Archive for Snow Crash

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 is a bit outdated and definitely “rosy”, and does not foresee the issue of “digital democracy” being threatened by a strong polarisation into estranged communities, but I still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 With this somewhat outdated cover.)

seveneves [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids with tags , , , , , , on November 29, 2015 by xi'an

As the latest Neal Stephenson’s novel, I was waiting most eagerly to receive Seveneves (or SevenEves ). Now I have read it, I am a bit disappointed by the book. It is a terrific concept, full of ideas and concepts, linking our current society and its limitations with what a society exiled in space could become, and with a great style as well, but as far as the story itself goes I have trouble buying it! In short, there is too much technology and not enough psychology, too many details and not enough of a grand scheme… This certainly is far from being the best book of the author. When compared with Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon, Anathem, or Reamde for instance. Even the fairly long and meandering Baroque Cycle comes on top of this space opera à la Arthur Clarke (if only for the cables linking Earth and space stations at 36,000 kilometres…).

 The basis of Seveneves is a catastrophic explosion of our Moon that leads to the obliteration of live on Earth within a range of two years. The only way out is to send a small number of people to a space station with enough genetic material to preserve the diversity of the Human species. Two-third of the book is about the frantic scramble to make this possible. Then Earth is bombarded by pieces of the Moon, while the inhabitants of the expanded space station try to get organised and to get more energy from iced asteroids to get out of the way, while badly fighting for power. This leads the crowd of survivors to eventually reduce to seven women, hence the seven Eves. Then, a five thousand year hiatus, and the last part of the book deals with the new Human society, hanging up in a gigantic sphere of space modules around the regenerated Earth, where we follow a team of seven (!) characters whose goal is not exactly crystal clear.

While most books by Stephenson manage to produce a good plot on top of fantastic ideas, with some characters developed with enough depth to be really compelling, this one is missing at the plot level and even more at the character level, maybe because we know most characters are supposed to die very early in the story. But they do look like caricatures, frankly! And behave like kids astray on a desert island. Unless I missed the deeper message… The construction of the spatial mega-station is detailed in such details that it hurts!, but some logistic details on how to produce food or energy are clearly missing. And missing is also the feat of reconstituting an entire Human species out of seven women, even with a huge bank of human DNAs. The description of the station five thousand years later is even more excruciatingly precise. At a stage where I have mostly lost interest in the story, especially to find very little differences in the way the new and the old societies operate. And to avoid spoilers, gur er-nccnevgvba bs gur gjb tebhcf bs crbcyr jub erznvarq ba Rnegu, rvgure uvqqra va n qrrc pnir be ng gur obggbz bs gur qrrcrfg gerapu, vf pbzcyrgryl vzcynhfvoyr, sbe ubj gurl pbhyq unir fheivirq bire gubhfnaqf bs lrnef jvgu ab npprff gb erfbheprf rkprcg jung gurl unq cnpxrq ng gur ortvaavat… It took me some effort and then some during several sleepless nights to get over this long book and I remain perplexed at the result, given the past masterpieces of the author.

steps

Posted in Mountains, pictures, Running, Travel with tags , , , on February 20, 2015 by xi'an

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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.)

Diamond age

Posted in Books, pictures with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 27, 2011 by xi'an

Here is the one before last of my vacation reads! As obvious from several earlier posts, I am a big fan of Neal Stephenson’s books. e.g. Snow Crash is one of my preferred cyberpunk books (along with Neuromancer), and I consider Stephenson’s approach to the genre deeper and more scientific than Gibson‘s. So when in Lancaster I picked the Diamond Age, I was quite excited to have discovered an overlooked volume of his’! The more because the story was partly taking place in Shanghai. Alas, I am rather disappointed by the result. Indeed, the book does not read well: the “suspension of disbelief” does not operate.

The Diamond Age brims with (too many???) brilliant techno-societal ideas, colourful characters, literary references, and exciting settings, but the plot dries out much too quickly. The universe Stephenson depicts is a mix of cyberpunk centred on nanotechnologies and of steampunk with Victorian codes and attitudes. (In a sense, the Diamond Age is Dickens mixed with Gibson and van Gulik.) One of the great ideas in the Diamond Age is the “primer” that educates the central character, Nell, who has been neglected by her alcoholic mother. It is a quite compelling concept, the one of an interactive book backed by an AI and by real actors that turn Nell into a real scientist (the part about Turing machines is quite good) and cryptographer, as well as teach Chinese orphans (although it does not work so well in the latter case because of the lack of real actors).  The fact that the level of the story remains one of a fairy tale while Nell is growing up and maturing is a bit of a disappointment. What really put me off, though, half the book read, is the appearance of the Dreamers, an “unnecessary and monstrously tacky underwater sex cult” that doomed my “suspension of disbelief” for the rest of the book… (The criticisms are mostly positive, though.)

Anathem

Posted in Books, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 20, 2010 by xi'an

One colleague of mine in Dauphine gave me Anathem to read a few weeks ago. I had seen it in a bookstore once and planned to read it, so this was a perfect opportunity. I read through it slowly at first and then with more and more eagerness as the story built on, spending a fair chunk of the past evenings (and Metro rides) into finishing it. Anathem is a wonderful book, especially for mathematicians, and while it could still qualify as a science-fiction book, it blurs the frontiers between the genres of science-fiction, speculative fiction, documentary writings and epistemology… Just imagine any other sci’fi’ book being reviewed in Nature! Still, the book was awarded the 2009 Locus SF Award. So it has true sci’fi’ characteristics, including Clarke-ian bouts of space opera with a Rama-like vessel popping out of nowhere. But this is not the main feature that makes Anathem so unique and fascinating.

“The Adrakhonic theorem, which stated that the square of a right triangle hypotenuse was equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides…” (p. 128)

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