Archive for Anathem

space opera by John Scalzi [book review]

Posted in Books, pictures, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 15, 2019 by xi'an

John Scalzi, author of the memorable Old Man’s War, has started a trilogy of which I only became aware recently (or more precisely became re-aware!), which has the perk of making two of the three books already published and hence available without a one or two year break. And having the book win the 2018 Locus Award in the meanwhile. This new series is yet again a space opera with space travel made possible by a fairly unclear Flow that even the mathematicians in the story have trouble understanding. And The Flow is used by guilds to carry goods and people to planets that are too hostile an environment for the “local” inhabitants to survive on their own. The whole setup is both homely and old-fashioned: the different guilds are associated with families, despite being centuries old, and the empire of 48 planets is still governed by the same dominant family, who also controls a fairly bland religion. Although the later managed to become the de facto religion.

“I’m a Flow physicist.  It’s high-order math. You don’t have to go out into the field for that.”

This does not sound much exciting, even for space operas, but things are starting to deteriorate when the novels start. Or more exactly, as hinted by the title, the Empire is about to collapse! (No spoiler, since this is the title!!!) However, the story-telling gets a wee bit lazy from that (early) point. In that it fixates on a very few characters [among millions of billions of inhabitants of this universe] who set the cogs spinning one way then the other then the earlier way… Dialogues are witty and often funny, those few characters are mostly well-drawn, albeit too one-dimensional, and cataclysmic events seem to be held at bay by the cleverness of one single person, double-crossing the bad guys. Mostly. While the second volume (unusually) sounds better and sees more action, more surprises, and an improvement in the plot itself, and while this makes for a pleasant travel read (I forgot The Collapsing Empire in a plane from B’ham!), I am surprised at the book winning the 2018 Locus Award indeed. It definitely lacks the scope and ambiguity of the two Ancillary novels. The convoluted philosophical construct and math background of Anathem. The historical background of Cryptonomicon and of the Baroque Cycle. Or the singularity of the Hyperion universe. (But I was also unimpressed by the Three-Body Problem! And by Scalzi’s Hugo Award Redshirts!) The third volume is not yet out.

As a French aside, a former king turned AI is called Tomas Chenevert, on a space-ship called Auvergne, with an attempt at coming from a French speaking planet, Ponthieu, except that is should have been spelled Thomas Chênevert (green oak!). Incidentally, Ponthieu is a county in the Norman marches, north of Rouen, that is now part of Picardy, although I do not think this has anything to do with the current novel!

seveneves [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids with tags , , , , , , on November 29, 2015 by xi'an

As the latest Neal Stephenson’s novel, I was waiting most eagerly to receive Seveneves (or SevenEves ). Now I have read it, I am a bit disappointed by the book. It is a terrific concept, full of ideas and concepts, linking our current society and its limitations with what a society exiled in space could become, and with a great style as well, but as far as the story itself goes I have trouble buying it! In short, there is too much technology and not enough psychology, too many details and not enough of a grand scheme… This certainly is far from being the best book of the author. When compared with Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon, Anathem, or Reamde for instance. Even the fairly long and meandering Baroque Cycle comes on top of this space opera à la Arthur Clarke (if only for the cables linking Earth and space stations at 36,000 kilometres…).

 The basis of Seveneves is a catastrophic explosion of our Moon that leads to the obliteration of live on Earth within a range of two years. The only way out is to send a small number of people to a space station with enough genetic material to preserve the diversity of the Human species. Two-third of the book is about the frantic scramble to make this possible. Then Earth is bombarded by pieces of the Moon, while the inhabitants of the expanded space station try to get organised and to get more energy from iced asteroids to get out of the way, while badly fighting for power. This leads the crowd of survivors to eventually reduce to seven women, hence the seven Eves. Then, a five thousand year hiatus, and the last part of the book deals with the new Human society, hanging up in a gigantic sphere of space modules around the regenerated Earth, where we follow a team of seven (!) characters whose goal is not exactly crystal clear.

While most books by Stephenson manage to produce a good plot on top of fantastic ideas, with some characters developed with enough depth to be really compelling, this one is missing at the plot level and even more at the character level, maybe because we know most characters are supposed to die very early in the story. But they do look like caricatures, frankly! And behave like kids astray on a desert island. Unless I missed the deeper message… The construction of the spatial mega-station is detailed in such details that it hurts!, but some logistic details on how to produce food or energy are clearly missing. And missing is also the feat of reconstituting an entire Human species out of seven women, even with a huge bank of human DNAs. The description of the station five thousand years later is even more excruciatingly precise. At a stage where I have mostly lost interest in the story, especially to find very little differences in the way the new and the old societies operate. And to avoid spoilers, gur er-nccnevgvba bs gur gjb tebhcf bs crbcyr jub erznvarq ba Rnegu, rvgure uvqqra va n qrrc pnir be ng gur obggbz bs gur qrrcrfg gerapu, vf pbzcyrgryl vzcynhfvoyr, sbe ubj gurl pbhyq unir fheivirq bire gubhfnaqf bs lrnef jvgu ab npprff gb erfbheprf rkprcg jung gurl unq cnpxrq ng gur ortvaavat… It took me some effort and then some during several sleepless nights to get over this long book and I remain perplexed at the result, given the past masterpieces of the author.

the ultimate simulation

Posted in Books, University life with tags , , , , , , on February 23, 2014 by xi'an

Another breakfast read of the New York Times that engaged enough of my attention to write a post (an easily done feat!): besides a lengthy introduction, Edward Frenkel, the author of the column, considers the Platonic issue of whether or not “mathematical entities actually exist in and of themselves”, an issue also central to Neal Stephenson’s Anathem. And suddenly switches to another philosophical debate, realism versus idealism, the later view being that reality only exists in the mind. And seriously (?) considers the question of whether or not we live in a computer simulation… Uh?! There is actually research going on with this assumption, as shown by the arXiv paper the column links to. This is also called the Matrix Hypothesis on Wikipedia. While I understand the appeal of arguing that we cannot distinguish between living in a real world and living in the simulation of a real world (this is a modern extension of Plato’s cave), I do not get the point of addressing the issue in a Physics paper. Seems more appropriate for science-fiction literature. Like Philip K. Dick‘s…

REAMDE

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 26, 2013 by xi'an

Being a great fan of Neal Stephenson (as shown by the previous review of Anathem), I was waiting for an opportunity to buy his latest REAMDE [no typo in the title there!], opportunity that I found in Providence during my short foray to the University bookstore. Having read the whole 1000+ pages of the book during my trip to India, I came back rather disapointed, even though I acknowledge it considerably helped alleviating the boredom of long train rides and short flights, and keeping the stress under control during the numerous delays that punctuated my visit. Because of its thriller nature.

In short, REAMDE is like a domino cascade: pulling out a first event/domino induces a cataclysmic event, due to an accumulating sequence of less and less likely coincidences. While it requires a strong dose of suspension of disbelief, as most thrillers do, it also creates the condition for addictive reading, once you are familiar and comfortable with the gallery of characters. However, once the book is over, you cannot but wonder why you got caught in this most unbelievable and rather predictable story.

Without providing too many spoilers (and no more than the reviews quoted on the book covers), REAMDE involves [among many other things] Iowan non-nonsense farmers, a reformed marijuana importer turned into a video game mogul, US computer geeks (with the appropriate amount of Unix code and Linux lore), Erythrean refugees, gun-crazy survivalist Idohans, Vancouver and Seattle locals, Russian gangsters, Chinese computer hackers, Cambridge history professors, a War of Warcraft replica, Taiwanese fishermen, MI6 spies, random generators, more CIA spies, Hungarian computer super-hackers, more Chinese tea peddlers, former Russian commandos, Philippines sex-tourists, Welsh and Canadian djihadists, and lots and lots of weapons… Not mentioning a fairly comprehensive description of the contents of Walmarts. This makes for a wee indigestible ratatouille and for a rather incomprehensible conclusion about the point of the book. Having picked djihadist as villeins turns about everyone else into a good guy, even though they all are trigger-happy and very little concerned about legality and justice. There may of course be a second level of reading to the book, namely that the debauch of weaponry and the insistence on how easy it is to get them from Walmart could be taken as a (too?) subtle criticism of the insane gun policy in America, as well as a criticism of the failed war in Afghanistan, compensating for the said failure by a fantasy revenge of the Americans (and Russians) on (Afghan and non-Afghan) talibans intent on entering the US to duplicate 09/11. Given the cleverness of Stephenson, this is not completely out of the picture, but I doubt most readers will follow this route! (This review by Cory Doctorow shows why.)

Once again, this is not such a terrible book and I enjoyed it at some level. (At least, I finished it unlike American Gods!) The part about the computer game is both enjoyable and central to the plot (no further spoilers!), even though the author tries too hard to convince us this is not World of Warcraft. I actually found many common features, based on the limited knowledge gained from watching my son play the game, and thought the idea of centering the plot on the game fairly clever, if somehow unrealistic. The second part of the book lost a bit of its appeal with the endless RV drive in BC and the even more endless pursuit/mini-war in the woods. And I could have done (once again!) without the very final “happy [well, not that happy!] ending”. Thus, read REAMDE at your own risk!

Diamond age

Posted in Books, pictures with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 27, 2011 by xi'an

Here is the one before last of my vacation reads! As obvious from several earlier posts, I am a big fan of Neal Stephenson’s books. e.g. Snow Crash is one of my preferred cyberpunk books (along with Neuromancer), and I consider Stephenson’s approach to the genre deeper and more scientific than Gibson‘s. So when in Lancaster I picked the Diamond Age, I was quite excited to have discovered an overlooked volume of his’! The more because the story was partly taking place in Shanghai. Alas, I am rather disappointed by the result. Indeed, the book does not read well: the “suspension of disbelief” does not operate.

The Diamond Age brims with (too many???) brilliant techno-societal ideas, colourful characters, literary references, and exciting settings, but the plot dries out much too quickly. The universe Stephenson depicts is a mix of cyberpunk centred on nanotechnologies and of steampunk with Victorian codes and attitudes. (In a sense, the Diamond Age is Dickens mixed with Gibson and van Gulik.) One of the great ideas in the Diamond Age is the “primer” that educates the central character, Nell, who has been neglected by her alcoholic mother. It is a quite compelling concept, the one of an interactive book backed by an AI and by real actors that turn Nell into a real scientist (the part about Turing machines is quite good) and cryptographer, as well as teach Chinese orphans (although it does not work so well in the latter case because of the lack of real actors).  The fact that the level of the story remains one of a fairy tale while Nell is growing up and maturing is a bit of a disappointment. What really put me off, though, half the book read, is the appearance of the Dreamers, an “unnecessary and monstrously tacky underwater sex cult” that doomed my “suspension of disbelief” for the rest of the book… (The criticisms are mostly positive, though.)

Mathematics and realism

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 27, 2010 by xi'an

I read in Liberation a rather surprising tribune (in French) by “Yann Moix, writer”. The starting point is a criticism of Stephen Hawking (and Leonard Mlodinow)’s recent book The Grand Design, With regards to its conclusion that a god is not necessary to explain the creation and the working of the Universe: “It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.” I haven’t read Hawking’s book (although I briefly considered buying it in London last time I was there, here is a Guardian review), I had never heard before of this (controversial) writer, and I do not see the point in debating about supernatural beings (except when reviewing a fantasy book!). However, the arguments of Moix are rather limited from a philosophical viewpoint.

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