by Neal Stephenson, questioning whether the whole book was going to be like his pieces. Good news: apparently not.
This is a collection of “stories and visions for a better future”, so as I make my way through it, I expect to be updating this.
But to begin:
The preface and the first story are written by Neal Stephenson, a white American male just a few months younger than I am. Reading both of those pieces left me somewhat disappointed with him, frankly.
First, the preface, titled “Innovation Starvation”. Stephenson relates how he feels let down that the United States no longer appears to be the creative engine of thrilling new technologies that he fondly recalls from his youth. The now cliched narrative arc from NASA’s Gemini missions and moon landing to the retirement of the Space Shuttle is emblematic. What galvanized him into engaging with this was the oil spill of the Deepwater Horizon in 2010 — the people of the United States had been told almost forty years before, in the first oil crisis, that petroleum was politically problematic, yet we’d done very little about it (other than to fight wars and subsidized nations in the middle east).
The goal of the book is to provide conceptual templates to future innovators, the same way the writers of the Golden Age of science fiction had mesmerized and energized the generation of scientists and engineers behind NASA.
The story he writes, Atmosphæ Incognita, is about the engineering of a twenty-kilometer tall building. It is a good story, similar to Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 in its focus on the technology. It felt like something written in the 1950s, though (well before the actual mission of Apollo 13 in 1970). The first-person narrator is a lesbian, true, but that doesn’t really seem to matter. In one way, that’s great. Letting people just be themselves is quite post-modern. But that also means that the only element that hinted at being interesting was set aside, and so the entire story ends up being rather bland. Yeah, the technology is interesting, and the failure of some of the technology lends some interest, but no enticing drama.
Which brings me to why I’m mildly disappointed in Stephenson. I thought he would be clever enough to understand that technology isn’t going to save the United States, and that we can’t invent our way out of our malaise. Well, yeah, sure: some fascinating new toys might distract us from the adult problems we’re confronting, and might even boost the economy enough to mitigate some of them, but that isn’t much.
The problems we’re facing are cultural and sociological, and don’t have simple solutions — we really don’t know whether they have solution at all (if you think you know of a solution, then you just need to take a step backwards and recognize that you didn’t see that it is entangled within an even larger problem).
I’ll have to see whether the other stories largely rest on similar false illusions....more
It was a kick. Predictably reminiscent of early Tom Clancy, before he corrupted his technowar thrillers with his naive variation of libertarian politics.
I especially enjoyed how the North Shore Mujahadeen subverted the traditional role the U.S. plays in a conflict, and the exploration of the morality of Dirty Hands in guerilla strategy.
There was a little too much U.S.A.-rah-rah, however, with quite a bit of obvious cultural stereotypes.
Oh, and few spoilers: (view spoiler)[A key vulnerability that cripples the U.S. at the beginning is that the microchips sourced from low-bidders came from China, who had compromised the designs. The key phrase was “Each antenna was microscopic, hidden inside a one-millimeter square and activated only by a specific frequency of an incoming missile.”
I'm not an expert, but I do know technology relatively well.
First, circuits looks like cityscapes from a few thousand feet up, and a one-millimeter square would be about as obvious as a football stadium surrounded by parking lots. Security agencies have been studying aerial photographs since forever (you might recall that U-2 aerial photography revealed the distinctive pattern of Soviet missile installations).
I know that there are companies that specialize in back-engineering chips (a college friend worked at one) that shave off the plastic around the silicon chip until they can get images of the circuitry. It seems pretty damn obvious that the U.S. military would use these two very reliable abilities to inspect a representative sample of the chips going into weapon systems.
Second, even if the antennas got into the chip, a one-millimeter antenna is going to be pretty wimpy. A bluetooth antenna is 6mm across its largest dimension. Something that small will only respond to incredibly high frequencies (I think), which are easy to shield. Sure, an incoming missile could be dumping huge amounts of energy into broadcasting a signal, I guess — but it still seems really fishy.
Third, even if the antennas got into the chip, asserting that the associated firmware could also get onto the chip is implausible. Microprocessors typically don't have software on-chip; they get it from RAM and ROM elsewhere in the system. There would have to be dedicated circuitry listening to that antenna, doing signal processing, detecting when a valid signal had been received, and then subverting the rest of the system's behavior — all without ever doing real field-testing. It might not seem like much, but I'm pretty sure the idea is laughable.
Similarly, there's a Security-Badge RFID hack that disrupts the U.S. military offices at the beginning. RFIDs chips are absurdly simple: they use an antenna to receive power, which provides enough energy to do some fairly minimal processing, and then broadcasts a signal at a much, much lower power level.
But here, the RFID chips are sophisticated enough to be doing wardriving, looking for weak wifi signals once inside the building, and then sustaining a connection long enough to upload pretty sophisticated hostile software. Uh, no: the kinds of electronics detection equipment used would never be fooled that something that complex is a security badge, no matter how much it tries to look like one. And since it's going to need a moderately power battery onboard (the power received by an upstream RFID query isn't going to be anywhere near enough) it's going to be very, very obvious. (hide spoiler)]
All in all, a great technowar thriller. If you like that kinda stuff, read it.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
I wish I liked it more. The style of the story was passive in a way that felt quite alien. An artifact of the translation, or of something quintessentI wish I liked it more. The style of the story was passive in a way that felt quite alien. An artifact of the translation, or of something quintessential about Chinese science fiction? The book mixed its science up nicely, with deeply realistic portrayals of actual science mixed in with astonishing leaps into fictional science. Certainly two of the most intriguing weapons I've ever read about were brought to bear....more
Almost all “science fiction” books have at least one element that is critical to the story which is nevertheless fantastiSpoiler addendum added below.
Almost all “science fiction” books have at least one element that is critical to the story which is nevertheless fantastical. The faster-than-light travel and transporters in Star Trek, for example, or the Force (and FTL, and light sabers, etc.) in Star Wars. The sub genre in which this is minimized is “hard science fiction”. Generally, that’s okay. For those who appreciate thoughtful speculative fiction, the greatest affection tends to go to authors who carefully choose one fantastic element and extrapolate a plausible world consistent with that change. There are other authors who specialize in scifi that has a stronger relationship to the thriller genre, too.
Nexus is in a pretty sweet spot on that spectrum. The big fantastic element is the heavy use of nanotechnology, although that stuff is so cool that it is understandably the go-to solution for techno-magic. Anyone familiar with Star Trek TOS will remember how variations on lasers were magic (phasers, photon torpedoes, tractor beams).
But most of the rest of technology was a plausible extrapolation from today. Oh, there were two glaring exceptions that weren’t included: the effects of climate change and the increasing prevalence of AI & robotics. I mean, there were still humans driving cars in 2040! In the San Francisco Bay Area!
But this is an action-packed thriller, too. Fans of military fiction will probably get a big kick out of this. I also enjoyed the not-absurdly unlikely politics. The U.S. government doesn’t come off too well, but that’s probably quite realistic given America’s current trajectory.
I’d definitely recommend this as a quick and easy scifi snack.
Addendum: (view spoiler)[As I mentioned above, the primary fantasy element in this story is nanotechnology. Ironically, scientific news has just come out that hints at how plausible their projection is likely to be. Researchers have just created what is likely to be either the smallest transistor we’re ever likely to see, or at least approximating its magnitude, at 167 picometres in diameter. It’s just a single phthalocyanine molecule (C₃₂H₁₈N₈) surrounded by 12 indium atoms, placed on an indium arsenide crystal. (See the press coverage here or the academic article here. In the article, the caption of the image showing red blood cells states that “around 7,200 of the new transistors could fit on a single cell”. That’s an interesting size, because the 1974-era Intel 8080 was about 6,000 transistors. And while that isn’t very advanced compared to today (state-of-the-art processors are over one billion transistors), if a vast sufficient number of them could be networked, as the book asserts, then it becomes a tiny bit more plausible that a computer could be squeezed in.
Red blood cells are pretty small compared to some neurons, but not all. Red blood cells run about 6 – 8 µm, while the central soma of a neuron varies from 4 to 100 µm. So a microprocessor of roughly the complexity of an Intel 8080 might be able to hide inside of a big neuron.
That still leaves unsaid where and how it gets energy, how it communicates with other neuronal coprocessors and the outside world, and how it detects what its host neuron is actually doing.
But it is a step forward. (hide spoiler)]["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife is a near-term dystopian hard-boiled noir set in the midst of a social apocalypse created by climate change.
In this worBacigalupi’s The Water Knife is a near-term dystopian hard-boiled noir set in the midst of a social apocalypse created by climate change.
In this world, the sub-national government agencies in charge of water have acquired incredible power as the climate has changed—even some military weaponry—and are engaged in something of an intramural war within the United States.
The book intertwines the stories of two major characters and half a dozen minor ones. The chief protagonist is the antihero Angel Velasquez, which the book’s blurb (no spoilers, here) describes as “detective, leg-breaker, assassin and spy”—i.e., a “water knife”. On the other side of the fight is the Phoenix-based Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Lucy Monroe, who has been hardened and embittered by the chaos and death, writing voyeuristic “collapse porn” and pretending she doesn’t care.
The backdrop is the continuing efforts of the Southern Nevada Water Authority (e.g., water for Las Vegas) to control ever larger portions of the water flowing down the southwest side of the continental divide; chiefly along the Colorado River. The opposition is California (“Calies”, the feared but distant power with the most money) and over-the-river folks in Arizona. When something interesting seems to be happening in Phoenix that has the SNWA’s boss worried, Angel Velasquez is sent to investigate and solve any problems.
Arizona is portrayed as in deep trouble. Texas and New Mexico have already collapsed due to “Big Daddy Drought”, with refugees swamping Arizona, which has largely been losing the water wars and seems to be on a fast downward spiral. But perhaps the mystery that has drawn Angel south will change the game. Before the book is over, there will be a number of betrayals and quite a few folks will be dead.
This is an exciting story, well told and timely. The prophetic nature needs to be taken with a grain of salt, however—even if the climate did change this aggressively nasty, there are a few implausibilities here. But they don’t really detract from the drama, so dive in and read. Just make sure you have plenty of cold drinking water on hand, or you could stir up some nightmares.
Much to my disappointment, there is no suggestion on the ‘webs that this has been optioned as a movie. Dunno why — it’s Chinatown meets Mad Max, but with a lot more explosions and mayhem. Stay tuned?
(view spoiler)[ My biggest objection is with the collapse of Texas, and some of the other places that had died:
From page 70:
Phoenix would fall as surely as New Orleans and Miami had done. Just as Houston and San Antonio and Austin had fallen. Just as Jersey Shore had gone under for the last time.
So it should be obvious that “Big Daddy Drought” isn’t going to touch Jersey Shore, New Orleans or Miami. But it also can’t kill Houston or, really, San Antonio or Austin. All of those cities are either right on the ocean’s edge, or at an elevation and distance that mean desalination plants would ameliorate a water crisis, at least for an urban population. I suppose it is plausible that a rise in the ocean level could wipe out Miami and the Jersey Shore, and maybe even Houston, but oddly, New Orleans is safe for a different reason. Rising seas could decimate the current city, but the economic need for a population center at the mouth of the Mississippi River, where it meets the Gulf of Mexico, is so potent that the city would survive that, although might morph into an unrecognizably ugly industrial place with no hint of it’s beautiful past.
“Big Daddy Drought” could easily wipe out what farming is done in west Texas, but that’s already happening. East Texas, over by Louisiana, is a much wetter place—hot and humid, as any visitor to Houston could tell you. If it is in severe chronic drought, then so is the rest of the midwest, and the problem would be much, much bigger than the one Bacigalupi tells.
It is also somewhat bewildering why refugees from a drought would want to head into the other southwestern states. Sure, they might be dumb themselves, but the book has them being escorted by FEMA and other agencies, who would presumably want to herd them to places where water is no longer a critical need, not where it will only get worse.
My other objection is with the arcologies. The general concept is to create a nearly self-sustaining and ecological mega-architecture. Stuff like this is in an early experimental phase, but targets a much lower degree of sophistication than the book’s narrative requires. The most obviously magical ability Bacigalupi creates is that the exterior of the building provides enough solar energy for the needs of the building, it’s operation and occupants.
The hidden magic is in the water and sewage recycling and atmosphere management. For example, if you follow medical scares, you may have seen Legionnaires' disease mentioned quite often recently. The bacteria that causes this disease (as well as its relatives) love our water systems. Anyone who lives where it is mildly humid can tell you horror stories of mold. Now try to imagine a mega-building that attempts to capture and treat almost all of its wastewater and sewage in the basement, and channel the result back upstairs to the occupants and to “condensation-misted vertical farms, leave with hydroponic greenery” [p. 8]. It’s a fantasy that’s easy to imagine, but entails stupendous complexity. If we started putting massive research into the problem of building those things now, they might be ready in a few decades, but there’s no indication we’re going to get them in the next few decades. (hide spoiler)]["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
This classic of science fiction is a must read —and very fast-paced and easy to read. Asimov took on the challenge: before this book, it was believedThis classic of science fiction is a must read — and very fast-paced and easy to read. Asimov took on the challenge: before this book, it was believed that science fiction couldn't crossover to the detective genre, since science fiction could always, trivially, answer too many questions.
Asimov proved 'em wrong.
I don't remember how many books featured the odd couple detectives (one human, one robot), but it was a pretty good pairing.
I will note that Asimov does contradict himself. At one point, it is established that robots can only follow "the law", but later the robot explained his actions by arguing that there is a "higher law", above the law itself. Oops!...more
I'm rating this four-and-a-half stars, rounded down to four. If I hadn't just finished Ann Leckie's Ancillary Sword, I might have rounded up. CalibaI'm rating this four-and-a-half stars, rounded down to four. If I hadn't just finished Ann Leckie's Ancillary Sword, I might have rounded up. Caliban's War was a great adventure story — definitely a great read — but it while it does everything really well, it nothing it does is pathbreaking, which is why is suffers in comparison to Leckie's effort. Still, read 'em both. Great stuff....more
This is pretty close to being the perfect hard sci-fi story (for those not familiar with the term, "hard" indicates that it takes the effort to compleThis is pretty close to being the perfect hard sci-fi story (for those not familiar with the term, "hard" indicates that it takes the effort to completely respect what is known about physics and other sciences). As far as I can tell, the technology and science here is perfect (well, I do have two qualms, which I’ll mention below).
First, props to Andy Weir, the author. This was a self-published book, which is very impressive. Apparently he was actually rebuffed by agents, who I am sure are hating their lives right now, seeing as how he not only later had it picked up by a real publisher (after climbing to the top of Amazon’s scifi Kindle titles) and in May it was optioned by Twentieth Century Fox for a movie, tentatively directed by Ridley Scott, with Matt Damon as our intrepid astronaut. I wonder if Weir’s toes have touch the ground since early March, when the book debuted at #11 on the NY Times hardcover fiction — which is as high as it got, and only for a short while, but that’s still astonishing for a very techie science fiction first novel. (See the reddit ask-me-anything transcript from shortly before the hardback came out — among other tidbits, you’ll learn that folks at NASA mission control were discussing the book while prepping for an emergency EVA on the international space station.)
So, yes, this is a tech-filled book, but that is understandable. Remember the movie Apollo 13, and how much the engineering mattered — how coming up with an ad hoc fix to a technical problem was a nail-biting crisis? Well, that’s what this entire book is, so while it is an exciting storyline, a lot of the story has to do with an engineer trying to solve problems that will save his life. And meanwhile, hundreds and thousands more engineers on earth are doing the same.
Tom Hanks was the star of Apollo 13, right? Well, many folks have pointed out that this story also resembles one of his other greatest hits: Cast Away. There is no equivalent to the bloody volleyball here, though, much to my satisfaction. This guy really is too busy to go crazy, and the psychological pressures of being the only living person on an entire planet aren’t delved into very deeply.
For a genre novel, the characters are very well fleshed out. The hero, especially, but some of the NASA folks are also well detailed. The other astronauts on the Hermes craft, not so much, but they don’t spend too much time as critical secondary characters.
By the way, “tech laden” doesn’t mean this reads like the spec sheet for a new Mac Pro — the jargon isn’t for marketing purposes, but to actually show how a real astronaut would be solving these problems. It appears to be incredibly well-researched (and the author is an engineer, albeit of the software variety, but his “hobbies” include orbital mechanics, per his about-me page.) I know people that don’t have an engineering or science background that still have given this rave reviews.
So read this! And make sure you do so before you see the movie next year!
Oh, my qualms. The first is a fairly minor spoiler, but the second is somewhat more revealing. I'm going to hide them both, although I don't really think either would reduce enjoyment of the novel for most readers. Still, if you are sensitive to spoilers, you should read the book first.
(view spoiler)[One of the biggest hurdles in putting humans on the surface of Mars is the fact that without a planetary radiation belt (because Mars has no magnetic field), it is a very deadly place. Weir alludes to this, mentioning that without protection he would not only get cancer, but his cancers would get cancers. Actually, he’d probably die of acute radiation poisoning long before that. While Weir acknowledges the problem, it isn’t really adequately dealt with. The biggest problem is his habitat, which has a fabric roof. Perhaps the carbon fibre reinforcing in the “canvas” provides enough shielding — at one point he states that it is EM proof, but it really isn’t clear that a fabric could do the trick. Trying to figure out how to shield astronauts against these high-energy particles is one of the bigger challenges associated with a mission to Mars. That he ends up on the planet far longer than the original mission called for probably would mean that he far exceeds the radiation does the mission had contemplated.
That flaw is the only science/tech aspect that concerns me, although I suspect there are others. The other flaw is understandable for the purposes of the story. It isn’t about science or technology, but an implausible plot device Weir had to create to make the story what it is.
And that is the lack of communications. While the astronauts are on Mars, they have four radios capable of reaching earth, some of which require retransmission by a satellite in orbit. Three of them disappear with the Mars Ascent Vehicle when the other astronauts make their emergency evacuation at the beginning of the story, and the fourth is wiped out in that same disaster. So the protagonist has no means of communication with earth. That, frankly, is just silly. Here on Earth, a satellite phone is a pretty common and lightweight device, even though Earth’s thick atmosphere and magnetic field make its job tougher than it would be on Mars. There is no way every EVA suit wouldn’t have a built-in satellite communications device. Indeed, he mentions that line-of-sight communication to someone just a few dozen kilometers away on Mars is tougher than communication with distant Earth, so it is certain that satellite-mediated communication devices would be as common as mobile handsets are here on earth. Every member of the team would probably have two or three radio-equipped devices within reach at every moment, and every one of them would probably be capable of communicating with all of the many satellites circling overhead.
It’s understandable that Weir would need the lack of communications for drama, but this is quite disappointing. Curiously, there might have been a way around both of these two flaws. A radiation storm caused by a coronal mass ejection could have fried all of the portable Mars-bound radio receivers, except for the shielded ones on the MAV. This would also have given Weir an opportunity to go into more detail about how the habitat’s shielding is somehow up to the job of protecting against radiation, since that risk skyrockets during such an event. While a particularly nasty CME might necessitate a mission abort, it wouldn’t easily provide a reason for one of the astronauts to be accidentally left for dead on the planet’s surface. The concurrence of a threatening sandstorm and a massive CME would stretch plausibility pretty far, however. (hide spoiler)]["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
This book got my brain churning, but I’m not sure if it did so in a way that makes this a more appealing book to most readers.
But, first, some notes:
TThis book got my brain churning, but I’m not sure if it did so in a way that makes this a more appealing book to most readers.
But, first, some notes:
The New York Times review was much more enthusiastic than I can account for. Maybe because I, unlike the Times reviewer, really dislike it when the technology in a contemporary science fiction story is pushed through the curtain of fantasy. But other readers might not be that prickly, so YMMV.
I love the title. Mildly clever, and so obviously intended to be clever that it is also ironically clever in that knowingness. I was actually a little disappointed that the author had his characters use the term, or at least how it were used.
Pacing feels slow through the first few chapters, before the major characters start interacting. Getting to know their individual backstories doesn’t really foretell the real drama/melodrama of the book. Eventually, the energy is cranked way, way up, and the by the end it became, at least for me, quite a page-turner.
This ended up reminding me a great deal of Daniel Suarez’ Daemon. In both books, a very, very central role is played by an exaggerated account of some of the worrisome aspects of today’s information technology, and in both cases, what the actual technology is capable of is blown so far out of proportion that I (a fairly astute information-technical guy since before time began) no longer was worried that the world depicted was of concern.
How the two books differ is equally important, though: Shafer does a much, much better job at portraying living humans, with their neuroses and conflicts. I think he has more potential as a writer, although the infotech thriller subgenre that he’s chosen to enter might not reward him for that.
He actually scored big points in my mind when he drew “impact attenuators” — those big trashcans at dangerous spots on freeways, such as the “gore points” where guardrails divide continuing lanes from exit lanes — in an analogy with respect to the emotional traumas we sometimes face. It’s tough to come up with a new metaphor that good.
Another sign that he’s wasted on the thriller crowd: on page 13, his female lead asks, “How many people are you supposed to like? she wondered. Below what number are you attachment-disordered?” The Dunbar Limit is probably a good estimate of the upper limit of that range, but our world today is almost neurotic about how socially isolated we’ve become (cf. Bowling Alone), and this is a clever way of expressing that angst.
What really got me caught up in the unfolding drama was connected to my disbelief of the general trajectory of the plot.
I’m moderately confident that our current civilization is going off the rails in the next century — the heavy economic disruption we’ll undergo as climate change messes with us will shove around our over-leveraged economy enough that it’ll eventually go down like a too-high Jenga™ tower.
But even if we somehow dodge that bullet, the coming century or so will be very bad for the majority of the planet’s population, as the Luddite Fallacy is proven to be not a fallacy after all, and most humans discover they are not need in the production chain, and thus not actually wanted, and not powerful enough to demand a socialist inclusion in the emerging post-scarcity economy. That trend is the one that Shafer is aiming at, and I found myself pondering how my view of how that is likely to play out differs from his. And he didn’t win any stars with his narrative — but for reasons that would be spoilers.
I briefly considered giving him props for including Portland, but I realized that he was just pandering to the current cool kids on the block....more
Three and a half stars really. The technobabble limits the audience, but scifi geeks will find it pretty well done. But it felt a bit arbitrary, oddlyThree and a half stars really. The technobabble limits the audience, but scifi geeks will find it pretty well done. But it felt a bit arbitrary, oddly. I am intrigued enough that I'll try to get to the sequel....more
This is mildly amusing, but sadly informative. I finished Matt Richtel's "Devil's Plaything" recently and just came here to Goodreads to review it, anThis is mildly amusing, but sadly informative. I finished Matt Richtel's "Devil's Plaything" recently and just came here to Goodreads to review it, and was somewhat surprised to see I'd previously given three stars to the author's The Cloud.
The reason I find my surprise informative is that both stories are set in San Francisco, both feature the same protagonist, and I read the other book less than a year ago, but I simply couldn't recall it until I'd read enough other reviews that I rebuilt a sense of what the book was about (I'd been overly sensitive to spoilers, and left my own review too ambiguous).
So I'll 'fess up. The third star is generous, and I guess mostly because the author sets the stories in real San Francisco, not the tourist version thereof. But the protagonist isn't very inspiring, and the plot reaches farther than its grasp. Some folks give this author five stars, so YMMV, but I don't plan on returning to the scene of the crime....more
Very fun, albeit a bit too imaginative. The concept is worth five stars, but there's a central aspect to the execution that drops that down to three sVery fun, albeit a bit too imaginative. The concept is worth five stars, but there's a central aspect to the execution that drops that down to three stars, and is what causes the dog here to frown: ...more
The best of Barry's books (so far), and something of a shift towards the serious.
The basic idea has been used before: that it is possible to hack theThe best of Barry's books (so far), and something of a shift towards the serious.
The basic idea has been used before: that it is possible to hack the human mind with very specific stimuli. Neal Stephenson used something like this in Snow Crash, for example.
Barry uses it very well, tying it in with today's increasing concern the intrusiveness of social media and the big data that advertisers are accumulating on us. In his previous books, there was a greater element of social satire, and he sometimes overindulged in the silly side of that; here he has kept that in check, to good effect.
The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller, is a fairly recent and marvelous addition to the collection of post-apocalyptic stories. I guess today that’s a prettyThe Dog Stars, by Peter Heller, is a fairly recent and marvelous addition to the collection of post-apocalyptic stories. I guess today that’s a pretty widely ranging subgenera, with zombies or gladiatorial entertainment. The book I always think of first, 1983’s Lucifer’s Hammer, no longer even ranks; and I suppose it’s trans-apocalypse, anyway.
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?
Matt Richtel, a technology writer for the New York Times, also writes thrilling and provocative science fiction. The Cloud is set in — where else? —Matt Richtel, a technology writer for the New York Times, also writes thrilling and provocative science fiction. The Cloud is set in — where else? — San Francisco and Silicon Valley in the present day, and follows Nat Idle, an investigative reporter, as he painfully uncovers a story that questions the safety of some emerging technology (any more details than that would qualify as spoilers).
Richtel's strong suit is the relentless energy of the plot and, with caveats, the likeability of his characters. On the other side is the over-likeability of those some characters — far too many of them are super-sized and exaggerated to the point of being superheroes. Probably the weakest element of the story is that Richtel throws in too much: there are so many elements to keep track of that it almost becomes necessary to keep notes, and this burden undoubtedly is enough to turn off some readers. The abundance left a few aspects and some characters half-baked. Richtel either needs a longer, more carefully paced book, or he needs to exercise a bit more discipline and get rid of some weeds.
The ultimate answer found in the reporter's quest won't surprise anyone that closely follows criticism of technology, although the danger is elevated here for dramatic emphasis. The only other place where current technology steps over the line into fiction is holography, which has been teasing technophiles for decades now.
The Cloud is a quick read and a quite enjoyable fast-paced adventure. Don't expect too much more and you'll enjoy it. ...more