Archive for science fiction

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 is a bit outdated and definitely “rosy”, and does not foresee the issue of “digital democracy” being threatened by a strong polarisation into estranged communities, but I still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 With this somewhat outdated cover.)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.

Darwin’s radio [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 10, 2016 by xi'an

When in Sacramento two weeks ago I came across the Beers Books Center bookstore, with a large collection of used and (nearly) new cheap books and among other books I bought Greg Bear’s Darwin Radio. I had (rather) enjoyed another book of his’, Hull Zero Three, not to mention one of his first books, Blood Music, I read in the mid 1980’s, and the premises of this novel sounded promising, not mentioning the Nebula award. The theme is of a major biological threat, apparently due to a new virus, and of the scientific unraveling of what the threat really means. (Spoilers alert!) In that respect it sounds rather similar to the (great) Crichton‘s The Andromeda Strain, which is actually mentioned by some characters in this book. As is Ebola, as a sort of contrapoint (since Ebola is a deadly virus, although the epidemic in Western Africa now seems to have vanished). The biological concept exploited here is dormant DNA in non-coding parts of the genome that periodically get awaken and induce massive steps in the evolution. So massive that carriers of those mutations are killed by locals. Until the day it happens in an all-connected World and the mutation can no longer be stopped. The concept is compelling if not completely convincing of course, while the outcome of a new human race, which is to Homo Sapiens what Homo Sapiens was to Neanderthal, is rather disappointing. (How could it be otherwise?!) But I did appreciate the postulate of a massive and immediate change in the genome, even though the details were disputable and the dismissal of Dawkins‘ perspective poorly defended. From a stylistic perspective, the style is at time heavy, while there are too many chance occurrences, like the main character happening to be in Georgia for a business deal (spoilers, spoilers!) at the times of the opening of collective graves, or the second main character coming upon a couple of Neanderthal mummies with a Sapiens baby, or yet this pair of main characters falling in love and delivering a live mutant baby-girl. But I enjoyed reading it between San Francisco and Melbourne, with a few hours of lost sleep and work. It is a page turner, no doubt! I also like the political undercurrents, from riots to emergency measures, to an effective dictatorship controlling pregnancies and detaining newborns and their mothers.

One important thread in the book deals with anthropology digs getting against Native claims to corpses and general opposition to such digs. This reminded me of a very recent article in Nature where a local Indian tribe had claimed rights to several thousand year old skeletons, whose DNA was then showed to be more related with far away groups than the claimants. But where the tribe was still granted the last word, in a rather worrying jurisprudence.

ancillaries [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures, Travel with tags , , , , , , , on June 5, 2016 by xi'an


“When you’re doing something like this (…) the odds are irrelevant. You don’t need to know the odds. ”

After completing the first volume of Anne Lecke’s Ancilary books, I bought both following volumes in the trilogy. Alas these two books were quite disappointing when compared with the first one. Even though there still was some action present in those volumes, the scope was awfully limited, mostly filled with dialogues between the ship AI and characters on the spaceship and on a local planet. And endless cups of tea that bored even the tea addict in me. The space opera somewhat turned into a closet opera with about the same level of action as when brooms fall out of the said closet! The last book ends up (small spoiler) with the creation of a local republic and the move to more autonomy of the AIs involved in spaceships and space stations. There are a few interesting digs into this direction of what constitutes intelligence and sentience, but the pace is way too sluggish and I had trouble completing the books, as the excitement of the initial book was lost. I think this is another trilogy that would have truly benefited from a global editing, rather than (apparently) building from the first volume…