Archive for science fiction

a journal of the plague year [almost gone]

Posted in Books, Kids, Mountains, pictures, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 23, 2021 by xi'an

Read The stars are legion, by Kameron Hurley, which I brought back from Gainesville last year. Although I cannot remember why I bought the book, it must have been a “recommendation” on Amazon… The story is part unusual, part classical, with a constant switch between the two major characters [viewpoint].  And between different times. The style is complex, maybe too complex, as the universe is slowly revealing itself, through the perception biases of the characters. Including (spoiler!) one with multiple memory erasures and two attempts at recycling. Stars are actually (spoiler!) space-ships with some possibly organic elements that are decomposing (and showing the steel skeletons), with also apparently organic smaller vessels to travel between ships or fight between clans. Some of the ship inhabitants are mutants, possibly for being unprotected from space or ship radiations (although the control and propulsion of these ships is never mentioned), possibly because they are perceived as such by different groups in the ships, à la Huxley’s Brave New World? And there seem to be only females on-board, with all of them getting (mysteriously) pregnant at one time or another, rarely giving birth to children (associated with driving the ships? creating new ships?) but rather to other organic entities, apparently contributing to keeping the ship alive. All this is quite creative, with a powerful theme of power versus motherhood, but the story-telling is just too messy for me to have enjoyed it. The more because the type of subterranean universe where characters wander from one level to the next and discover supremely different ecosystems at each level never appealed to me. Since I read Verne’s Voyage au Centre de la Terre. (And I suddenly remembered dropping out of an earlier Hurley’s book.)

Cooked (the last remaining) pumpkin risotto with (legal) Lapsang tea, which worked out rather nicely, albeit loosing most of the Lapsang flavour. Had a week of (pleasant) cookie flavour home fragrance while my wife was preparing cookies for the entire family. Cooked a brunch with my son on the last Sunday of 2020, once again with Lapsang as drink. And had a Michelin take-away with my mom in Caen, since all restaurants remain closed till an unknown date. Which proved a great choice as it was surprisingly good, once out of the (potato starch) package.

Watched Season 2 of the BBC His Dark Materials series. Still impressed by the high level of the show (and enjoying it even more as I had forgotten basically everything about The Subtle Knife!) Except for the dark matter physicist turning to I Ching to understand her empirical experiment… But it remains a great series (esp. when mostly avoiding bears.) Also rewatched a Harry Potter film with my daughter, The Order of the Phoenix, which I found rather poor on the whole, despite a few great scenes (like the Wesley twins’ departure) and the fabulous rendering of the petty bureaucratic evil of Mrs. Umbridge throughout the film. And a part of The Half Blood Prince. Which sounded much better by comparison.

“It slowly dawned on me that it’s possible for the wise men who run your life for you to see disaster coming and not have a plan for dealing with it”

Read another K.J. Parker’s book, “How to rule an empire and get away with it“, sequel to “Sixteen ways &tc.” Light (mind-candy) but enjoyable bedside reading. Somewhat of a classical trick where a double becomes the real thing, if not in a Kagemusha tragic style.

Alien Xmas

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 25, 2020 by xi'an

As I had never watched an Alien film in its entirety, while having glimpsed some portions from my neighbours’ screens on many a long distance flight, I decided to indulge into the series over the Xmas break, which was sort of relevant since both stories are about an alien species parasiting a human body to grow their children… (Aliens 3 actually offers a further religious thread as the population of the convict planet Fiorina 161 is made of Christian-like sociopaths.) The first and most famous film, Alien (1979), is certainly the most interesting in that it looks quite its age, from old fashion space vessels and equipment, to [vim type!] green light pre GUI computer interface reminding me of my first Apple II, to everyone smoking in the space ship. While the scenario is on the light side, although the underlying theme of a super-adaptive, super-aggressive and super-intelligent alien species is most compelling,…

…the greatest appeal of the film (as in the greatest horror masterpieces) is in keeping the grown alien as hidden as possible with only glimpses and sudden dashes in poor visibility. Besides Jones the cat, Sigourney Weaver is really giving the film its backbone, growing as it proceeds, as the other actors are somewhat transparent (or are unhappy with their early demise!). I read that her role was originally planned for a male actor, which would have emptied the film of all its appeal faster than opening a space shuttle door expels an unsuspecting alien… Weaver moves to a form of Rambo pastiche [duck-taping two weapons into one at some point!] in the second installment, Aliens (1986), while keeping the leading role against a platoon of space marines and keeping the high moral ground against the profit-obsessed Company amoral representative. Having a heavy weaponry component (as in so many blockbuster movies) makes the film more efficient but also less outstanding than Alien (and who would fire grenades and such in the vicinity of a nuclear reactor!). There is an interesting opposition in Weaver fighting tooth and nail (and flame-thrower) to save the surviving human child while destroying the children of the other species and ultimately the alien mother queen (who can manage an elevator on her own, mind you!). It could have brought out an Ender’s moment… This second episode is much less old-fashioned and again falls more within the standard of the genre, but with such efficiency that it keeps up with the original. And with this, I almost let the remaining films in the franchise rest in peaceful horror.

And I should have stopped there. But reading that William Gibson was involved into writing the scenario of Alien 3 made me indulge farther into the series. Which in its description of the penal colony planet had some dystopian feel that indeed relates to part of the political sci’-fi’ literature, with the paradox that the colony has no computer (and no weapon). One cult scene is when Weaver gets her hair shaved, for preventing lice infestation (in the scenario) [rather than for getting rid of a terrible hairstyle!] and to fit a return to pre-modern times, when melting furnaces were top of the industrial chain. While the very final scene of Weaver’s almost Christic sacrifice redeems a somewhat messy scenario (which in some versions properly erase the last alien emergence), closing the cycle. The end. No jesurrection!

Murderbot 2.0 [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 30, 2020 by xi'an

After reading (for free) the (fab) four “murderbot diaries”, I got enough infected to fall for the fifth installment, Network Effect, and buy it upon release on May 5. This is definitely a continuation of the on-going development of the growth of the central character, SecUnit, a rogue android operating free-lance after it hacked its own OS. With private name Murderbot. And  with biological human parts and a more and more human way of thinking. Except it is faster and seriously multitasking. Characters that came to life in All Systems Red (an Amazon bestseller in Science Fiction!) and the following diaries are still around and active, including the super AI ART which is the closest to a friend Murderbot can think of. Corporate entities are still revolving around the story, with an unlimited greed that leads to catastrophes on new planets they turn into mines and often abandon if the economy does not come their way. As previously, a large part of the plot is hardwired in that it involves hacking, killerwares, unfortunate reboots, and hidden recovery files, which sounds like lazy plot lines at times but remains enjoyable. The fact (!) that some characters are androids means that they can even die and be rebooted if a safe copy of their OS is available. Which makes for a schizophrenic and hilarious inner dialogue at a point of the book. The part I found the least convincing cannot be divulged without being a spoiler, but it made the explanation for the bad guys being bad guys lame. And reminded of a terrible short story I had written in high school involving a sentient blurb which… (Well, it was getting worse from there!) But overall, this is quite a fun and enjoyable if rather geeky novel, with witty exchanges (although AIs with deep minds should have been able to come up with better ones!).

bloggin’ nebulas [link]

Posted in Books, pictures with tags , , , , on May 25, 2020 by xi'an

Just to point out that the SF and fantasy editor Tor Books has posted on its site a series of blog posts on all the competitors for the 2019 Nebula Novel Award, including one of Gideon the Ninth I have enjoyed very much. With the mention there that the novel could be seen as “the Mobius Strip of over-the-topness”! To be announced on May the 30th.

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!