Archive for science fiction

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…

ancillaries [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , on March 6, 2016 by xi'an

“A Radchaai would have tossed that coin. Or, more accurately, a handful of them, a dozen disks, each with its meaning and import, the pattern of their fall a map of the universe.”

How good must a novel be to win five major awards the same year?! Among which the Hugo, Nebula, Arthur C. Clarke, and Locus awards. Pretty good, I would bet, and this is clearly the case with Ann Lecke’s Ancillary Justice. Which I picked in Oxford two weeks ago mostly because of this tag. And of an unusual cover. And even because it involved the word ancillary. Actually the cover looks less unusual and artsy when put together with the next two volumes, as shown above. An obviously deeper, more literary, and all inclusive review of the whole trilogy can be found in Slate, but I have only completed the first volume. (I realised only when writing this post that some controversy comes with the Hugo Award given to this very book, raised by some conservative or worse sci’ fi’ writers, who complained that it was selected for political rather than literary reasons. Read the book before reading the arguments, and they then just fall apart as grossly political!)

“Information is security. Plans made with imperfect information are fatally flawed, will fail or succeed on the toss of a coin. “

At a first come first serve level, the story is a traditional space opera where a galactic empire methodically conquers new planets and turn the lucky survivors into new citizens, while the others are turned into brainless warriors controlled by an AI that doubles as a spaceship. The major ship in this story is called Justice of Toren and the soldiers are called ancillaries. All this very connected to the history of the Roman empire. Although this approach has presumably been tried in many other sci’fi’ novels, this feature means that the ancillaries are aware of all other connected to the AI, while retaining some degree of autonomy. And it brings very interesting interrogations on the nature of self in such a hive civilisation. Interrogations that quickly get unexpected answers [warning!, spoilers ahoy!] since one of those auxiliaries, Breq, develops an independent line of thought and eventually reaches complete libre-arbitre. While keeping his or her elite soldier abilities, which turns him or her into a ruthless avenger. I write him or her because the novel and this auxiliary are constantly unclear about the sex of the other characters, which seems to have become such a private matter that it cannot be directly mentioned in the conversation… A fairly interesting concept, once you get around this missing degree of freedom in interpreting the relations between the characters. The empire is of course governed by an emperor, called Anaander Mianaai, which has a massive schizophrenic issue in that by creating many copies of himself or herself over thousands of years, they have drifted in their personalities and now partly escape the control of the associated AI… The final chapters of the first novel see Breq fighting and killing several of those copies. (There are spaceoperaous moments in the novel, which even matter in the grand plot, but they are dealt with very lightly so that the psychological bits are the true flotsam of the novel. I am most obviously looking forward the second volume [procured thanks to ‘Og readers’ links to amazon associate!].)

the forever war [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids with tags , , , , , on April 26, 2015 by xi'an

Another book I bought somewhat on a whim, although I cannot remember which one… The latest edition has a preface by John Scalzi, author of Old Man’s War and its sequels, where he acknowledged he would not have written this series, had he previously read The Forever War. Which strikes me as ironical as I found Scalzi’s novels way better. Deeper. And obviously not getting obsolete so immediately! (As an aside, Scalzi is returning to the Old Man’s War universe with a new novel, The End of All Things.)

“…it’s easy to compute your chances of being able to fight it out for ten years. It comes to about two one-thousandths of one percent. Or, to put it another way, get an old-fashioned six-shooter and play Russian Roulette with four of the six chambers loaded. If you can do it ten times in a row without decorating the opposite wall, congratulations! You’re a civilian.”

This may be the main issue with The Forever War. The fact that it sounds so antiquated. And hence makes reading the novel like an exercise in Creative Writing 101, in order to spot how the author was so rooted in the 1970’s that he could not project far enough in the future to make his novel sustainable. The main issue in the suspension of belief required to proceed through the book is the low-tech configuration of Halderman’s future. Even though intergalactic travel is possible via the traditional portals found in almost every sci’-fi’ book, computers are blatantly missing from the picture. And so is artificial intelligence as well. (2001 A space odyssey was made in 1968, right?!) The economics of a forever warring Earth are quite vague and unconvincing. There is no clever tactics in the war against the Taurans. Even the battle scenes are far from exciting. Esp. the parts where they fight with swords and arrows. And the treatment of sexuality has not aged well. So all that remains in favour of the story (and presumably made the success of the book) is the description of the ground soldier’s life which could almost transcribe verbatim to another war and another era. End of the story. (Unsurprisingly, while being the first book picked for the SF MasterworksThe Forever War did not make it into the 2011 series…)