Archive for cyberpunk literature

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.)

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.)

Anathem

Posted in Books, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 20, 2010 by xi'an

One colleague of mine in Dauphine gave me Anathem to read a few weeks ago. I had seen it in a bookstore once and planned to read it, so this was a perfect opportunity. I read through it slowly at first and then with more and more eagerness as the story built on, spending a fair chunk of the past evenings (and Metro rides) into finishing it. Anathem is a wonderful book, especially for mathematicians, and while it could still qualify as a science-fiction book, it blurs the frontiers between the genres of science-fiction, speculative fiction, documentary writings and epistemology… Just imagine any other sci’fi’ book being reviewed in Nature! Still, the book was awarded the 2009 Locus SF Award. So it has true sci’fi’ characteristics, including Clarke-ian bouts of space opera with a Rama-like vessel popping out of nowhere. But this is not the main feature that makes Anathem so unique and fascinating.

“The Adrakhonic theorem, which stated that the square of a right triangle hypotenuse was equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides…” (p. 128)

Continue reading

Spook Country

Posted in Books, Travel with tags , , , on September 27, 2009 by xi'an

Say,” he said to Brown who was looking at his phone as if he wished he knew a way to torture it, “this NSA data-mining thing…”

When I attended MaxEnt 2009 in Oxford, I bought William Gibson‘s Spook Country at thHelsinki central railway statione university bookstore as it was on sale for $5… I have read it during the past week, finishing it this morning in the 5:30 bus to Helsinki airport, and I am quite disappointed. (Incidentally, I visited yesterday the Akateeminen Kirjakauppa bookstore in Helsinki and found there an incredibly well-provided fantasy section—in English—that beats by far the major chains in England!) I love Gibson‘s early cyber-punk books and I can still remember the excitement of reading Neuromancer for the first time, while I was completing my thesis.

“We have been buying into data mining at Blue Ant.”

The style was very innovative, sharp and tense, with this then-novel use of existing brands to shorten the descriptions, and the story was gripping, with insights of what would become the cyberspace. Even the later Virtual Light had fascinating findings, like its delivery cyclist and its recycling of the Golden Gate Bridge into a squatter community.

“What does Chombo…do?” “It implements finite difference methods for the solution of partial differential equations, on block structured, adaptively refined rectangular grids.”

In my opinion, Spook Country is over-exploiting the same stylistic lines as those earlier books with very short chapters, an abundance of brands (Apple at the forefront!), a central role of technology and virtual reality, and three characterial threads interweaved. However, the story does not click in. There are too many improbable coincidences and the characters are definitely caricatural, while reminding me of the previous books: the female artist drawn into investigation for lack of money, the geek computer genius, the woodoo inspired ninja-like thug, the tough CIA spook, the media executive with unlimited wealth… Without going into spoilers, the plot is fairly thin, with those three different groups chasing after the same container, and obviously ending up together. The technological inventivity of the previous novels has disappeared as well—the above quote about Chombo is taken verbatim from the Berkeley Lab website!—, which may explain why William Gibson does not intend to continue writing sci’-fi’ novels.