Archive for Neuromancer

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).

zero history [& zero memory]

Posted in Books, Travel with tags , , , , , , , on September 19, 2015 by xi'an

“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…”

During my short dash in a Seattle bookstore, when attending JSM 2015, I spotted William Gibson’s Zero history and bought it (along with the last volume in the Traitor Spy trilogy). This is not a most recent book of Gibson’s, since it first appeared in 2010, but I had somewhat missed it, after reading Spook Country in Finland a few years ago. Fact is, the book ends up a loose trilogy, along with Pattern Recognition and Spook Country of which I have very fragmented memories, fragmented enough to miss the connection with this current book. Despite it having several common characters. And the memes being just the same. (Terrible bilingual pun…) To the point of my earlier comments [reproduced as a self-quote above!] applying to this book as well. Which is not to say the book is uninteresting or dull, as I read it over a few days when I came back from Washington State. That is, across the bay from Gibson’s Vancouver.

The topic of this novel is characteristically branding and the action that takes place in the second part of the novel still relates to brand and industrial spying and commercial turf wars. There is very little of the novelistic feeling of the early books (like Neuromancer I read and reread ad nauseam in the mid 80’s). The only innovations [a wee spoiler!] are a drone with a Taser gun [about to be tested in the US!] and a tee-shirt deleting the owner from CTV footage. Oh, and an electric bike on steroids. However, the central plot of the story is quite nice, looking for the creator of an anti-brand… brand, whose clothes are sold at happenings, in very much a flash mob spirit, rather than in shops or through the Internet (even though they are mostly resold at high prices on eBay and co.). I find this notion appealing when considering the whole production of Gibson, his permanent fascination for brand and branding and for turning people outside the system inside, for either commercial or military purposes.

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.)

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!

Altered Carbon

Posted in Books, Travel with tags , , , , on June 11, 2011 by xi'an

I happened to read Richard Morgan‘s Altered Carbon by chance, thanks to a colleague who left it on my desk and I wonder why this 2002 book did not get enough fame for me to have heard of it earlier. It is a fantastic (in the sense of superb, not of fantasy!) futuristic roman noir, set in a San Francisco more than 400 years from now. Altered Carbon is somewhat of a mix between Chandler and Gibson, in that the hero Takeshi Kovacs, is a hard-boiled private à la Marlowe, keeping well-hidden a soft inner core that takes over each time or so he meets a woman [which happens rather regularly in the novel], the whole thing taking place in a cyberpunk universe that reminds me of Neuromancer. In fact, the book has a lot in common with Neuromancer in that it is set in a highly technological universe, involves yakuza-like conglomerates and crime-ridden cities, San Francisco, a corrupted police force, an economy that seems centred on legal drugs and legal prostitution, computer viruses, virtual realities, some lingering influence of a vague Japanese culture, and they are both Philip K. Dick awardees. The major difference with Neuromancer is that the technology is not the point of Altered Carbon, the detective (and muscle) work being the focus. This use of a scifi world and of the possibilities offered by a sort of technological reincarnation makes for a very good plot in that the book does not get mired into endless descriptions but instead provides about the minimum explanation about the way this universe operates. It is delicate to draw the comparison with Neuromancer any further because, first, Neuromancer came twenty-five years ago and, second, Gibson always seemed more interested in the ethical and philosophical implications of this kind of culture. Anyway, Altered Carbon is truly gripping and, while I may have missed some of the intricate details of the plot, I had to rush through it to get the resolution, as in any Chandler‘s story. There are two sequels by Morgan involving Takeshi Kovacs and I am looking forward to them.

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.