Archive for science fiction

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!

death of a giant [Ursula K Le Guin, 1929-2018]

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures with tags , , , , , , , on January 27, 2018 by xi'an

Heard this early morning that Ursula Le Guin had died last evening. Sad to see this major writer departing for one of the magnificent universes she created, like Earthsea or Gethen… (Not a major science-fiction writer. Not a major fantasy writer. A major writer, full stop!) Much to my sorrow, I have not [yet] read the highly celebrated Left Hand of Darkness. With its original reflection on an a-sexual society, reproduced by later authors like Ann Lecke’s great Ancilary trilogy. But I enjoyed immensely the Earthsea cycle, which is made of beautiful and moving stories with central characters that are multiple and complex and imperfect. I also love the philosophy that runs behind these books, with a less conflictual approach to human interactions than in traditional fantasy. As indicated on her Wikipedia page, Ursula  Le Guin had a personal philosophy that was a mix of Taoism and anarchism (Proudhon’s anarchism), reflected in the stateless organisations of some of her fictional universes.

 “[anarchism] is a necessary ideal at the very least. It is an ideal without which we couldn’t go on. If you are asking me is anarchism at this point a practical movement, well, then you get in the question of where you try to do it and who’s living on your boundary?”

As a linguistic aside, I have always wondered about Le Guin name as it sounded quite Breton to me, but never checked before. This is in fact the name of her Breton husband, Charles Le Guin, a historian, whom she met on the Queen Mary bound to France, when they were both on Fulbright Fellowships, in 1953. (Sounds like so so far away, times when travelling to France was done by boat! I still have this wish or dream I could once board a freighter to cross the Atlantic…)

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.)

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.)

the long way to a small angry planet [book review]

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 21, 2017 by xi'an

When leaving London last week, I went through the (very nice) bookstore in St Pancras International and saw this book by Becky Chambers. And bought it as I had read nice criticisms and liked both the title and the cover. I have been reading it at every free minute since then and eventually finished it last night. It is a very enjoyable novel, very homey despite it taking place mostly in interstellar space, as it goes through the personal stories of the members of a tunneller crew (tunnels meaning shortcuts between distant points in space, the astrophysics being a bit vague on how those are possible!). It is far from a masterpiece but the succession of scenes and characters is enjoyable enough to be enjoyable, with a final twist of a larger magnitude. Nothing profoundly innovative like Ancillary Justice [except for the openness about interspecies sex, this could have been written in the 50’s] or era-defining like Ender’s Game, or The Road, but a pleasant read by all means!

Great North Road [book review]

Posted in Books, Running, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 6, 2017 by xi'an

As I was unsure of the Internet connections and of the more than likely delays I would face during my trip to India, I went fishing for a massive novel on Amazon and eventually ordered Peter Hamilton’s Great North Road, a 1088 pages behemoth! I fear the book qualifies as space opera, with the conventional load of planet invasions, incomprehensible and infinitely wise aliens, gateways for instantaneous space travels, and sentient biospheres. But the core of the story is very, very, Earth-bound, with a detective story taking place in a future Newcastle that is not so distant from now in many ways. (Or even from the past as the 2012 book did not forecast Brexit…) With an occurrence of the town moor where I went running a few years ago.

The book is mostly well-designed, with a plot gripping enough to keep me hooked for Indian evenings in Kolkata and most of the flight back. I actually finished it just before landing in Paris. There is no true depth in the story, though, and the science fiction part is rather lame: a very long part of the detective plot is spent on the hunt for a taxi by an army of detectives, a task one would think should be delegated to a machine-learning algorithm and solved in a nano-second or so. The themes heavily borrow from those of classics like Avatar, Speaker for the Dead, Hyperion [very much Hyperion!], Alien… And from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for an hardcore heroin who is perfect at anything she undertakes.  Furthermore, the Earth at the centre of this extended universe is very close to its present version, with English style taxis, pub culture, and a geopolitic structure of the World pretty much unchanged. Plus main brands identical to currents ones (Apple, BMW, &tc), to the point it sounds like sponsored links! And no clue of a major climate change despite the continued use of fuel engines. Nonetheless, an easy read when stuck in an airport or a plane seat for several hours.

speaker for the dead [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 8, 2016 by xi'an

Here is another book I bought for next to nothing at Beers Book Center in Sacramento. I have read several times Ender’s Game, which I consider as a major science-fiction book, for the fantastic plot, the psychological analysis of the main character, and the deeper reflections about the nature of war and the extermination of other forms of life, even when those are extremely alien. For one reason or another, I never had the opportunity to read the sequel trilogy, which starts with Speaker for the Dead. The 37 hour trip back home from Melbourne was a perfect opportunity to catch up and I read this 1986 instalment in the plane, once I was too tired to read statistics papers on my computer screen. It is a very good (if not major) book, with a lot of threads to philosophy, ethics, ethnology, and (almost) no hard science-fi’ line in that most of the story takes place in a very limited universe, a town on a monotone planet (monotone as in mono-tone, for it enjoys no diversity in both flaura and fauna), with a prohibited access to the rest of the planet, and sentient if alien autochtones. The main plot is thus centred on uncovering the culture and specifics of those autochtones, under strict regulations (from the central planet) preventing cultural contaminations. Or aimed at preventing, as contamination does occur nonetheless. The new culture is quite fascinating in the intricate symbiosis between flaura and fauna, a theme repeated (differently) in Avatar. This progressive uncovering of what first appears as primitive, then cruel, is great. The influence of the Catholic Church is well-rendered, if hard to believe that many centuries in the future, as is the pan- and extra-humanist vision of Ender himself. The concept of Speaker for the Dead is by itself just brilliant! What I like less in the story is the very homely feeling of being in a small provincial town with gossips from everyone about everyone and a lack of broader views. Not that I particularly lean towards space operas, but this secluded atmosphere is at odds with the concept of hundreds of colonised planets by colons from Earth. In particular, assuming that each planet is colonised by people from the same place and culture (Portugal in the current case) does not sound realistic. Anyway, this is a good book and I would have read the sequel Xenocide, had I had it with me during this looong trip.