Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Emergent Systems for Dummies

It's fun to think of intelligence as an emergent property of complex systems. And we've been thinking about it for decades. From The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966) to (ghod save us) the 2005 movie Stealth. The latest entry in the Internet-develops-intelligence genre is Robert J. Sawyer's WWW: Wake, the first book of a proposed trilogy and a 2010 Hugo nominee for Best Novel. As with most Sawyer books it is a solid, fast read with some interesting speculation--but ultimately it feels a bit like cotton candy.

At first the story focuses on Caitlin, who was born blind. She is 16 and navigating high school in Canada. She's an internet addict and math whiz: posting on live journal, instant messaging, doing her homework and research. A researcher in Japan contacts her. Because of the specific (and very rare) nature of her blindness (her eyes receive light properly, but the signals are not correctly interpreted by her brain's visual center), he believes that she is a good candidate for an experimental technology. He'll implant a sensor to record the signals from her eyes, process them, and feed them back into her visual processing center.

It doesn't work at first. She goes back home with the signal processing unit installed and open to the internet so that it can download updates as the researcher pushes them out. At a certain point, she gets an update and begins to see... the internet. Nodes and lines of connections of different weights and colors. Obviously this isn't what her parents were hoping for, but she's pretty stoked--it's the first time she ever seen anything.

From the beginning of the book, in the interstices between chapters, we get hints of a consciousness emerging... somewhere. In China, a nascent epidemic causes the government to go in and kill everyone in a specific rural geographical region. While they're implementing this cleansing, they shut down the Chinese communication connection to the rest of the world, blocking the three main internet and telephone cables that bring data in and out of the country. We see the perspective of the Chinese premiere and a Chinese human rights activist as this is happening. The emergent Internet intelligence is very confused--first feeling lessened, then being reconnected to itself. It begins to form the concepts of Self and Other and that there are external things that effect its existence.

You can possibly see where this is going. Caitlin can see the internet, and the Internet can see her. Eventually they make contact, and things go from there. There are a lot of cool things that Sawyer brings up as the book rolls to the end (although not the end of the story; remember that Sawyer is setting up for two more books). There's the way Caitlin learns about her sight, and the internet learns about the world, and some fascinating stuff on signal processing, information theory and various mathematical techniques. The technobabble that hit my specialty (neuroengineering and signal processing) was all within the realm of possibility. There's certainly enough hard sf meat there to satisfy the Analog crowd. And frankly, I'll forgive a lot just to read about an AI learning about the world via Wikipedia and Project Gutenberg.

I guess my main problem with this book is that it feels a bit slight: everything seems to come a bit too easily to both Caitlin and the emergent AI. Everyone in this book jumps to conclusions that just so happen to be correct at various times. Things happen much faster than seems realistic, especially with the blindness research. Wake's focus is so narrow that this near future doesn't feel as fleshed out and lived in as I'd like (although it was fascinating to read about the technology available today to help blind people navigate school and work). I was also disappointed that after we'd spent the first third of the book with the Chinese plot, once the Chinese reconnect to the internet all those characters are unceremoniously dropped, never to be heard from again. What were the consequences, both international and domestic? What happened to the human rights activist, last seen breaking his leg attempting to escape from the police? I can only hope that they'll come up again in the remaining two books, but considering this book as a standalone it seemed like their only purpose was to teach the Internet AI an Important Life Lesson, and after that their stories weren't important anymore. Really a shame, because I was really hooked by that plotline and how it showed the interconnectedness of the modern world.

All in all, this is another solid but somewhat old-fashioned entry from Robert J. Sawyer. I expect that it will be a strong contender for the Hugo; it has many of the same elements that appealed to voters in his previous nominee, Rollback. It's got some excellent science speculation and a fun plot, but its world-building feels thin and the hand of the author can be rather clearly seen nudging the characters onto the right speculative tracks. A good solid read, but not exactly cutting-edge sf.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

No Dystopia Like a Russian Dystopia

In my stroll through the classics, I feel like I've gotten my fill of utopian literature, now thankfully out of style. However, in reading Yevgeny Zamyatin's We (1921) I filled in a gap in my dystopian literature library. I've read 1984 (1949) and Brave New World (1932) of course, and also "The Machine Stops" by E. M. Forester (1909 -- a brilliant short story, if you're interested). We stands out both for its power and also for its context: an early supporter of the Communist revolution in Russia, Zamyatin quickly realized the abuses that were being perpetrated by those in power. This work is a reaction to those abuses and a classic "If This Goes On--" style warning. However, it couldn't be published in the author's native land. It was published first in English after being translated. There was an attempt to sneak it into Russia by selling a version supposedly translated from the Czech, but the book had already been banned. Apparently it wasn't published openly in Russia until 1988. Zamyatin himself was forced into exile in France starting in 1931. Those very real experiences add a lot to the power of the novel.

The novel's narrator is D-503, the chief engineer of the first interstellar space ship. He lives in a completely controlled state, the United State: one government, a walled-off nation, no privacy, everything timed down to the minute. Because of his prominent role, he is targeted by the female head of a revolutionary movement, I-330. He falls in love with her and becomes very confused--anything that happens unpredictably throws him into complete cognitive estrangement. Up until the events of the novel, his life had in every way been circumscribed and regimented. This is probably the main strength of the novel, to intensely show how someone raised under state control would be completely thrown by even the simplest unpredictable event. He doesn't understand what he is feeling for I-330, he doesn't understand what her motivations are, and he often tries to run back to the comforting regularity of the state. He is the opposite of the Competent Man--because he was never allowed to become one. This can make him a little annoying to read: in both narration and dialog he often stutters, there are many ellipses, and at times he becomes completely unhinged from reality because he cannot reconcile what is happening with what he has known. It is both effective and disconcerting to read.
"It's clear... that is...!" I wanted... (damn that cursed "it's clear!"). [p. 29]

He and I-330 manage to meet in a somewhat secret meeting-house outside the city and sometimes in their quarters in the city. Brief periods of privacy are allowed for each night for couples to have sex, and they take advantage of those times. D-503's relationship is made even more complicated by the needs of his former sexual partner, O-90, who wants desperately to have his child, and the unwanted attention of U-, an ugly woman who can foil his plans. While D-503 is obviously a very intelligent engineer (many of his metaphors are explicitly mathematical; this reminded me of Stanislaw Lem's The Cyberiad and also reminds one that Zamyatin was trained as an engineer in Russia), almost everyone in this book seems to have figured out what is going on politically except him.

D-503 becomes more or less incapacitated by what is going on. He goes to a doctor, who may be sympathetic to the rebellion, and is diagnosed with having developed a soul. Apparently he's not the only one; to combat the epidemic, the United State (headed by the "Well-Doer") orders mandatory lobotomies for everyone. During this time the interstellar ship Intrepid is launched, but the rebellion faction who hoped to take control of the ship is thwarted by agents of the state. D-503 is unaware of his role in tipping off the state to the takeover attempt. The end of the story, as we expect from dystopian literature, is not happy for anyone.

This book uses many of the tropes that ground the dystopian subgenre: numbers instead of names, state control through panopticon, euphemisms for horrific things, awareness of media propaganda (sometimes newspaper articles are included in the text), and a protagonist encouraged to challenge the system because of romantic love. One thing that I found interesting was that the system of state control was based on Taylorism--the first 'scientific management' system meant to maximize the output of workers. This is something we would today associate with a corporate/capitalist dystopia instead of a Communist one. So instead of having the sacred Time Tables of the United State based on a WWII fascist "make the trains run on time" idea, they are instead based on a broad expansion of labor efficiency management principles (which are often misapplied and inhumane even today).

I can't say that I liked We. Dystopian literature isn't usually the sort of thing that one enjoys. However, I appreciated the power of the narrative and the techniques used to convey it. It is a very effective piece that I think illustrates cognitive dissonance or estrangement about as much as anything I've ever read. If you only read two dystopian novels, I think they would still have to be Brave New World and 1984, just because they are such touchstones in the West. However, if you read three such books, I would recommend that We be the third.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Now, for the Fantasy Canon

Of course, one can't just look at the sf side of the aisle: thanks to Neth Space, there's also the Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks list. Same rules as the sf list: Bold means I've read it, Italics means I own it but haven't read it yet, and Strikethrough means that I'm not planning on reading it and I'm fully comfortable skipping it.

1 - The Book of the New Sun, Volume 1: Shadow and Claw - Gene Wolfe
2 - Time and the Gods - Lord Dunsany
3 - The Worm Ouroboros - E.R. Eddison
4 - Tales of the Dying Earth - Jack Vance
5 - Little, Big - John Crowley
6 - The Chronicles of Amber - Roger Zelazny
7 - Viriconium - M. John Harrison
8 - The Conan Chronicles, Volume 1: The People of the Black Circle - Robert E. Howard
9 - The Land of Laughs - Jonathan Carroll
10 - The Compleat Enchanter: The Magical Misadventures of Harold Shea - L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt

11 - Lud-in-the-Mist - Hope Mirrlees
12 - The Book of the New Sun, Volume 2: Sword and Citadel - Gene Wolfe
13 - Fevre Dream - George R. R. Martin
14 - Beauty - Sheri S. Tepper
15 - The King of Elfland's Daughter - Lord Dunsany
16 - The Conan Chronicles, Volume 2: The Hour of the Dragon - Robert E. Howard
17 - Elric - Michael Moorcock
18 - The First Book of Lankhmar - Fritz Leiber
19 - Riddle-Master - Patricia A. McKillip
20 - Time and Again - Jack Finney

21 - Mistress of Mistresses - E.R. Eddison
22 - Gloriana or the Unfulfill'd Queen - Michael Moorcock
23 - The Well of the Unicorn - Fletcher Pratt
24 - The Second Book of Lankhmar - Fritz Leiber
25 - Voice of Our Shadow - Jonathan Carroll
26 - The Emperor of Dreams - Clark Ashton Smith
27 - Lyonesse I: Suldrun's Garden - Jack Vance
28 - Peace - Gene Wolfe
29 - The Dragon Waiting - John M. Ford
30 - Corum: The Prince in the Scarlet Robe - Michael Moorcock

31 - Black Gods and Scarlet Dreams - C.L. Moore
32 - The Broken Sword - Poul Anderson
33 - The House on the Borderland and Other Novels - William Hope Hodgson
34 - The Drawing of the Dark - Tim Powers
35 - Lyonesse II and III: The Green Pearl and Madouc - Jack Vance
36 - The History of Runestaff - Michael Moorcock
37 - A Voyage to Arcturus - David Lindsay
38 - Darker Than You Think - Jack Williamson
39 - The Mabinogion - Evangeline Walton
40 - Three Hearts & Three Lions - Poul Anderson

41 - Grendel - John Gardner
42 - The Iron Dragon's Daughter - Michael Swanwick
43 - WAS - Geoff Ryman
44 - Song of Kali - Dan Simmons
45 - Replay - Ken Grimwood
46 - Sea Kings of Mars and Other Worldly Stories - Leigh Brackett
47 - The Anubis Gates - Tim Powers
48 - The Forgotten Beasts of Eld - Patricia A. McKillip
49 - Something Wicked This Way Comes - Ray Bradbury
50 - The Mark of the Beast and Other Fantastical Tales - Rudyard Kipling

Unsurprisingly, I've read a lower percentage of the fantasy (16%) than the sf (39%). I also disagree with a higher selection of their choices. Although, usually it's because I'm planning on reading different things from the same authors--I've got almost no quibble with their choice of important authors there. Arguments welcome in the comments!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Classics Canon

So there's a meme going around associated with the new group blog covering the SFF Masterworks series published by Gollancz. Since my approach to canon formation (i.e. the 'classics' that I feel I need to read) has been entirely personal and idiosyncratic, I thought I'd see how my reading list stacks up with the Masterworks list. So in this list, Bold means I've read it, Italics means I own it but haven't read it yet, and Strikethrough means that I'm not planning on reading it and I'm fully comfortable skipping it. Let me know what you think I've got totally wrong here--is there anything I must must must read that I might be skipping?

I - Dune - Frank Herbert
II - The Left Hand of Darkness - Ursula K. Le Guin
III - The Man in the High Castle - Philip K. Dick

IV - The Stars My Destination - Alfred Bester
V - A Canticle for Leibowitz - Walter M. Miller, Jr.
VI - Childhood's End - Arthur C. Clarke

VII - The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress - Robert A. Heinlein
VIII - Ringworld - Larry Niven
IX - The Forever War - Joe Haldeman
X - The Day of the Triffids - John Wyndham

2 - I Am Legend - Richard Matheson
3 - Cities in Flight - James Blish
4 - Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? - Philip K. Dick
5 - The Stars My Destination - Alfred Bester
6 - Babel-17 - Samuel R. Delany
7 - Lord of Light - Roger Zelazny
8 - The Fifth Head of Cerberus - Gene Wolfe

9 - Gateway - Frederik Pohl
10 - The Rediscovery of Man - Cordwainer Smith

11 - Last and First Men - Olaf Stapledon
12 - Earth Abides - George R. Stewart
13 - Martian Time-Slip - Philip K. Dick
14 - The Demolished Man - Alfred Bester
15 - Stand on Zanzibar - John Brunner
16 - The Dispossessed - Ursula K. Le Guin
17 - The Drowned World - J. G. Ballard
18 - The Sirens of Titan - Kurt Vonnegut
19 - Emphyrio - Jack Vance
20 - A Scanner Darkly - Philip K. Dick

21 - Star Maker - Olaf Stapledon
22 - Behold the Man - Michael Moorcock
23 - The Book of Skulls - Robert Silverberg
24 - The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds - H. G. Wells
25 - Flowers for Algernon - Daniel Keyes

26 - Ubik - Philip K. Dick
27 - Timescape - Gregory Benford
28 - More Than Human - Theodore Sturgeon
29 - Man Plus - Frederik Pohl
30 - A Case of Conscience - James Blish

31 - The Centauri Device - M. John Harrison
32 - Dr. Bloodmoney - Philip K. Dick
33 - Non-Stop - Brian Aldiss
34 - The Fountains of Paradise - Arthur C. Clarke
35 - Pavane - Keith Roberts
36 - Now Wait for Last Year - Philip K. Dick
37 - Nova - Samuel R. Delany
38 - The First Men in the Moon - H. G. Wells
39 - The City and the Stars - Arthur C. Clarke
40 - Blood Music - Greg Bear

41 - Jem - Frederik Pohl
42 - Bring the Jubilee - Ward Moore
43 - VALIS - Philip K. Dick
44 - The Lathe of Heaven - Ursula K. Le Guin

45 - The Complete Roderick - John Sladek
46 - Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said - Philip K. Dick
47 - The Invisible Man - H. G. Wells
48 - Grass - Sheri S. Tepper
49 - A Fall of Moondust - Arthur C. Clarke
50 - Eon - Greg Bear

51 - The Shrinking Man - Richard Matheson
52 - The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch - Philip K. Dick
53 - The Dancers at the End of Time - Michael Moorcock
54 - The Space Merchants - Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth
55 - Time Out of Joint - Philip K. Dick
56 - Downward to the Earth - Robert Silverberg
57 - The Simulacra - Philip K. Dick
58 - The Penultimate Truth - Philip K. Dick
59 - Dying Inside - Robert Silverberg

61 - The Child Garden - Geoff Ryman
62 - Mission of Gravity - Hal Clement
63 - A Maze of Death - Philip K. Dick
64 - Tau Zero - Poul Anderson
65 - Rendezvous with Rama - Arthur C. Clarke
66 - Life During Wartime - Lucius Shepard
67 - Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang - Kate Wilhelm
68 - Roadside Picnic - Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
69 - Dark Benediction - Walter M. Miller, Jr.
70 - Mockingbird - Walter Tevis

74 - Inverted World - Christopher Priest
75 - Kurt Vonnegut - Cat's Cradle
76 - H.G. Wells - The Island of Dr. Moreau
77 - Arthur C. Clarke - Childhood's End
78 - H.G. Wells - The Time Machine
79 - Samuel R. Delany - Dhalgren (July 2010)
80 - Brian Aldiss - Helliconia (August 2010)

81 - H.G. Wells - Food of the Gods (Sept. 2010)
82 - Jack Finney - The Body Snatchers (Oct. 2010)
83 - Joanna Russ - The Female Man (Nov. 2010)
84 - M.J. Engh - Arslan (Dec. 2010)

Overall I feel like I've got a pretty good record here. I'm definitely weak on the New Wave, but solid on the Golden Age and Golden Age precursors. I'm not as big a fan of Philip K. Dick as the Gollancz publishers, but that's OK.

Classics Update

Back in March I posted a list of the remaining genre classics that I wanted to read, and remarked at few there were left. But of course, every time I finish a book on this list, I think of another one to add. So it's been morphing quite a bit recently. But I'm pretty sure I'll be finished with my pre-Golden Age reading by the end of the year, if not sooner. Links go to my reviews.

The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym, Edgar Allen Poe (1838)
The Princess and Curdie, George MacDonald (1883) Optional
Lilith, George MacDonald (1895)
Book of Wonder, Lord Dunsany (1912) Optional
The Worm Ouroborous, E. R. Eddington (1922)
King of Elfland's Daughter, Lord Dunsany (1924)
We, George Zamiatin (1925)
Lud-in-the-Mist, Mirrlees (1926)
The Greatest Adventure, John Taine (1929)
Seeds of Life, John Taine (1931)
*The Crystal Horde, John Taine (1930)
*The Time Stream, John Taine (1931)
*Before the Dawn, John Taine (1934)
Odd John, Olaf Stapledon (1935)
(Since they're bundled together, I'll also pick up Sirius by Stapledon, 1944)
Shadows Over Innsmouth, Lovecraft (1936)
At the Mountains of Madness, Lovecraft (1936)
The Hour of the Dragon, Robert E. Howard (1936)

I'm going to be reading the Poe and Howard stories first, because I have them on Stanza on my iPhone. Soon I want to go back to reading mostly short fiction (I get Asimov's, Analog, F&SF, and Interzone on eReader for the iPhone through Fictionwise) on that platform. Everything else I'm planning to read in dead-tree edition.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

George MacDonald Completely Loses Me

Amazingly enough, even back in the 1880s you could look at a sequel and say "Dude, the original was better." The Princess and Curdie (1883) is the sequel to The Princess and the Goblin. It comes across as more moralistic and heavy-handed than the original, and lacks some of its charm. Continuing on to MacDonald's final piece of adult fantasy, Lilith (1895), I have come to the conclusion that his genre work took a downhill turn after The Princess and the Goblin and never really recovered.

Curdie begins one year after Goblin. Curdie is 15 now and turning into a teenager, with a bit of the angst that entails. However, after shooting a pigeon and realizing that it belonged to the Galadriel/Grandmother figure from the first book, he sets his life back on the right path. The fairy godmother sends him on a journey to the capital of the kingdom. She grants him a few boons: the ability to tell good people from bad by holding their hands, and a big ugly monster, Lina, who is really a good person inside. As he travels to the capital he and Lina recruit more unique and ugly monsters, which will of course come in handy later.

Curdie gets to the capital, and is immediately treated badly by the corrupt and petty townsfolk. Only one old woman and her granddaughter are nice to him. He is arrested and led off to jail in a moment rather strongly recalling Christ's journey to Gethsemane. Lina finds him and they bust out of jail and sneak into the castle. It turns out that the King is being poisoned slowly by his staff, especially the Lord Chancellor and the doctor. Princess Irene from the original book has been too naïve to see any of this (which I found a bit hard to swallow, given how with-it she was a year previous) but is immediately convinced by Curdie's testimony.

So they (mostly Curdie) separate out the bad people (lots) from the good people (few) in the castle, and all the ugly monsters come in and drive out or capture the bad people. That's all well and good, but the King isn't back to being an effective King yet, and the townsfolk are conspiring against him. They call over to the neighboring kingdom, offering to sell out their kingdom for good treatment. Eventually the King, Curdie, Irene, the lone good soldier, a page, a handmaid, and all the ugly monsters go out to face the invading army. It predictably doesn't go well until the fairy godmother saves the day.

MacDonald can't contain his cynicism even at the end. The denouement mentions that the King gets better and reforms the kingdom. Irene and Curdie marry and are a great King and Queen. But they don't have any children and the next king is so greedy that he mines all the minerals (mostly gold) out from under the castle, collapsing it and leading to the collapse and erasure of the kingdom.

So basically, this book is all about the divine right of kings and how the awful urban merchant and middle classes are corrupt and venal. It's even mentioned that Curdie and his parents are of a noble bloodline, which of course explains why they're such good people and it's OK for him to be King. And of course, the next king not from that bloodline causes the complete destruction of the kingdom. It's a bit jarring to see it laid out so heavy-handedly; sure, in Lord of the Rings Aragorn is likewise of a noble bloodline, but this is a bit different. From MacDonald's point of view it would be as if Frodo turns out to have Numenorean blood to explain why he could be so heroic. Also, being able to tell 'good people' from 'bad people' by touch is horribly reductionistic. And one can't help thinking that if the king were really that good a king, he'd have managed his staff better and not let himself be poisoned.

Basically, the good bits in this are the awesome ugly monsters, the fairy godmother getting more screen time, and the fact that it is a fast read with charming language. The bad parts, which are much worse than in the Goblin book, are the heavy-handed political and religious allegories, the reduction of Irene's role, the deus ex machina ending, and the very cynical epilogue.

Moving on to Lilith, this was another fairly heavy-handed work that failed to charm me. A young aristocrat finds himself sucked into a fantasy world where he doesn't understand the rules. However, he willfully fails to listen to the one person (a crow who is sometimes also a man) who tries to explain the rules to him. Now, the person doing the explaining is also mighty elliptical about the whole thing: heaven forefend that someone should come right out and say: "Look, you can't do that because these bad things will happen. You should do this other odd thing instead, because that way these good things will happen. Now go to it." As it is, the crow says: "Don't do that. Do this silly thing instead. The end." So our hero disobeys him completely. However, things all turn out 'OK' in the end. In fact, at the end of the book you look back and it seems that if he'd followed the crow's advice, none of the 'good things' in the book would have happened.

However, I put 'good things' in quotes. Reading from today's perspective, the ending doesn't seem all that 'good' to me. Plot-wise, the first half of the book is simply our hero stumbling around being an idiot (in my humble opinion). However, he finally stumbles onto the plot in the second half after he's completely thrown over the advice of the crow. He strikes out randomly across the countryside and has some adventures. He meets a race of good children (because you know, all children are innocent and good). Somehow, he decides that to help the children he needs to go to a city which has a bad woman as a ruler. This would be Lilith, the biblical Adam's first wife. By the way, the crow is actually that Adam, and his current wife is that Eve. Lilith is a very bad person, especially because she doesn't like children and forbids anyone in her kingdom from having them. The children in the forest are the cast-off children of this kingdom, kept from growing apparently from a lack of water. Or something. Oh, and Lilith is also vampiric, as our hero completely fails to notice when he finds her in a death-like state (before he knows who she is) and she feeds off him in his sleep to regain her strength.

Anyway, eventually he leads an army of the children to the city to overthrow Lilith's rule. He captures her and drags her back to Adam. There we get something like the sort of group therapy/public humiliation that fundamentalist Christians today sometimes use to try to 'cure' gay people. Adam gets her to admit that she is bad and by the end she is begging him to kill her or cut off her arm to rid herself of her own evil. Very allegorical. Very distasteful.

It's all a bit of a shame. Phantastes (which I read but never got around to reviewing, whoops!) wasn't the best written or plotted story ever, but it had some fascinating vignettes that put one in mind of Kelly Link. Princess and the Goblin was really charming, with some great female characters and a straightforward, fun adventure. Then Princess and Curdie took a turn for the biblical allegory and heavy-handed morality. And Lilith is almost nothing but that, surrounded by an incoherent plot that is never fully understood by the reader or the hero. Honestly, I wish I'd stopped reading at Princess and the Goblin. I'd certainly have walked away with a better impression of George MacDonald than I have now.