Archive for cyberpunk literature

Altered Carbon [season 1]

Posted in Books, pictures with tags , , , , , , on April 12, 2020 by xi'an

Following my reading of the rather thin (plot-wise) Thin Air, I took advantage of the virus to watch Netflix Altered Carbon. Which is based, roughly, on Richard Morgan’s book. While I enjoyed watching the efficient series, I failed to see a deeper message beyond the cyberpunk detective story, message that was indeed in the book. The show is very efficient with a well rendered futuristic San Francisco. Reminding me of Blade Runner, obviously. But also of the novels of William Gibson in many ways. Including this transformation of the Golden Gate Bridge into a container community. And the somewhat anachronistic fascination for samurais and yakuzas. A choice leading to repeated (wo)man to (wo)man fights that tend to become repetitive, a fairly high level of cruelty, sadism, gory and graphical episodes, definitely not a family show!, another futuristic and bleaker version of Chandler’s Farewell my Lovely, with the special twist of the murdered investigating his own murder already at the core of the book. But the lack of a deeper political message dilutes the appeal and somewhat the tension of the show, making somehow the existence of characters with a conscience hard to believe. A plus for the AI turned Edgar Poe turned The Raven hotel though! And a minus for the “happy ending.”..

the shockwave rider [book review]

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , on January 11, 2018 by xi'an

I ordered this book from John Brunner when I found this was the precursor to Neuromancer and the subsequent cyberpunk literature. And after reading it during the Xmas break I am surprised it is not more well-known. Indeed, the plot, the style, the dystopian society in The Shockwave Rider all are highly original, and more “intellectual” than successors like Neuromancer or Snow Crash. Reading this 1975 book forty years later also reveals its premonitory features, from inventing the concept of computer worm (along with a pretty accurate description), to forecasting (or being aware of plans for) cell-phones, the Net, the move to electric cars, and Wikipedia, with the consequence of being always visible for whoever controls the network. The characters are flawed in that they are too charicaturesque, but this is somewhat secondary since the main appeal of the book is to discuss the features of an all-connected world. And the way to recover power to the people against a government controlling the network and the associated data. The time being the 1970’s the resolution via a hippie commune in Northern California (like Eureka!) is a bit outdated and definitely “rosy”, and does not foresee the issue of “digital democracy” being threatened by a strong polarisation into estranged communities, but I still enjoyed the book tremendously. (As a bonus, I got the first edition of the book at a ridiculous price! With this somewhat outdated cover.)

ready player one [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures with tags , , , , , , , , on January 2, 2018 by xi'an

This book was presumably suggested to me by an Amazon AI based on my previous browsing, and I got intrigued enough by the summary plot and the above cover to order it while in Austin and read it on the way back to Paris. The setting of the story is a catastrolyptic near-future (2044) where gas is a luxury and most of the planet is unemployed and spends its time in a all-immersive free-access virtual reality. Five teenagers join million others in a quest to win a fortune… Against an evil corporation that seeks this fortune and control of the virtual universe. The story revolves around this quest, with some forays in the real world, and a reflection on characters who only know each other via their avatars. Other books based on videogaming come to mind, from Ender’s Game to Neuromancer, to Diamond Age, to REAMDE… But this one is much more focussed on the nature of video-gaming and on the feature of such of a society. I enjoyed the book to the point of staying up late for several evenings in a row, even though the plot is somewhat weak at the societal level, i.e. in describing the economic dynamics of such a society, but setting the games, movies and music themes within the 80’s is obviously catering to readers like me (although I miss a large part of the references). The book was published in 2011, so this is not any recent publication, but there is a movie by Steven Spielberg coming out soon.

Infomocracy [book review]

Posted in Books, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 17, 2017 by xi'an

Infomocracy is a novel by Malka Older set in a near future where most of the Earth is operating under a common elective system where each geographical unit of 100,000 people elect a local representative that runs this unit according to the party’s program and contributes to elect a Worldwide government, except for some non-democratic islets like Saudi Arabia. The whole novel revolves around the incoming election, with different parties trying to influence the outcome in their favour, some to the point of instating a dictature. Which does not sound that different from present times!, with the sligth difference that the whole process is controlled by Information, a sort of World Wide Web that seems to operate neutrally above states and parties, although the book does not elaborate on how this could be possible. The story is told through four main (and somewhat charicaturesque) characters, working for or against the elections and crossing paths along the novel. Certainly worth reading if not outstanding. (And definitely not “one of the greatest literary debuts in recent history”!)

The book is more interesting as a dystopia on electoral systems and the way the information revolution can produce a step back in democracy, with the systematisation of fake news and voters’ manipulation, where the marketing research group YouGov has become a party, than as a science-fiction (or politics-fiction) book. Indeed, it tries too hard to replicate The cyberpunk reference, William Gibson’s Neuromancer, with the same construct of interlacing threads, the same fascination for Japan, airports, luxury hotels, if not for brands, and a similar ninja-geek pair of characters. And with very little invention about the technology of the 21st Century.  (And a missed opportunity to exploit artificial intelligence themes and the prediction of outcomes when Information builds a fake vote database but does not seem to mind about Benford’s Law.) The acknowledgement section somewhat explains this imbalance, in that the author worked many years in humanitarian organisations and is currently completing a thesis at Science Po’ (Paris).

The Windup Girl

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , , on February 23, 2013 by xi'an

“The scientists here carry the haunted look of people who know they are under siege. They know that beyond a few doors, all manners of apocalyptic terrors wait to swallow them.”

The book by Paolo Bacigalupi was standing among a shelf of recommended reads at Waterstones near UCL, during my last visit there, and the connection with William Gibson made on the cover pushed me to buy the book. Plus the Hugo and Nebula Awards. And the cover, of course. I took advantage of this trip to Hamburg to read The Windup Girl and I found the book definitely a great read.

“Flotsam of the Old Expansion. An ancient piece of driftwood left at high tide, from the time petroleum was cheap and men and women crossed the globe in hours instead of weeks.”

The Windup Girl has indeed some flavour of Gibson’s Neuromancer and Stephenson’s Snow Crash, however the story is more psychological and less technological than those two classics. There is a darker tone to the novel, as Earth is suffering both from the end of oil and from various food plagues that destroyed most crops, not mentioning deadly new viruses. The new powers are the big genetically-engineered-seed producers, while part of the World has been eradicated. (The power is now produced by genetically engineered mammoths called megodonts.) And pollution is strictly kept under control.

“It has the markings of an engineering virus. DNA shifts don*t look like ones that would reproduce in the wild. Blister rust has no reason to jump the animal kingdom barrier. Nothing is encouraging it, it is not easily transferred. The differences are marked. It’s as though we’re looking into its future.”

The story is set in Thailand, which has somehow miraculously salvaged a huge seed bank and which manages to keep those crop companies at bay. Of course, things are deteriorating as the book begins, otherwise there would be no story. What I like the most about The Windup Girl is this bleak vision of a harsh future, set in Asia and told through four different story threads belonging to completely separate cultures (Thai, Chinese, American, and new-Japanese), thus avoiding the usual ethnocentrism of such novels. As mentioned above, the story is definitely not as technological or geeky as cyberpunk novels and it does not even qualify as genepunk, as the amount of genetics involved in the story is somehow limited (except for three newly created races all impacting the plot). But the dystopian universe created by Paolo Bacigalupi is definitely both convincing and mesmerising, while not requiring so many suspensions of belief. The characters are all well-set, with the proper degree of greyness in their ethics, and the political manoeuvring is realistic. I also feel The Windup Girl is quite in tune with (my) current worries about the future fate of humanity faced with rapid climate change, an increasing frequency of natural disasters, and correlated insect invasions. At last, the relation of some of the characters to (Thai) Buddhism is an interesting peculiarity of the novel. So a book truly worth recommending! (In Spanish, the title of the book is La Chica Mecánica, which I find less appealing that the multilayered Windup Girl! The multiple covers on this ‘Og page are actually virtual covers suggested by fans, follow the links to get the whole story.)