An anthology is a success if I come away prizing at least one piece or one author, and by that measure this is a success. First, a note on the final sAn anthology is a success if I come away prizing at least one piece or one author, and by that measure this is a success. First, a note on the final story in the collection, which does much to dispel the appeal of all that preceded it.
On Bruce Sterling’s story, “The Ancient Engineer”: Possibly an alternative-history piece, it deals with a device much like the Antikythera Mechanism (discovered in 1900, not carefully examined until decades later, it changed notions of ancient technology), but this story is long, discursive, clumsily written, and as far as I could see pointless.
On Jo Lindsay Walton’s story, “The Internet of Things Your Mother Never Told You”: It’s about a teenaged girl in a London housing project, interspersed with app reviews and comments. It’s allusive, elusive, canny, linguistically spritely (as in the title, and “the pursuit of appiness” re phone apps), sympathetic to the situation of the young and underprivileged and nearly lost. It was hard to believe the knowing narrator was only 12, but the allure of the story outweighed that. Another YA dystopia? Maybe, but not the kind where anyone triumphs in the end. Walton is someone I hope to hear more from.
Some of the other work here is enjoyable in various ways. You can find a longer review—which I half agree with, and which mistakenly includes one story that must be from a different collection—in this Locus post....more
At the outset of this tale, mankind has indeed managed to bring about peace on earth, but there’s a problem, and the redoubtable space adventurer IjonAt the outset of this tale, mankind has indeed managed to bring about peace on earth, but there’s a problem, and the redoubtable space adventurer Ijon Tichy (who figures into a number of Lem’s earlier writings) has been brought in to solve it. The major powers of Earth have realized that weapons are being developed faster than they can be limited by international agreement, and they’ve devised an ingenious stratagem: the moon will be divided into a handful of national sectors, and a new international body called the Lunar Agency will move everyone’s weapons there, where testing and further development will be placed under computer control. The whole business will remain off-limits to Earth. If things really go to pot, everyone will be able to get their weapons back, but in the meantime, no nation has any. They’ve neither disarmed nor not disarmed: a commentary on the ever more fantastical pursuits of the Cold War arms race (the book was written in the mid-80s), on the era’s disarmament talks, which aimed to reduce one category or another while never really eliminating anything, and more broadly on mankind’s lunatic tendency to, say, swear off drinking while leaving a bottle hidden in a bookshelf.
Nonetheless, it seems to be working. What then is the problem? Probes sent to check the situation on the moon have all failed to report; Earth begins to suspect that the self-evolving weapons have acquired intelligence, banded together, and begun to plan an invasion. Tichy’s mission is to visit the moon and find out. He arrives; he inspects; suddenly he feels himself zapped by something and discovers that a mysterious ray has severed his corpus callosum. Now he doesn’t know what he knows, because his left-brain speech center can’t access whatever memories are stored in his right brain.
From the first page, where Tichy says of his risky mission, “Either I come back or I don’t,” the book is permeated with dualities, oppositions, bifurcations. His split brain parallels the Earth-moon system, which is divided between peace and war, humans and machines. There’s a point at which Tichy remarks on being half awake, half asleep. Much of his exploration of the moon is conducted from orbit, by means of mechanical, remote-controlled devices to which all his muscles and senses are linked, thus making him “neither man nor robot.” Human thinking is pitted against, and for the most part baffled by, machine thought. The tale itself follows two time tracks, after Tichy’s mission and before it. A good deal of the discussion—as always in Lem, one finds fantastically imaginative story elements partnered with a thoroughgoing play of ideas—is concerned with similarities and differences between natural evolution and the artificial evolution that’s been set up to guide weapons development on the moon.
The nature of evolution, whether artificially induced or not, is an idea that had occupied Lem some two decades earlier, in his nonfiction treatise Summa Technologiae*, and it recurs in other works. Here, in his final work of fiction, he takes it up again, and while the treatment has been tailored to the purposes of the novel, it’s significant that Lem sees self-improving technology brought to its highest development in the field of weaponry.
It has to be said that Peace on Earth is a pessimistic novel, as was Fiasco, which preceded it. But its darkness is satirical, and much in the book is just plain funny. One of the ancillary characters is named Tottentanz, clearly derived from the German for dance of death, though the altered spelling suggests tottering, rather than sweeping gracefully, toward doom. One finds mentioned in passing a political party dedicated to equal rights for bacteria, and elsewhere there’s a military invention called synsects, or synthetic insects; that coinage and certain others may be the work of Michael Kandel (the secondary translator behind Elinor Ford), who devised the scintillating wordplay in many other English renderings of Lem. For readers who have met the character of Tichy before, the mere sight of his name is likely to bring a smile. In some ways a picaresque hero, Tichy thinks of himself as a gambler ready to take a risk, but he’s just as capable of beating a hasty retreat; he’s sometimes gullible and other times wary; he’s decidedly fond of creature comforts; and he can be lured astray by a well-crafted simulacrum of Marilyn Monroe.
There’s a striking passage late in the book describing the effects of peace, which reports the following: “The prosperity that obtained after the weapons were moved to the moon had unfortunate consequences, made worse by automation.… Illiteracy increased, particularly since now you didn’t even have to sign a check, only a thumbprint was necessary.… The American Medical Association finally lost the battle to save their profession, because computers gave better diagnoses and were much more patient with patients.… Sex was replaced with a simple device called an Orgaz.… Most of the developed countries did away with compulsory school attendance.… Everything had been smothered in the boredom of prosperity.” It’s clear from this picture, especially in light of the attention that Lem gives elsewhere in the book to evolution, that lack of conflict leads to stagnation. One might wish for that condition nonetheless, and you’ll have to read the book to learn whether it lasts, but I wonder whether this realization contributed to Lem’s withdrawal from fiction writing. I wonder whether he looked around, at all of mankind’s mad and desperate measures in pursuit of one thing and against another, and concluded, before laying down his pen, that it cannot be otherwise.
*I haven’t yet read Summa Technologiae and have based my remark on a masterful review published in the Los Angeles Review of Books. Another valuable discussion of that work was given by Lee Billings in Nautilus....more
In the late 70s, The New Republic used to publish reevaluations of books that deserved a fresh look, and this, I'm pretty sure, is how I discovered WeIn the late 70s, The New Republic used to publish reevaluations of books that deserved a fresh look, and this, I'm pretty sure, is how I discovered We. It's easy to say that Yevgeny Zamyatin's novel, completed in 1920, resembles George Orwell's 1984 (a point that was probably made by the TNR essay), and in fact it's known that Orwell had read We before writing 1984. But there are differences as well as similarities.
I won't attempt a review here; an excellent Goodreads account is this one. I will mention an idea I had, though: it seemed to me that We could be adapted to the stage. I found out later that someone in England had done it. I'd still like to see a stage version in the United States....more
Shipwrecked! On Mars, no less! The idea is a fine one. What’s lacking is narrative skill on the part of the author. The resulting book is alternatelyShipwrecked! On Mars, no less! The idea is a fine one. What’s lacking is narrative skill on the part of the author. The resulting book is alternately boring and annoying from beginning to end. Andy Weir’s novel may make a good movie, though....more
The future has been worrying us lately. A good deal of conversation has taken place online about how it looks to us, in fact as well as in fiction, anThe future has been worrying us lately. A good deal of conversation has taken place online about how it looks to us, in fact as well as in fiction, and how that matters. A smart example is Virginia Postrel’s 10/08/14 post on Bloomberg View, though it’s not (and doesn’t pretend to be) comprehensive.
William Gibson’s new novel—like the rest of his work—has something to contribute to the conversation. After working with the future in his early fictions, his settings drew steadily closer to the present, and his previous three books took place more or less in the here and now. In a move that seems remarkably well timed, he has returned to the future in The Peripheral, and what he finds there isn’t likely to please those hoping for bright, shining visions.
The story is a doozy, a complex and elaborate version of a basic thriller scenario: Somebody saw something happen, and someone else is now after them because of it. The task for the main characters is to figure out what they’re mixed up in, and Gibson aligns our interest with theirs by giving us a similar experience, requiring us to make sense of what we’ve gotten into. There are no thumbnail sketches of characters as we meet them, no explanatory descriptions of world elements as we encounter them. The novel employs a tactic of indirect and delayed exposition that begins with the first sentence: “They didn’t think Flynne’s brother had PTSD, but that sometimes the haptics glitched him.” We piece together from the first page that Flynne’s brother is named Burton, that he had fought in a war, and that information devices employing the sense of touch (“haptics”) had been affixed to his body and later removed, leaving marks “like the skin was dusted with something dead-fish silver.” The phrase is characteristic of Gibson, like one on the next page reporting that “Inside, the trailer was the color of Vaseline”: descriptions drawn sometimes from nature, more often from the oddments of civilization, usually evoking an unappealing and normally ignored residue, as in the opening of Neuromancer (1984), which points out a sky “the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” But who is Flynne herself, whose point of view we follow in the first chapter? Who is Netherton, the man with a hangover whom we follow in the second chapter? What kind of world does he live in, where phone calls seem to present themselves directly to his ears and eyes? What’s the connection between these two? Scores of pages pass before we can work that out, although a parallel between them soon emerges: Flynne witnesses a death in what she believes to be a game-world version of London, Netherton witnesses a death on a strange island of repurposed plastic in the Pacific, and each of them ends up in trouble because of it. But who died, and why, and who’s after them? As the novel’s short chapters (averaging 3.9 pages each) alternate between these two, tentative answers arrive, the picture complexifies, and further questions accumulate.
Gibson’s method is fascinating and is one of the book’s major pleasures. It shares something with noirish fictions of the past in which the truth about the nature of things takes time to emerge, but the way Gibson proceeds has more in common with a modern-day style in which interpreting the story is a game of collecting and connecting numberless bits of information. The TV series Lost may be the most extreme example: that was a hugely baroque exercise in casting the viewer as Tantalus, for whom a coherent and comprehensive explanation always eluded one’s grasp. You’ll find no polar bears in The Peripheral; Gibson isn’t interested in piling up perplexities. Bit by bit, with many small, deft moves, a large structure is assembled before your eyes—much like the way 3-D printing operates. The unexpected length of the book, 486 pages, is probably just what Gibson required in order to complete this patient process of world-building. It takes that long for us and the characters to figure out what we’re dealing with.
That’s not to say that everything is precisely specified. A degree of uncertainty is part of the game. Indeterminacy litters the text in such statements as these:
“Something flew into [the woman’s] mouth.”
“Looks like the thing we’re printing is for doing something that something a lot more evolved could do a lot better.”
“Netherton…looked like he was standing in the back of something’s throat, all pink and shiny.”
“Something stilled the part of him that knitted narrative…”
In a way, Gibson is again dramatizing what the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction entry for him (speaking of the Bigend trilogy) called “the indecipherability of the real world,” even though he has shifted his setting from the present day into the future.
Actually, there are two plotlines and two futures in The Peripheral. One of the futures—I’ll call it Neartime—is a pretty recognizable extension of our present and takes place in an economically depressed, small-town region of the American South. Here, gaming for pay is one way of making money—Flynne did it in the past but gave it up for work in a 3-D print shop, and Burton’s been doing it lately—but the main local product is illegal drugs, apparently manufactured by way of nanotech, and drug money has corrupted the county political system. Gaming now relies on a form of virtual reality, but phones are still, as in our world, separate objects. That’s no longer the case in Fartime, the second plotline, which is situated in London 70-odd years later. Here, “phones” include video and have been integrated into people’s bodies, controlled with a tongue tap on the roof of the mouth, and that’s just the beginning of the differences. In a sense, this is the future of Neartime, but in another sense it’s not. Gibson, adapting from the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, proposes that someone in Fartime has figured out how to communicate with the past but that, once you establish a connection, that entire world branches off, detaches itself from your history, goes its own way. You can tinker with one of these stubs, as they’re called, all you want without affecting your world; doing so is one of the hobbies of Netherton’s idle-rich friend Lev, a scion of the Russian kleptocracy, which apparently wields much influence here. What’s more, because communications are two-way, someone in your stub can employ a form of telepresence and participate in your world.
That summary says very little about the novel, but it includes an important point. Gibson has always been concerned with the intermingling of the virtual and the real. That concern is still present here, and in a variety of ways. In Neartime, virtual-reality technology has become immersive enough that you may not be able to tell whether you’ve entered a game or something real. In Fartime, there are synthetic humanoids called peripherals (Gibson presumably borrowed the term from an old designation for computer attachments such as printers), which can be occupied by a human consciousness. The idea is familiar from movies such as Surrogates and Avatar, where it’s more or less taken for granted; here, the dislocation and essential strangeness of this virtual embodiment is remarked on by Flynne, who uses a peripheral for parts of the story, and by Netherton, who watches her arrive once and says it’s “like some unthinkable birth or advent.” There’s a lot more. But here’s the kicker: in The Peripheral we have two entire worlds that are, to some extent, unreal to each other. From the standpoint of characters in Fartime, Flynne’s world exists and must be dealt with (they need her help in solving the murder she saw), and yet that world doesn’t matter in that it has no other bearing on their present. They’re connected with a past that was but no longer is their own. Similarly, Flynne and the others in Neartime come to know the future to which they had been headed, but they still can’t know where they’re going instead. The people of The Peripheral are detached from both past and future, stuck in the volatility of the now.
As is his wont, Gibson here reverts to convention when it comes time to resolve the story. “I don’t like novels that end happily,” says Cecily in The Importance of Being Earnest, Act II. “They depress me so much.” The Peripheral is already being criticized on that basis in some Goodreads reviews, and the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction entry remarked of Gibson’s entire output that his tidy plot resolutions “[diminish] the impact of his harsh visions.” It should be remembered that Cecily’s complaint leads to Miss Prism’s oft-quoted observation (about a three-volume novel she wrote), “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.” This entitles us—though Prism doesn’t realize it—to regard an ending as a mere matter of form and to look elsewhere for the substance of a story, which is how we can best judge The Peripheral. In this work, the weight resides, not in the neatness of its final chapters, but in all that comes before, where tech junkies will find much to get high on, and where readers sensitive to Gibson’s immense craftsmanship will discern much to worry about....more
What has stuck with me most, since I read the book during my early teen years, is the idea of the tesseract, which fascinated me. This may mark me asWhat has stuck with me most, since I read the book during my early teen years, is the idea of the tesseract, which fascinated me. This may mark me as a geek. It's not the book's fault that I didn't go on to earn degrees in mathematics and astrophysics and become a theorist of extra dimensions like Lisa Randall. I wonder whether she read this as a child…...more
I have a friend who declined to join Goodreads when I invited him, because he doesn’t want people to know what kind of book he spends his time readingI have a friend who declined to join Goodreads when I invited him, because he doesn’t want people to know what kind of book he spends his time reading. He has an agile mind, earned an advanced degree, and knows a foreign language well enough to have published translations of poetry; to say more would risk identifying him. Unexpectedly, my friend—I’ll call him Mikey—diverts himself by gobbling down thrillers at a rapid rate. He’s not undiscriminating; more than one review copy I’ve offered him has been bounced back to me when the opening chapters didn’t win him over.
When I found an advance reading copy of A Vision of Fire, I was afraid to try it, so—as in the old Life cereal ad on TV—I took it to Mikey. The result came back soon: Mikey liked it. He had read it cover to cover in a matter of days, and he pronounced it “a real page-turner.” I decided to give it a go and set aside my qualms: that joint authorship is an uncommon beast in the realms of fiction; that an actress known for a science-fiction TV show who turns to the book market may be engaged in “brand extension” as much as in writing; and that the publisher’s label on the back cover, “a science fiction thriller of epic proportions,” sounds just a tad over-excited.
Having completed it, I can say that I share Mikey’s view in one sense: A Vision of Fire is a page-turner in that you have to read it quickly—there’s nothing to ponder, nothing to linger over, unless a flat, declarative prose style, occasional oddities of plot development, and apparent mistakes of wording interest you. The swarming of rats toward a mysterious artifact in a building near Washington Square Park may make sense given the story, but not their initial crowding onto the arched monument itself. The tapping of keys on a tablet computer is wrong, because tablets don’t have keyboards (nor does there seem to be a separate, wireless one in the scene). The renowned child psychologist and single mom who’s at the center of the story, named Caitlin O’Hara, is more or less believable as a caring scientist forced to accept increasingly unlikely explanations, but she’s somewhat two-dimensional, doesn’t have much of a history, isn’t very well fleshed out. C’mon, she’s Irish—can’t some liveliness or color be gotten out of that? And the story proceeds in a pretty straight line toward the ending, apart from a few side glances at a secretive group, called the Group, and the weird, symbol-carved artifact it got hold of. There’s no unexpected twist, no real surprise in the working out of the story.
Actually, there is one surprise of sorts. The story reaches an end without wrapping everything up. One might imagine that there’s more to come, and, though the ARC doesn’t say so, it seems there is. News reports from early in 2014 that I hadn't seen at the time, such as this one, indicate that A Vision of Fire is the start of an entire series to be written by Gillian Anderson and co-author Jeff Rovin. Anderson is an actress of great skill and appeal (see The House of Mirth or The Fall for examples), and Rovin, who has produced a large body of work, is clearly no novice. My friend Mikey—and many other readers, to judge from early Goodreads reviews—will be glad for further encounters with this series. But I, for one, get no thrill from imagining that Anderson and Rovin are, even now, tap-tap-tapping on their tablets....more
The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, in its entry on Greg Bear, summarizes the idea of Darwin's Radio this way: "a long-dormant but now seemingly deadThe Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, in its entry on Greg Bear, summarizes the idea of Darwin's Radio this way: "a long-dormant but now seemingly deadly virus turns out to have been the spur that created Homo sapiens out of Neanderthal loins. Now – just past the millennium – the virus is needed again, to transform Homo sapiens into a posthuman species capable of dealing with the mess we have made of the world." The problem I had with Bear's story is easy to state: where are the humans? The "characters" are an almost total void to me, which isn't totally the fault of my memory. Surely the fate of mankind should involve a few distinct men and women....more
A musical analyst once pointed out that people think Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony begins in D minor because they’ve been told as much, but in fact it beA musical analyst once pointed out that people think Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony begins in D minor because they’ve been told as much, but in fact it begins ambiguously and settles into that key only gradually. Likewise, the publisher’s description of The Shining Girls blaringly announces that it involves a “time-traveling serial killer,” but that’s not clear in the novel until we’re many pages in.
We meet a man as the man meets a girl, and the man is friendly but does one little cruel thing, and then suddenly we’ve jumped decades into the past but we’re with the same man. This is how it begins. The novel has simply flashed back; neither the man nor we know anything about time travel yet, and though he soon shows himself capable of killing, our first knowledge of his obsessive, shockingly cold-blooded series of murders arises later and indirectly, through two appearances of the name “Julia.”
South African writer Lauren Beukes, in her third piece of full-length fiction, puts into play an ingenious and twisty scheme and is tantalizingly careful in setting it up. This deserves to be said—in fact, she should be praised for it—because one or two early reviewers have rather obtusely managed to get themselves confused by it.
The man in the opening chapter is named Harper, and the girl, who is only six and a half at this point, is named Kirby. Though they meet in 1974, we next see Harper in the early 1930s. The location (for the entire novel, it turns out) is Chicago, as mentions of “the lake” and “Randolph Street” may suggest before the city is named, about 20 pages in. The early chapters alternate between Kirby’s story and Harper’s, with chapter headings neatly telling us the who and the when: clearly, these two are going to be the novel’s central characters. Pretty quickly, we leave behind Kirby’s childhood, learn through her about the nasty murder in 1984 of a promising student named Julia, and follow Harper as he’s drawn, by what seems to be music in the air, to a decrepit and condemned wooden tenement on the West Side, where one room is bedecked with talismanic objects and names written on the wall—“Kirby” and “Julia” among them. Cash and some dated betting slips from future years tell Harper, and us, that this place can connect to other times.
Soon, 50 or so pages in, Kirby’s story settles in 1992, and the focus widens beyond the original alternation between her and Harper. Some of the chapters now focus on Dan, a seasoned reporter at a Chicago daily with whom Kirby interns. Some will follow a handful of other characters, including one or another of the women whose names we’ve already read on that wall in what Harper takes to calling The House. You will never, unless perhaps you’re planning a review, have to consciously formulate to yourself the novel’s structure, but it amounts to two forms of movement. The chapters will take us to various zones in time, so to speak: 1974, 1931, 1984, 1988, 1992, 1943, etc. The characters’ stories will almost always keep progressing forward in time, but occasionally they’re given to us out of sequence; for instance, the attack on Kirby that we’ve been expecting almost since the start is withheld until a good ways into the novel, when it arrives as a flashback.
Put the scheme like that and it may sound complex. It is complex, but it has to be described in order to demonstrate one of Beukes’s achievements. She sets this up carefully (as I already said), elaborates it carefully, keeps you wondering whether Harper can be caught, and throws a few kinks into the intricate knit. Like everything else, the kinks have their purpose. (One, which arrives late, is a real wow.)
I’m still unsure about one of those twists, though. It arrives early in the novel, and it flashes forward to a point late in Kirby’s story. By showing us this scene, Beukes tells us some things about where the whole novel is going to go. Kirby at this point hasn’t even been attacked yet, nor has she survived and begun her quest for answers. Beukes thus cancels part of our interest in what will happen and substitutes the question of how it comes about. Her plotting is up to the challenge: though we now know where we’re going, at least one of the steps on the way will be a surprise. The problem is with the execution: the drama, the narrative drive, sags for a spell in the middle.
There are other problems. The prose style is rather flat, which is common in thrillers and other genre fiction, but Beukes has written more colorfully elsewhere. That sagging section feels slow because it tries to develop the characters at the expense of advancing the plot (I use those classroom terms because, whatever the intent, that’s how it feels). The advance proof that I read needed copyediting and maybe even genuine editing; some bits of British English style and language can pass, but it’s jarring for an American sportswriter to speak of a “punter” in the British sense.
And yet, the more I think about it, the more I admire—and enjoy—the way Beukes has “done” her basic idea. I also admire her smart use of present tense and her skillful handling of point of view. She generally sticks to one character’s consciousness in any given chapter, but now and then she pulls back for a grace note, something that adds a filigree of drama, such as a piece of evidence that narrowly escapes notice.
Just possibly there’s a hint of social psychology here as well. Harper seems to have a native intelligence; he figures out how The House works pretty quickly. The women that Harper kills “shine” not only to him but to others as well; they’re bright prospects. Although it seems somehow foreordained that he will kill these shining girls, there’s a sense to it: in a way, he must have been a bright prospect himself, but his circumstances kept it from developing, and he unconsciously retaliates by taking away other examples. The House, firmly situated in the early 30s, is a feature of the Depression that may represent the spoiling of potential.
It may be that even the novel’s shortcomings are a sign of promise. Any writer who advances from one book to the next, as Beukes has done so far in her career, rarely makes the same mistakes twice. What will she do next? Time will tell.
Disclosure: I’ve been acquainted with Lauren Beukes since 2011, when I met her at a reading, and I made some small efforts to help her publicize this book....more
Ijon Tichy is one of Stanislaw Lem’s first creations and a prototype for many of his later characters. Tichy (pronounced “tee-khee,” says a translatorIjon Tichy is one of Stanislaw Lem’s first creations and a prototype for many of his later characters. Tichy (pronounced “tee-khee,” says a translator’s note, which is silent on the first name) is a star pilot, cosmic adventurer, and representative man. These 12 stories, which chronicle some of Tichy's travels under the simplest of titles, such as “The Seventh Voyage” (the earliest contained in this volume) or “The Twenty-eighth Voyage” (the book’s last), were collected and published in Poland in 1957 and are, judging from the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction’s entry on Lem, his first mature work.
The universe keeps coming up with ways to challenge and often confound our hero, who is often intrepid, just as often stubborn, and as much as anything else persistent. In one story, Tichy must deal with what turns out to be a band of predatory potatoes (I don’t want to reveal anything more than that idea). In a rather long and discursive tale, Tichy’s theological conversations with a group of robot monks alternate with his reading of the planet’s history, in which genetic engineering becomes highly advanced, allowing an originally humanoid species to pursue countless fads and cults in body shape. In one of the stories that play with the mysteries of temporality, Tichy enters a time loop and duplicates himself because he needs help repairing his ship but finds that he’s too ornery to cooperate with himself.
Whatever he’s faced with, Tichy manages to pull through, either by pluck or by luck. As a hero, he could be compared to Lemuel Gulliver in Swift, to Voltaire’s Candide (as the publisher’s description does), or to one picaresque adventurer or another. That project can be left to someone else. I’ll just say that these stories, like many of Lem’s later works, illuminate humanity’s strengths and, more often, its limitations from many angles....more
Philosophers and physicists have tackled the idea of time travel from one angle, trying to establish what’s technically or logically possible, what’sPhilosophers and physicists have tackled the idea of time travel from one angle, trying to establish what’s technically or logically possible, what’s forbidden, and why, while science fiction writers have gone at it from another, exploring the dramatic and thematic possibilities. In this book, Paul Nahin has attempted the difficult task of surveying both viewpoints, the factual and the fictional.
For me the book is problematic in some respects. Nahin attempts to draw some conclusions about the science and the philosophy as he goes, but sometimes these felt poorly founded. And his discussion is sometimes a little cloudy. In reading it, I often wished I were in a classroom where I could ask questions. For instance: What exactly is the difference being changing the past, which Nahin says most thinkers have now ruled out, and merely affecting it, which they believe is allowed? (Note that I read the original, 1993 edition, not the revised and expanded second edition.)
Nonetheless, a vast amount of research has been summarized in this book, ranging from old pulp-magazine stories to scientific papers that were still recent at the time Nahin completed the text. In effect, the book is two surveys in one—combining an overview of the fictional literature with an account of the scientific and (less thoroughly) the philosophical literature—and that makes this a doubly valuable reference. Other writers have done a better job of explicating some of the concepts here, but as far as I can tell, there is no other book like this.
Side note: I read this as background for a play involving time travel....more
For any number of reasons, writers of fiction aren't necessarily good tour guides to their work, their personal development, or the history of their fFor any number of reasons, writers of fiction aren't necessarily good tour guides to their work, their personal development, or the history of their field. Margaret Atwood is good at all those things, it turns out. I had little doubt of it after hearing her speak in fall 2011, at an event where I bought this book, and reading the book amply confirms it.
In Other Worlds contains personal history, critical reflections, and even a few stories--one of which is a "short" story indeed. All of it is insightful and illuminating.
I'd enjoy discussing here Atwood's survey of utopian and dystopian fiction and her suggestions on why each predominated in its time (this might be timely in light of Neal Stephenson's recent calls for more optimistic imaginings from SF writers), or her remarks on literary critic Northrop Frye (whom I still favor as she does, though I've read less of his work), or what could be called the feminist angle in this text. Alas, ars longa, vita breve....more
Herewith a miscellany of thoughts on the three main Foundation novels, in lieu of a genuine review.
Isaac Asimov published a lot of his important workHerewith a miscellany of thoughts on the three main Foundation novels, in lieu of a genuine review.
Isaac Asimov published a lot of his important work in Astounding Science-Fiction. Two astounding things about him: he wrote the three core volumes of this series in the 1940s, when much of the world was engaged in war work or recovery; he was in his early 20s when he began writing the series and still in his 20s when he completed the third volume.
I was younger than that when I read those three books; they left me with strong impressions that are regrettably rather vague now. I recall the character of Hari Seldon, his science of psychohistory, and a character referred to by the still strange-sounding name The Mule. I felt a sense of wonder at reading about the far future, and a sense of the future as being sort of a problem to be tackled (that's what Seldon's science is intended to do). And I grasped, though I think without becoming fully conscious of it at the time, the notion that cultures follow a pattern of development--as flowers or people do--with growth followed eventually by decline. This made the past, and even the present, into another kind of problem: how to account for the decline of great civilizations of the past, how to recognize and maybe forestall it in one's own society (which is pretty much the situation that Seldon faces). Undoubtedly all that influenced me, gave me an interest in how prediction can be done--when it can be done at all--as well as in knowing and understanding history.
Regarding the future, my prediction is that predicting it is always going to be confounded by what are essentially flukes. Although they can be called random fluctuations (as they might put it in quantum mechanics), nonlinear effects (as chaos theorists often call it), or mere accidents of chance, the way the problem occurred to me as I thought briefly about this series before sitting down to research and write about it was as Black Swan events. That's how Nassim Nicholas Taleb described consequential but unpredictable events in his excellent book The Black Swan. I won't try to reconstruct here Taleb's explication of the idea, but circumstances can arise that we can't foresee ahead of time (though many people explain them after the fact as though we could've expected them). That, I thought, presents a difficulty for the notion of what Asimov called psychohistory in these books--essentially the idea that human behavior in the mass can be predicted through statistical means.
It turns out I'm wrong about the problem, to some extent. In reviewing the Science Fiction Encyclopedia's description of the Foundation series in its Asimov entry, I see that he more or less anticipated the problem and dealt with it. I don't think it's much of a spoiler to say that the character called The Mule introduces unpredictable effects and that the group called the second Foundation represents a way of dealing with such things. Incidentally, as a professor of biochemistry, Asimov was probably well aware of the potential importance of mutations in genetic makeup; I won't explain that, so as to invite no complaints....more
Read it in the 60s. Sadly, I remember little of it now, except for "The Veldt," about which I'll say only that it illustrates why you shouldn't alwaysRead it in the 60s. Sadly, I remember little of it now, except for "The Veldt," about which I'll say only that it illustrates why you shouldn't always let children have their way....more
This book seems to be one of those parts of my history that hovers slightly beyond reach, as if it were no longer mine but belonged to someone else, oThis book seems to be one of those parts of my history that hovers slightly beyond reach, as if it were no longer mine but belonged to someone else, or to some other place or time. I suppose it does.
In my tenuous recollection, threads connect The Martian Chronicles to two people: my mother, who I believe gave it to me (she's the one who seeded my SF interest), and my friend Duncan Becker, who read much more, and much more widely, than I did. I seem to recall passing this book along to Duncan, but why that would stick in my mind when I know there were other SF books he had already read I don't know. It's just that he later wrote a science-fiction novel about two civilizations in space, after he went away to college and then moved to another country, and I now wonder whether my little loan, also about two civilizations, contributed to that. My mother might remember some detail about my response to the book, and Duncan might sketch other parts of the picture, but both of them are gone now. Maybe I need not mention them here, but they're somehow part of the story I've lost.
Only the vaguest impressions of my reading remain, among which are a heated landscape, which I think is both that of Mars as the Earthmen find it and that of the Texas summer when I probably read the book, and lives swallowed up by events, and an unusual form of nostalgia on Bradbury's part, seemingly tied up in works and days he had invented in the book, which may have been a redirected longing for his own past....more
I can repeat here what I said about the first volume of the trilogy:
Given to me by my mother sometime in the late 60s. Apart from a moment's thrill atI can repeat here what I said about the first volume of the trilogy:
Given to me by my mother sometime in the late 60s. Apart from a moment's thrill at glimpsing the same old cover again (of the 1965 Scribner paperback), I no longer recall any of the book clearly, but it fascinated me. Maybe I'll take the time to re-read it someday....more
Given to me by my mother sometime in the late 60s. Apart from a moment's thrill at glimpsing the same old cover again (of the 1965 Macmillan paperbackGiven to me by my mother sometime in the late 60s. Apart from a moment's thrill at glimpsing the same old cover again (of the 1965 Macmillan paperback), I no longer recall any of the book clearly, but it fascinated me. Maybe I'll take the time to re-read it someday....more
First, a reminiscence. I continue to be surprised by my mother, though she died three years ago. She gave at least one volume of this trilogy to me whFirst, a reminiscence. I continue to be surprised by my mother, though she died three years ago. She gave at least one volume of this trilogy to me when I was a young adolescent and finally gave the third to me some 40 years later, at Christmas 2000. I imagine she understood that, insofar as they're allegorical, Lewis's Narnia books derive from a formerly great literary tradition, but she knew as well that they were meant for children; she had no interest in them herself (that I can recall) and never expected that I would either. Lewis's so-called Space Trilogy, on the other hand, is thoroughly adult. By giving its volumes to me over the years, my mother honored what she saw as my intelligence, beginning before my mind had developed much and extending throughout her life.
Some comments: It’s a fine and lovely book, often very funny (the dithering speech of the Deputy Director is an example, as are the maneuverings for position among the academics), wondrously imaginative (Merlin himself figures into the story, and the beings that appear to be angels are presented in terms of the old planetary gods of the astrologers--Mercury, Venus, and the like), and a good deal concerned with ethics and morality. This is a rare combination; in fact, the feel of the book, the flavor that results from Lewis’s particular combination of those ingredients, is something I’ve never encountered elsewhere. Maybe the biggest surprise is that it’s clearly a Christian book, by virtue of the metaphysical hierarchy that informs its world, yet one finds very little mention of Christian beliefs and practices: Christianity is an aspect of the story, not one of its subjects. (One could wish for the same from many of today’s Christian artists.)
Some quotations that I copied into my journal:
Everyone begins as a child by liking Weather. You learn the art of disliking it as you grow up. Haven’t you ever noticed it on a snowy day? The grown-ups are all going about with long faces, but look at the children--and the dogs. They know what snow’s made for.
That’s Denniston, one of the “good guys,” talking. They’re clearly not ascetics; their simple, direct (and, as his own words suggest, childlike) response to a sensual experience is one reason we like them.
If you pick up some rotten thing and find this organic life crawling over it, do you not say, “Oh, the horrid thing. It is alive,” and then drop it?… Minerals are clean dirt. But the real filth is what comes from organisms—sweat, spittle, excretions. Is not your whole idea of purity one huge example? The impure and the organic are interchangeable conceptions.… You would understand if you were peasants. Who would try to work with stallions and bulls? No, no; we want geldings and oxen. There will never be peace and order and discipline so long as there is sex. When man has thrown it away, then he will become finally governable.… The world I look forward to is the world of perfect purity. The clean mind and the clean minerals. What are the things that most offend the dignity of man? Birth and breeding and death.
This is Filostrato, one of the scientists attached to the “institute” that’s a front for the dark forces, the initials of which are N.I.C.E.. What he outlines is part of their project to improve the condition of man.
…they had discovered the state of Merlin: not from inspection of the thing that slept under Bragdon Wood, but from observing a certain unique configuration in that place where those things remain that are taken off time’s mainroad, behind the invisible hedges, into the unimaginable fields. Not all the times that are outside the present are therefore past or future.
A filigree of fine phrasing and idea creation.
…he was past the age at which one can have night fears. But now … he felt those old terrors again.… Materialism is in fact no protection. Those who seek it in that hope (they are not a negligible class) will be disappointed. The thing you fear is impossible. Well and good. Can you therefore cease to fear it? Not here and now. And what then? If you must see ghosts, it is better not to disbelieve in them.
Simply good writing (an explanation wrapped up with an aphorism), though of course the anti-materialist point serves Lewis’s larger purpose.
It isn’t to his wife that a man turns under the influence of aphrodisiacs.
A comment by Frost, another of the bad guys. The statement has a degree of truth that’s not undercut by the identity of the speaker.
In case anyone wonders about the source of Lewis's title, the title page of this edition gives it as follows:
The Shadow of that Hyddeous Strength Sax Myle and More It Is of Length. —Sir David Lyndsay, from Ane Dialog, describing the Tower of Babel
Dazzling prose, as usual with Anthony Burgess, applied to a hyperbolic and satiric depiction of a future world. The past is present as well, as it oftDazzling prose, as usual with Anthony Burgess, applied to a hyperbolic and satiric depiction of a future world. The past is present as well, as it often is in Burgess's fiction. Example: one of his character names, Beatrice-Joanna, is a deliberate borrowing from, and allusion to, a Jacobean drama, Middleton and Rowley's Changeling....more
Very little about this collection has stuck with me, but that's true of a lot of my early reading. I do recall a few things, though. I had never encouVery little about this collection has stuck with me, but that's true of a lot of my early reading. I do recall a few things, though. I had never encountered an English pub before, certainly not in real life (I was a teenager in middle America when I read this, in the 60s), and barely if at all in reading either. I didn't know of the old tradition of marking a pub with an image on a sign outside, which presumably dates to a time before widespread literacy: if you couldn't read, you could still find a bar "at the sign of the white hart" (a hart being a kind of deer, something else I hadn't previously known). And I hadn't met the tales-told-in-a-bar idea--nor, for that matter, had I heard any tales, truthful or fanciful, in any real bars. These things made Tales from the White Hart a part of my growing up.
In lieu of any comments on the substance of these stories, that'll have to stand. It illustrates, at least, that books can serve purposes beyond their ostensibly literary ones....more
Contains at least two excellent stories by Clarke: "The Nine Billion Names of God" (later published as the lead story in a collection also containingContains at least two excellent stories by Clarke: "The Nine Billion Names of God" (later published as the lead story in a collection also containing "The Sentinel") and "The Star." Each may give you shivers at the end--the important point is made only in the final sentence--and "The Star" sympathetically evokes the plight of one man, a Jesuit priest, even achieving a kind of pathos. Time has washed away details of my early reading and probably entire books as well, but not these two stories....more
For a century or so now, science fiction has been proposing that other forms of life exist in the universe and considering what will happen when mankiFor a century or so now, science fiction has been proposing that other forms of life exist in the universe and considering what will happen when mankind meets them. (Incidentally, an argument against the reality of UFOs is that before large numbers of people began imagining other life in the universe, they apparently never "encountered" aliens or UFOs either.) Arthur C. Clarke explored the prospects for such an encounter a handful of times, most notably in The City and the Stars and in this novel, both published in the 1950s, and in the script he developed with Stanley Kubrick for the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey.
I was a teenager when I saw 2001, upon its initial release, and I was unsure how to take its conclusion. It was also as a teen that I read Childhood's End, and though the gist of all that happened was in that case clear, again there was something I missed, though I wasn't aware of it then. To avoid giving away anything essential, I'll have to call it a sense of possibilities denied. Those who've read the book will understand me if I say that the alien species that shocks humanity with its arrival early in the novel, and later with its very appearance, proves to have its own shortcomings and even, in the end, shares something with the majority of mankind....more
The Science Fiction Encyclopedia, which I now turn to frequently in assessing my earlier reading, unceremoniously dismisses Agent of Chaos as a "commeThe Science Fiction Encyclopedia, which I now turn to frequently in assessing my earlier reading, unceremoniously dismisses Agent of Chaos as a "commercial Space Opera…which depicts a garish Dystopia en passant" and says no more. When I read Norman Spinrad's early novel, in the late 70s or early 80s, it did more for me than that reading captures. It seemed vaguely political, even vaguely philosophical, in the way it described a conflict.
There's a big, bad government ruling Earth with a heavy hand, and a democratic rebellion that'd like to overthrow it. Each has some successes before encountering a setback; neither achieves victory. The conflict simply continues, like many political conflicts on Earth do: the Shining Path rebellion in Peru, the Tamil liberation movement in Sri Lanka (which ran for more than two decades before being crushed), the Karen insurgency in Burma (begun in 1949, still going as of this writing).
In the analysis of this book, each side wishes to impose its own order over all. This analysis is given by a third party, when we finally meet its members, whose aim is to prevent that final order from being established. This third group is the reason neither side of the conflict manages to win. It doesn't offer a third way; it wants to keep all ways open as possibilities. The synthesis it hopes for, to use Hegelian terms, is no synthesis at all. Thus it sows disorder--which can be a good thing to have, as sociologist Richard Sennett more or less argues in an aptly named book I read much later, The Uses of Disorder: Personal Identity and City Life.
That's the gist of the story, as I remember it now (maybe with a few details wrong), and it's why I liked the book. I'm still inclined to think this way: too much order makes the thinking go blind. In the outcome of the Sri Lanka civil war, the Tamils haven't done well at all so far; the government and the Sinhalese majority have imposed their order. Not all conflicts end that badly, and Sri Lanka's was pretty nasty while it lasted. Still, there's something to be said for Spinrad's view, or at least Sennett's....more
In a way, this novel concludes its trilogy as Mona Lisa Overdrive and Zero History conclude theirs: with the suggestion of something new and transformIn a way, this novel concludes its trilogy as Mona Lisa Overdrive and Zero History conclude theirs: with the suggestion of something new and transformative about to emerge......more
Treats the question of what kind of union might be possible between an inhabitant of the physical world and a virtual-world construct (the "idoru" ofTreats the question of what kind of union might be possible between an inhabitant of the physical world and a virtual-world construct (the "idoru" of the title), both of whom happen to be pop stars......more
Introduces an early-20th-century world in which major earthquakes have (at last, one thinks) damaged much of San Francisco and Tokyo. The San FranciscIntroduces an early-20th-century world in which major earthquakes have (at last, one thinks) damaged much of San Francisco and Tokyo. The San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge, deemed unsafe for its original use after the quake, has become a kind of shantytown instead......more
As far as I can tell so far, the online Science Fiction Encyclopedia, launched in 2011, aims to be authoritative in the manner of traditional referencAs far as I can tell so far, the online Science Fiction Encyclopedia, launched in 2011, aims to be authoritative in the manner of traditional reference works: broad in its perspective, knowledgeable in its scope of reference (entries are apt to allude to many styles, trends, subcategories, and the like, whether it be historical literary forms such as the picaresque or more SF-oriented groupings such as the Ruined Earth and Steampunk approaches), concise but thorough in its summaries, and evaluative. One will find much the same in traditional works such as the Oxford Companion to English Literature. And as far as I can tell so far, it succeeds.
Its entry on Bruce Sterling suggests I might do well to revisit Islands in the Net, which I read during a period of the 90s when I was not paying the utmost attention to the diversions I chose. The SFE proposes that “many of Sterling's novels may be seen as tours conducted around fields of data by protagonists whose main function is to witness them for us. This approach culminates in Islands in the Net (1988), a Near-Future thriller concerned with the increasing growth and complexity of political power in electronic communication networks.” That sounds like a book that could speak to the present day, depending on the details. And the concept of a tour is a good answer to the question “How can one best appreciate the kind of story it is?”
I’m not immune to the appeal of that approach. Two of James Cameron’s films, Titanic and Avatar, seem to me best regarded as tours; though they have fully developed stories (something neither I nor, apparently, the SFE are willing to claim for Islands in the Net), I can’t help thinking that Cameron wanted most of all to show us as much as he could of the great ship itself, in the former film, and in the latter as much as he could of the planet and its denizens that he (with collaborators) had imagined. If that’s what Sterling did in Islands in the Net, I might appreciate it for that today.
The impressions that I recall most strongly, on the other hand, are of an outlandish plot and a flat set of characters. Even the Wikipedia entry, which by Wikipedia rule should be devoid of any unattributed opinion, can’t help saying, in its predictably tedious plot summary, that at one point the central character “is miraculously freed” from impending doom. What I would have written about it at the time I read it might go something like this, though with descriptive details:
As a writer of nonfiction as well as fiction, Bruce Sterling is a kind of thinker, often entertainingly polemical and dogmatic, but also a kind of inventor, whether of verbal constructions, concepts, or entire analytical approaches. He may be most at home when at play in the field of ideas, especially those concerning the social or political impact of technology. His skills of invention are less developed when it comes to the complex interplay of character, action, plot, and theme that literature has customarily expected of novelists. One suspects that he has simply never had time (meaning he has never taken the time) to study and ponder how those things work. Has he ever read E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, for instance? It’s rudimentary in a way, but in the midst of reading Islands in the Net one feels like recounting some of Forster's points to Sterling. His story isn’t short of conflict, which public-school teachers often pound into the heads of students as the requirement sine qua non of a good story; what it lacks is architecture, which requires a sense of structure and a good choice of materials. Decor isn’t lacking either. The various spaces visited by this novel are pretty clearly distinguishable; one gets the point. But the overall result feels like so many elaborate tableaux.
There--that's my quick impression of my mid-90s character. He was somewhat dogmatic himself, without being entertaining. What I'd write today, if I reread the novel, would be different, but maybe not as much as I'd like to think....more
Charles Babbage was one of those geniuses whose work wasn't sufficiently appreciated at the time. Many people have wondered what would have happened iCharles Babbage was one of those geniuses whose work wasn't sufficiently appreciated at the time. Many people have wondered what would have happened if he had been able to complete a working difference engine (essentially an advanced calculator) and then construct a working analytical engine (essentially a programmable general-purpose computer) from the designs he had developed. In this novel, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling collaborated to answer that what-if question. The resulting story is complex and surprisingly dark.
What it proposes through a thought experiment is comparable to what Jacques Ellul argued for historical and analytical reasons in The Technological Society: that new technologies usually have unforeseen and unfortunate consequences. In The Difference Engine, the provocative point is not that 19th-century England might've developed something much like 20th-century info-tech but that this could've led to 20th-century plagues such as pollution, heightened surveillance, and totalitarianism.
Despite my delight in seeing historical figures such as Babbage and Lady Ada Lovelace brought to life, something about the book struck me as less than fully satisfying, which I can't now specify. Hence my unexceptional rating....more