Archive for Arthur C. Clarke

A Closed and Common Orbit

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , on February 27, 2018 by xi'an

This book by Becky Chambers comes as a sequel of sorts to her first [science-fiction] book, A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. Book that I liked a lot for its construction of relationships between the highly different team members of a spaceship. In this new book, the author pursues a similar elaboration of unlikely friendships between human and alien species, and AIs. If the first book felt homey, this one is even more so, with essentially two principal characters followed alternatively throughout the book, until the stories predictably cross. It is fairly well-written, with again a beautiful cover, but I cannot say it is as magisterial as the first book. The book-long considerations on the nature of AI and of cloned humans are certainly interesting and deep enough, but the story tension ebbs at time, especially for the story in the past since we know from the beginning that the main character will reappear in the current time. Not reaching the superlatives of a Hugo or Clarke Award in my opinion (albeit nominated for these prizes). Still a most enjoyable read!

Arcad’yaaawn… [book review]

Posted in Books, pictures, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 19, 2017 by xi'an

“How does it do this? Pears, not traditionally a science fiction writer, employs some commonly used devices of the genre to create a mind-bending but wholly satisfying tale…” Robin’s Books

“Indeed, Arcadia seems to be aimed at the lucrative crossover point between the grownup and YA markets, even if it lacks the antic density of the Harry Potter series or the focused peril of The Hunger Games.” Steven Poole, The Guardian

The picture above is completely unrelated with the book if not the title. (And be at rest: I am not going to start an otter theme in the spirit of Andrew’s cats… Actually a cat plays a significant role in this book.) But Pears’ Arcadia is a fairly boring tale and an attempt at a rather dry play on the over-exploited theme of time-travel. Yaaawny, indeed!

I am fairly disappointed by this book, the more because Pears’ An Instance at the Fingerpost is a superb book, one of my favourites!, with a complexity of threads and levels, while maintaining a coherence of the plot that makes the final revelation a masterpiece. The Dream of Scipio also covers several historical periods of French Provence with a satisfactory plot and deep enough background (fed by a deep knowledge of the area and the eras…). The background, the broader perspective, the deep humanity of the characters, all these qualities of Pears’ books are lost in Arcadia, which sums up as an accumulation of clichés on dystopias, time-travel, and late 1950’s Oxford academics. [Warning, spoilers ahoy!] The parallel (and broadly medieval) universe to which the 20th century characters time-travel has some justifications for being a new type of Flatland: it is the creation of a single Oxonian academic, a mix of J.R. Tolkien and Eric Ambler. But these 20th century characters are equally charicaturesque. And so are the oppressors and the rebels in the distant future. (Set on the Isle of Mull, of all places!) And the mathematics of the time-travel apparatus are carefully kept hidden (with the vague psychomathematics there reminding me of the carefully constructed Asimov’s psychohistory.)

There is a point after which pastiches get stale and unattractive. And boring, so Yawn again. (That the book came to be shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke award this year is a mystery.)

Children of Time [book review]

Posted in Books, pictures, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 8, 2017 by xi'an

I came by this book in the common room of the mathematics department of the University of Warwick, which I visit regularly during my stays there, for it enjoys a book sharing box where I leave the books I’ve read (and do not want to carry back to Paris) and where I check for potential catches… One of these books was Tchaikovsky’s children of time, a great space-opera novel à la Arthur C Clarke, which got the 2016 Arthur C Clarke award, deservedly so (even though I very much enjoyed the long way to a small angry planet, Tchaikosky’s book is much more of an epic cliffhanger where the survival of an entire race is at stake). The children of time are indeed the last remnants of the human race, surviving in an artificial sleep aboard an ancient spaceship that irremediably deteriorates. Until there is no solution but landing on a terraformed planet created eons ago. And defended by an AI spanned (or spammed) by the scientist in charge of the terra-formation, who created a virus that speeds up evolution, with unintended consequences. Given that the strength of the book relies on these consequences, I cannot get into much details about the alternative pathway to technology (incl. artificial intelligence) followed by the inhabitants of this new world, and even less about the conclusive chapters that make up for a rather slow progression towards this final confrontation. An admirable and deep book I will most likely bring back to the common room on my next trip to Warwick! (As an aside I wonder if the title was chosen in connection with Goya’s picture of Chronus [Time] devouring his children…)

ancillaries [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , on March 6, 2016 by xi'an


“A Radchaai would have tossed that coin. Or, more accurately, a handful of them, a dozen disks, each with its meaning and import, the pattern of their fall a map of the universe.”

How good must a novel be to win five major awards the same year?! Among which the Hugo, Nebula, Arthur C. Clarke, and Locus awards. Pretty good, I would bet, and this is clearly the case with Ann Lecke’s Ancillary Justice. Which I picked in Oxford two weeks ago mostly because of this tag. And of an unusual cover. And even because it involved the word ancillary. Actually the cover looks less unusual and artsy when put together with the next two volumes, as shown above. An obviously deeper, more literary, and all inclusive review of the whole trilogy can be found in Slate, but I have only completed the first volume. (I realised only when writing this post that some controversy comes with the Hugo Award given to this very book, raised by some conservative or worse sci’ fi’ writers, who complained that it was selected for political rather than literary reasons. Read the book before reading the arguments, and they then just fall apart as grossly political!)

“Information is security. Plans made with imperfect information are fatally flawed, will fail or succeed on the toss of a coin. “

At a first come first serve level, the story is a traditional space opera where a galactic empire methodically conquers new planets and turn the lucky survivors into new citizens, while the others are turned into brainless warriors controlled by an AI that doubles as a spaceship. The major ship in this story is called Justice of Toren and the soldiers are called ancillaries. All this very connected to the history of the Roman empire. Although this approach has presumably been tried in many other sci’fi’ novels, this feature means that the ancillaries are aware of all other connected to the AI, while retaining some degree of autonomy. And it brings very interesting interrogations on the nature of self in such a hive civilisation. Interrogations that quickly get unexpected answers [warning!, spoilers ahoy!] since one of those auxiliaries, Breq, develops an independent line of thought and eventually reaches complete libre-arbitre. While keeping his or her elite soldier abilities, which turns him or her into a ruthless avenger. I write him or her because the novel and this auxiliary are constantly unclear about the sex of the other characters, which seems to have become such a private matter that it cannot be directly mentioned in the conversation… A fairly interesting concept, once you get around this missing degree of freedom in interpreting the relations between the characters. The empire is of course governed by an emperor, called Anaander Mianaai, which has a massive schizophrenic issue in that by creating many copies of himself or herself over thousands of years, they have drifted in their personalities and now partly escape the control of the associated AI… The final chapters of the first novel see Breq fighting and killing several of those copies. (There are spaceoperaous moments in the novel, which even matter in the grand plot, but they are dealt with very lightly so that the psychological bits are the true flotsam of the novel. I am most obviously looking forward the second volume [procured thanks to ‘Og readers’ links to amazon associate!].)

black man [a.k.a. TH1RTE3N]

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

Human intuition is deceptive because it is not always consistent. It is not necessarily a good fit for the environments we now live in, or the mathematics that underlie them. When it does echo mathematical form, it’s clearly indicative of an inherent capacity to detect that underlying mathematics (…) When they clash, the mathematics remains correct. The intuition merely indicates a mismatch of evolved capacities with a changed or changing environment.Black Man, p.441

thirteen is the only genetic variant Jacobsen thought dangerous enough to abrogate basic human rights on. You’re talking about a type of human this planet hasn’t seen in better than twenty thousand years.Black Man, p.102

This is the last book by Richard K. Morgan I read (after the Kovacs series, Market Forces, and The Steel Remains). It has also  been published under the title Thirteen (or Th1rte3n..) Black Man has some resonance with Broken Angels, with the central hero, Carl Marsalis, having some common points with Takeshi Kovacs. However, while the theme of a future hard-boiled hired detective in a bleak future is found in both novels, both Carl Marsalis and the tone of the novel are much more pessimistic than the Kovacs series, with no-one getting a clean and nice grade by the end of the book… The description of the future Earth is less technical than in the other novels, the focus being more on race, power, and politics. Carl Marsalis himself is facing a double stigma in this futuristic society, by being a black man and a genetically modified human, restored to the primal urges of 20,000 BC Homo Sapiens, a “thirteen”. Add to this being a traitor to his group by hunting runaway thirteens for a UN police force.

Carl entered the equation with no local axe to grind, and nothing to loose…Black Man,  p.305

The book starts like a space opera, but quickly gets grounded to the former U.S.A., split between a relatively tolerant Rim and backward Jesusland. The action immediately quicks in as well with many characters central to one chapter and dispatched in the next. Which made my reading the first hundred pages a bit hard. But after that the central characters were well-enough done to get familiar and the remainder of the story went by very very fast…

After a while, when you’re on your own out there, you start making patterns that aren’t there. You start asking yourself, why you? Why this fucking statistical impossibility of a malfunction on your watch? You start to think there’s some kind of malignant force out there.Black Man, p.328

Judging from some reviews found on the web, readers seem to prefer the Kovacs series. I am more ambivalent, in the sense that the pace and setup of the series is more grandiose and breath-taking. However, the less military/more political [in the wide sense] vision of the Black Man really got me in its grip and the ending(s) was (were) a superb piece of literature. The  announced departure of one of the major characters is very well rendered. Both novels are excellent books, that’s all! To wit, one got the Philip K. Dick Award, while the other got the Clarke Award. (Somehow inverted: Black Man would have been more fitting for the Philip K. Dick Award. If only because Marsalis’ hunt for fellow thirteens was reminded me of Deckhard’s parallel hunt in Blade Runner—a.k.a. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?)

Broken angels

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 18, 2011 by xi'an

`Statistically, ‘ she breathed.

`Yeah. You thought of that too. Because statistically, the chances of two expeditions, eighteen months apart both having the bad luck to stumble on deep-space cometary intersections like that?’

`Astronomical.’

Following my enthusiastic trip through Altered Carbon, I read the (2003) sequel Broken Angels within a few days, mostly during my day trip to Shanghai. Not only is it an excellent book, once more!, but Richard Morgan manages to change the plot and the atmosphere so much that it hardly feels as the same character is involved in both. There are a few links with Altered Carbon of course like the past of Kovacs and the reincarnation facilities (resleeving) but so few that the book could read on its own. The setting is very different, in that the main characters try to unearth (!) an artifact from an alien species (rather stupidly, or not?!, called Martians) in the middle of a planet war and in a highly radioactive zone. Apparently no longer sleuth work for Kovacs but a lot of action, even though he needs to uncover traitors, double-traitors and  motivations.  In my opinion, the ancestry of the book once again includes cyberpunks William Gibbson [more Count Zero than Neuromancer, with the predominant role of Voodoo, but still a major role of virtual realities], and Neal Stephenson (Snow Crash), but also Clarke with Rendez-vous with Rama, in that the entry into the Martian vessel is trying to describe an alien culture through its architecture with some degree of success. (In some sense, there is also a link with Greg Bear‘s Blood music, in that the military bioengineers in Broken Angels have designed a self-mutating nanotech device that reconfigures at the molecular level to overcome any new defense it encounters. With overwhelming efficiency. Until it hits the Martian defenses. Something similar to Bear’s blood cells getting progressive control of the Earth…) If I really have to draw a comparison between both volumes, I would reluctantly rank Broken Angels (very) slightly above in that the story was more clearly drawn than Altered Carbon which somewhat suffered from subplots. Today, I found the third Kovacs volume, Woken Furies in my mailbox at Dauphine, so I am looking forward yet another switch in style and background!

Hull Zero Three

Posted in Books, Travel with tags , , , , on March 5, 2011 by xi'an

“Dreamtime is the reality, obviously, and what I’ve just experienced is a nightmare, but struggle as hard as I can, there’s no way to invert the relationship.” Greg Bear, Hull Zero Three

I very rarely read science-fiction of this kind and I frankly cannot remember why I bought this book by Greg Bear… Maybe the cryptic title? Hull Zero Three sounds intringing enough.. In any case, I found the book a quite interesting read. Of course, most space operas are centred on a spaceship, so this is not a major surprise, but the ambiguity of the nature of the ship is quite appealing (to the reader). The plot itself is somehow secondary as what really matters is to discover where the reality lies. The book is thus much more psychological than action-oriented. Closer to Phillip K. Dick’s Ubik than to Arthur C. Clarke’s Rama

“Somewhere inside me there is knowledge, but it isn’t integrated. It can only be unleashed by a combination of experience, observation, and …. guilt. Trauma.” Greg Bear, Hull Zero Three

At a primary level, the narrator starts from scratch, having to learn everything about Ship trough experience, with induced memories from an Earth left centuries ago. This is not the most successful part of the story as this nth replica of a unique ancestor is endowed with a complete memory and some of the earlier pages are not self-coherent for this reason. However, the griping pace of the gradual uncovering of the problem with Ship, then with Mother, more than makes up for the above. There are enough turns and surprises along most of the book to keep the reader hooked and the final twist about Destination Guidance was surprising enough to justify all the circumlocutions and the frustrating doubts of the narrator. (As a non-native reader, I also found the never-ending technical description a wee too much for my taste, as I was not so interested in the inner details of the Ship. But the overall style is quite tolerable, with gems like “the constant sound of the hull being sandblasted by the ghosts of unborn worlds” and “a lot of us have died—sometimes hundreds of times“…)