Blindsight is an unimpeachably impressive book. Even more so than most "hard" sci fi, this book is structured around ambitious intellectual speculatio...moreBlindsight is an unimpeachably impressive book. Even more so than most "hard" sci fi, this book is structured around ambitious intellectual speculation and is driven by the desire to tell a scientifically plausible story. The basic storyline is one of first contact between 21st century humans and an alien craft discovered orbiting a brown dwarf in the outskirts of the Solar System. A ship is dispatched to make contact, led by a vampire (a human variant rescued from extinction) and staffed by a crew of bio-enhanced humans, including Siri Keeton, a "synthesist" who is unable to feel empathy but who has learned to "fake it" reasonably well.
The Big Idea here is that human consciousness (or sentience) may *not* actually represent an evolutionary advancement after all. Consciousness is metabolically and otherwise inefficient and it is possible that the universe is populated with highly intelligent, but non-conscious, beings (i.e. zombies) who will eventually out-compete us for resources. This is fertile ground for philosophical speculation and a good fit for an alien encounter story. The ideas come fast and furious, so if you're into that sort of thing, this is the book for you.
When it comes to characterization and plot, Watts assigns himself a high degree of difficulty by making his protagonist unable to feel empathy. And while Siri Keeton probably won't go down as the most memorable sci fi hero in literary history, it's not quite as bleak as some reviewers make out. Watts does do a fair amount of work establishing Siri's emotional backstory, and he provides a handy narrative echo to the aforementioned ideas about consciousness and intelligence. But fair warning: the story is deliberately slanted towards ideas instead of emotions.
My main complaint with the book is that, despite all the research and scientific grounding, despite the more than 150 footnotes and the technical appendix, there are a few plot points that just feel ... sloppy. Part of the problem is that there are just so many ideas zinging around that there's really no room left for uncertainty or alternative explanations that might be less sexy, but more reflective of how actual science works. This is the kind of book where a scientist will confront for the first time some outlandish new phenomenon and will instantly and confidently propose some outre explanation. And that's that.
The one that really got me was that the non-sentient-yet-intelligent aliens would detect our frivolous radio transmissions (TV sitcoms, etc) and would immediately interpret them as a threat and a declaration of war. To which I say: err, maybe, I guess that's possible, but seems unlikely. (This is brought up to buttress the idea that non-sentient aliens will outcompete us, or maybe just blast us into smithereens). But however likely the concept is or isn't, it's totally mooted by the plot. The mayhem that inevitably erupts doesn't arise from a lack of understanding so much as from the fact that the humans basically go out of their way to provoke a conflict with the aliens. It's also a little puzzling that Siri seems to be pretty bad at his job. It wasn't clear to me if this was entirely intentional, or if Watts was just enamored of surprising plot twists.
Quibbles aside, it's an good book and recommended for science nerds. Overall not quite as successful as Neal Stephenson's Anathem but ambitious and satisfying in its own way. If you're curious the author has released it under a Creative Commons license through his website here.(less)
There are probably some people out there who, when they see the title of this book, immediately think: college football! The rest of us immediately th...moreThere are probably some people out there who, when they see the title of this book, immediately think: college football! The rest of us immediately think: Star Trek! This is a book for the rest of us.
Now of course, Star Trek is a big, fat, slow-moving target ripe for light satire. The one main joke here -- about the anonymous, redshirted crew members who always die horribly before the commercial break -- has been around for decades, most successfully in Galaxy Quest IMHO. So the first section is pretty predictable, but competently amusing (Scalzi is rarely not amusing). But then he decides to take the book into Charlie Kaufman territory. Not to give anything away, but (view spoiler)[suffice to say the book gets meta-fictional, and then meta-meta-fictional, giving Scalzi a nice big canvas to sketch out some ideas about identity & life goals, writing & fandom, etc. (hide spoiler)]
It's admirably ambitious in addition to being clever, funny and even emotionally affecting in places. I still feel that the premise is (maybe) a little too flimsy and jokey to sustain the weightier themes it aims for. There's a disconnect between the ambition and the tone. For example, other meta-fiction adopts a absurdist or magical realist flavor, whereas Scalzi's tone is much more earnest. It works but I can't quite figure out why. Still, it's a very funny and interesting read, and I reserve the right to revise my opinion of it upward if it sticks in my head. 3.5 stars.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
I read books 1 and 2 of Neal Stephenson's massive love-letter to capitalism way back in 2005-6, but I never really felt motivated to finish the trilog...moreI read books 1 and 2 of Neal Stephenson's massive love-letter to capitalism way back in 2005-6, but I never really felt motivated to finish the trilogy. But then I was on vacation with nothing else to read and there it was up on a family member's shelf, and I thought: sure, why not. TSOTW is not dramatically different from the first two volumes. He does an admirable job wrapping up (most of) the loose plot strings, which is no small feat, given the complexity of the first books.
All in all, the Baroque Cycle is pretty fun and funny in that inimitable Neal Stephenson style. It's got swashbuckling and science in equal parts and it turns scientists like Newton and Leibniz into pseudo-action figures. Even Daniel Waterhouse gets to act like a bit of a badass in book 3. It's got an immortal alchemist named Enoch. I even appreciate Stephenson's use of anachronism, goofy etymological jokes and knowing winks at the modern world. It makes the past seem less staid and dusty. What's not to like?
Well. The books can feel fairly static and watered-down in comparison to his other books. Think of the Baroque Cycle as the same total amount of fun you get from reading Cryptonomicon but spread out over three 1000-page volumes instead of one. To a certain extent, Stephenson also lets his research interests, rather than characterization or plausibility, drive the plot. Basically the whole plot of TSOTW is driven by some scheme of Jack's to get Eliza's attention, and frankly it really doesn't make much sense if you stop to think about it. But it does provide a nice opportunity for lengthy descriptions of the Tower of London, the criminal justice system or what-have-you. Still, it's an impressive piece of writing in a lot of ways.(less)
Who Fears Death is a speculative fiction novel set in post-apocalyptic Africa, by the Nigerian-American author Nnedi Okorafor. The story concerns Onye...moreWho Fears Death is a speculative fiction novel set in post-apocalyptic Africa, by the Nigerian-American author Nnedi Okorafor. The story concerns Onyesonwu, a young woman born of a horrific rape who grows up to inherit magical powers and a righteous anger at the injustices of the world. It's a hard book to pigeonhole since it manages to be both innovative and derivative at the same time.
The African setting, folklore and cultural elements are a genuine breath of fresh air in a fantasy/sci-fi landscape that too often manages to be white and male even when it is hustling to transcend old genre cliches. I confess I am too un-educated to know which elements of the book are taken directly from African folklore and which are Okorafor's invention, but the textures of her world are enjoyable, lovely, disturbing, and often surprising in how different it feels. It's also clear that the book is meant as a commentary on the modern world, from the vivid depictions of slavery, genocide, racial strife and militarized rape, to her nuanced take on female genital mutilation. (Be warned: the tale is fairly grim.)
So it's too bad that the book doesn't quite rise above the workmanlike. The magical coming-of-age-plus-quest tale is a bog-standard fantasy trope and Okorafor doesn't do much to transcend it. The book also suffers from a bit Too Much of everything, with the simple storyline straining to support the wealth of plot twists and supporting characters that keep appearing, even well after the stage has been set. Not quite the book I wanted it to be, but an exciting and engaging genre read nonetheless. Hopefully, we'll get more from Okorafor in the future.(less)
To give an example of the conundrum that is China Miéville, consider his best novel, The City and the City. If I wanted I could detail the flaws that...moreTo give an example of the conundrum that is China Miéville, consider his best novel, The City and the City. If I wanted I could detail the flaws that hold it back from greatness--that tentative ending, the dull protagonist. But damn I have to admit that, more so than any other recent book I've read, TC&TC is the one that comes unbidden into my thoughts, the book I have pondered the most after finishing it. Some submerged part of my brain has secretly upvoted and canonized it.
Embassytown finds Miéville in much the same mode as TC&TC (as opposed to the exploding-tentacles mode of Kraken or Perdido Street Station). First he presents us a thorny conceptual challenge--this time it's a race of double-voiced aliens who are biologically unable to lie--and then follows it through it's various possibilities and permutations, finally arriving at a resolution. As with TC&TC, the echoes of our own world are strong but mercifully un-belabored. Oh, and he remembered to write an interesting protagonist this time, although her story gets somewhat trampled in the conceptual stampede.
(Beyond here, there be spoilers.) The titular city is a human settlement surrounded by a larger alien civilization, the Ariekei. (view spoiler)[The Language of the Ariekei can only reflect the world as it is; they are unable to express abstract concepts or counter-factuals. As a result, despite their technological advancement, they do not use metaphor, have no writing and are biologically unable to lie. To complicate matters further, the aliens are double-voiced. Their Language is the super-position of two voices speaking simultaneously from two mouths. They are unable to comprehend the language of other species (or even computer synthesized reproductions of their own Language) because they do not recognize the shape of a Mind that can only make single-voiced language. One result of all this is that the Ariekei as characters feel truly alien.
In order to communicate with the Ariekei, humans have created genetically-modified Ambassadors -- twinned doppelgangers who speak simultaneously and whose minds are technologically synced. Since the Ariekei cannot speak in the abstract they have adopted the practice of enlisting humans to serve as similes, or actual enactments of situations that can then be spoken (because they are now "real").
Complicated, right? And that's just the initial set-up. It gets quite a bit crazier when a new Ambassador arrives on the planet, upsetting the local equilibrium. And I'm not even mentioning the other stuff: the immernauts, the extra-dimensional monsters (that sadly, only get a cameo), the AIs, the bio-rigging. As usual Miéville is not running short on ideas and he smartly leaves enough mystery lurking around the edges of the story that you could see him returning to this world in future books. (hide spoiler)]
The book is a little clunky in places. Clearly there is a LOT of exposition that needs to be handled before it starts making even a little bit of sense. But overall it works. It's Miéville's first pure sci fi novel and in a way it feels like something Heinlein might of written, but with a bigger vocabulary.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
Even at his most serious (e.g. Old Man's War), John Scalzi is the kind of writer who never really loses his sense of humor. If you read his blog, you'...moreEven at his most serious (e.g. Old Man's War), John Scalzi is the kind of writer who never really loses his sense of humor. If you read his blog, you'll know that wry tone of voice of which I speak. Han Solo-like, he can contemplate bombing the surface of a planet with a smirk and some witty banter, so it stands to reason that a deliberate attempt at "funny sci-fi" is going to be pretty successful.
TAD is an amusingly convoluted, shaggy-dog story that starts with an epic fart joke and then moves onto the livestock. He doesn't try to overthink the concept here, although I did appreciate his version of a Washington DC updated for the era of galactic politics (hint: many things remain the same). If you like Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett, you'll enjoy this one too.(less)
Never Let Me Go is a beautiful, emotionally-rich and disturbing read. The author has charted the twists of the story down to the last word, but has re...moreNever Let Me Go is a beautiful, emotionally-rich and disturbing read. The author has charted the twists of the story down to the last word, but has retained the smooth flow of the narrative. An effect much like holding in your hand an expertly-finished piece of woodwork, where you can see the joints and seams but you can't feel them and they don't detract from the appreciation of the craft. If you haven't read it yet but plan to, you should try to avoid the spoilers (below) since much of the fun is watching Ishiguro's puzzle unfold.
(view spoiler)[Since the main characters are humans who have been cloned and raised for the purpose of harvesting their organs, the book eventually comes around to the relationship between creator and creation, to the underlying ethical, moral and existential dilemma. But it does so only reluctantly and selectively, choosing to linger instead on the shifting and minutely-observed relationships between the three main characters: Kathy, Tommy and Ruth. (Although the theme is similar, the focus on characters rather than adventure-spectacle is the exact opposite of Ridley Scott's incoherent Prometheus, which I had just watched prior to reading this.)
Which is to say that the science-fictional premise is buried deep, and while it drives the story forward, it is almost of secondary importance to the emotional life of the characters. This framing delivers a deep sense of mystery and building tension, and drives us to identify strongly with the clones and to see the surrounding society as inhuman/e. This structure pays off spectacularly in the book's closing scenes, where the author makes you feel the full weight of tragedy while leaving enough open questions to keep you mulling it for days. It's an impressive feat.
One open question is how the narrowness of the world is maintained. At Hailsham, the boarding school, the clones were kept in a controlled environment and were heavily socialized to accept their place in the world. But beyond Hailsham, there is no mention of coercion or even the possibility of resistance. That seems to suggest the possibility that the clones are kept passive by more than just a lack of information (genetics? drugs?). Although the possibility is never really raised in the narrative, there is something just the tiniest bit otherworldly about Ishiguro's characters--their deliberateness and odd obsessions--that seems to hint in that direction.
Instead Ishiguro implies that social pressure and exclusion is sufficient to enforce passivity among the clones. Naturally this raises questions about our own social order and our own passivity to injustice (both to ourselves and to others). The moral questions raised are ostensibly about futuristic advances in biotechnology and our ongoing debate about bioethics. But unfortunately, we don't need to look to the future to find examples where one class of humans is despised, excluded and exploited for the benefit of another. We already have shameful experience with that. (hide spoiler)]["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
I confess I actually skipped the 3rd book in this series -- the one this book is supposed to be shadowing (blasphemy?). I was meaning to read it, but...moreI confess I actually skipped the 3rd book in this series -- the one this book is supposed to be shadowing (blasphemy?). I was meaning to read it, but then this one was sitting right there on a family member's bookshelf, calling to me. Who was I to resist?
Even though I can't really comment on how it compares to The Last Colony, it's clear that it's a bit of a departure from Scalzi's earlier books. As befitting a story narrated by a 17-year old, there's a lot of listening in on "grown-up" conversations and sneaking around the edges of what I imagine is the plot of TLC. The plot is almost entirely advanced by the dialogue between Zoë and her friends, which gives the author his chance to write like a teenager talks.
All this works out more or less successfully. Scalzi is a funny, humane writer and its easy to believe that Zoë, John and most of the rest of them are actual people. The snarky, witty reparté does get to be a little irritating in certain scenes, but then again "trying too hard" is probably a perfectly accurate way of writing teenage characters. Not having read TLC, the plot does feel a little incomplete, but in a way that's appropriate. There's plenty of time for other perspectives once we're grown-up.(less)
The second go-around with the sci-fi-plus-film-noir combo that made Altered Carbon such a fun read. Morgan tries to dodge the curse of second-album-it...moreThe second go-around with the sci-fi-plus-film-noir combo that made Altered Carbon such a fun read. Morgan tries to dodge the curse of second-album-itis by replacing the murder mystery plot with grand scale military sci-fi, complete with space battles and lost Martian civilizations. Mostly this works, although the book comes off a quite a bit more political than the first and with a much higher body count.
He also pulls off a pretty good final page switcheroo, which is always a lot harder than you might think and stands as a testament to his considerable skills as a plot-smith. I'm still not convinced Morgan really understands the implications of the central technological conceit of the books (the cortical stacks, which allow human consciousness to be stored and "re-sleeved" in new bodies), but we'll let it slide for now. At any rate, if you like action movies filmed with letters and words, you'll probably enjoy this book.(less)