Sunday, March 30, 2008

Science Fiction of the 30's, ed. Damon Knight

In 2006, I met some elder statesmen of reviewing at the Los Angeles WorldCon. Since then, I've been trying to read more deeply into the past of science fiction. After all, they said: "To be a good reviewer you need to have read everything published before 1950!" "You can't be a good reviewer if you're younger than 40!" "OK, you can skip Stanley G. Weinbaum, but that's it! Everything else before 1950!" Well, it didn't all stick. I hope to be a good reviewer in fewer than 14 years, for one thing. And I'm skipping a considerable amount of sf written before 1950 (I've probably woefully skimped on my Ed Hamilton, for example). And thanks to this anthology by Damon Knight, I won't be skipping Stanley G. Weinbaum. But the gist of the advice got through: one can understand more about the field by understanding more about it's past. So when I found Science Fiction of the 1930s, I had to grab it.

I'm glad I did. Over its length it shows science fiction beginning to come into its own. Knight organizes the stories chronologically, and breaks the anthology into three sections, "The Early Years," "The Middle Period" and "The End." The first few stories are pretty trashy, and a little hard to read. As the anthology progresses the stories get more readable. They gain more depth, and better consideration of their subject matter. You start to see how a later collection, the all-time classic Adventures in Time and Space (1946) (which stands the test of time amazingly well), could garner so much great material only a few years later.

Many of the stories here can have their plots summed up via B-movie titles: "Kidnapped by Creatures of the Deep Abyss!" "I Was a Bee Queen!" "Time Travelers on Venus!" etc. A lot of them show their roots as flat-out adventure stories. For instance the first story, "Out Around Rigel" by Robert H. Wilson, could just as easily have been a high-seas swashbuckling adventure. Two friends use a new FTL drive to fly to Rigel. When they land, they duel over a woman back home. They're attacked by a native species, and only one of them makes it back. When he returns, the woman they loved is dead (as is everyone else: due to relativity he returns millions of years after he started, even though it seemed like only weeks to him). It's a straight-forward tale, made all the more quaint by its opening with folks walking around on the Moon, which is perfectly habitable.

The stories tackle a wide variety of themes and sciences. They also vary considerably in style, from the goofy Sprague de Camp stories to the elegiac Lester del Rey entry. One noticeable trend, although this may be an artefact of Knight's selection process, is that physics and chemistry rule the day in the early stories, and biology comes into its own at the end. Also, there seems to be growing tolerance for the Other as the stories progress. We move from being attacked and threatened by aliens in "Out Around Rigel," "The Fifth-Dimensional Catapult," and "The Other," to learning and communicating with them in "The Mad Moon" and "Davey Jones' Ambassador."

The strongest stories are "The Mad Moon," "Davey Jones' Ambassador, and "The Council of Drones," all dealing with learning about the Other. "The Mad Moon" convinced me not to skip Weinbaum in my early sf readings. It's a silly tale, with Martians that look like balloons harmlessly harassing a man trying to collect valuable pharmaceuticals. He gets a damsel in distress to deal with, and they end up being chased across the landscape. However, the balloon aliens step up and help him out. It's written with a great sense of humor (otherwise often lacking in this anthology until we get to the two de Camp entries), and the dialog is more readable than most of the stories here, which makes it stand out.

"Davey Jones' Ambassador" inverts Jules Verne's classic Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, with our hero submariner captured by abyssal creatures who want to study him. Although it starts out feeling very sinister, in the end one of the aliens reaches out and communication really begins. In "The Council of Drones" a bee-keeper exchanges consciousness with a Queen bee, planning to understand them better. He gets more than he bargained for when his planned one hour exchange turns into a lifetime. He integrates with the hive, and eventually teaches them to turn against their human oppressors. This is played completely straight, and I learned quite a bit about bees and bee-keeping (although I don't know how well the 1930s science would stand up today). It's a strangely compelling story, surprisingly well written.

My continued sense of surprise whenever I encountered a story here that was really readable probably indicates that this isn't an anthology for the casual reader. Here one will find casual and not-so-casual misogyny, truly awful dialog, stilted prose, contrived utopian tours, and totally out-dated science. There are some gems here, but they shine much more brightly when surrounded by dirt clods. However, for those interested in our favorite field's humble origins, this book will reward the patient reader.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Three Skipped Stories

So far in this issue of Baen's I read the first two stories, but then skipped the next three.

"Waking Ophelia" by E. Catherine Tobler starts out with a deep space pilot, Bel, being awoken from hibernation early. Her ship has been hijacked! By pirates! And there's very little she can do about it. She appears to be heading towards a romance with the lead pirate, which made me roll my eyes and ask the "should I keep reading this" question. I hadn't been given much reason to care about Bel or her journey, so I figured I could live my life free of regret not knowing what happened to her.

David Gerold's "Spiderweb" starts with an astronomy lesson: "All right, let's talk about the Oort cloud. It's big. It's not flat. It's round. It's a sphere. It's 7500 trillion kilometers thick and it starts about 7500 trillion kilometers away." I'm a physicist who used to concentrate on astronomy, so lengthy reviews of things I already know bore me. Usually I can skim forward to see why the author is telling me these things, i.e. why I should care. However in this piece the lecture seems to go on and on with no end in sight. Pass.

"The Temple of Thorns" by John Lambshead also suffers from a slow beginning. We start with a woman in a medieval setting. It appears she's about to be banished. She leaves town with a guard. I got no sense of her personality, why she was being punished, and where she would be going. There didn't seem to be a driving force moving the story forward; instead it was simply trudging along. The woman seemed like a nobly wronged heroine from central casting. After several pages, I moved on.

Friday, March 28, 2008

"Premature Emergence" by Eric James Stone

"Premature Emergence," although accurate, is an unfortunate title for a story. Likewise the opening sentence: "During a hyperspace slide, cargo haulers like the KMC-85 did not need a human pilot on board," isn't the best either. Mmmm, acronyms AND cargo haulers. Sign me up! However, this story overcomes its inauspicious beginnings and is readable throughout.

Jonah is the pilot of the cargo hauler that doesn't need a pilot. Damn unions. The job is supposed to be simple: using faster-than-light-but-not-instantaneous drive, you go in at one terminal and come out a few months later at another terminal. Foolproof. Except he comes out of hyperspace somewhere else, nowhere near a terminal, and light years away from anything. Whoops.

So Jonah is well and truly screwed even before he gets into an odd combat situation with a ship piloted by a rogue AI. (In the past, humans and AI fought. The AIs moved out into space and never the twain were supposed to meet... Whoops.) In the end the well-and-truly screwed Jonah tries to honor the worthy AI, in which resides his only chance for a happy ending.

The story is told in a straight-forward, unadorned style. However, the passages with the AI towards the end are genuinely moving, and Jonah's determination to do what's right even when there's no realistic hope of payoff for him is noble. Generally, this story reads like a classic Analog story. Nothing wrong with that, but nothing outstanding either.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

"Following the Pharmers" Brian Stableford

In a previous post I raved about the opening paragraph to this story, so I have to let you know how it turned out. 'Twas a good story, but nothing really amazing. Basically it places an interesting scientific thesis in the midst of a greater debate about the role of science and engineering, and then that debate gives the plot an ironic twist.

The plot: the narrator is a pharmer - he grows illegal bio-engineered pharmaceuticals for the black market in a post-global warming flooded region of England. He's just trying to make a living, and mourning for a lost love. However, he's gotten a new, ambitious neighbor. She's using her inherited fortune to try to convince people to legalize bio-engineering so that humanity can correct evolution's mistakes and grab the reins of its own future. The narrator agrees with her, but wants no part of her plans.

So the greater debate is about mankind playing God. This debate has played out at least since Mary Shelly's Frankenstein. However, here both the main characters are on the same side of the argument, so Stableford's presenting this one as "case closed." (Instead of one character saying Yes and the other saying No, one character says Yes and the other says Yes and We Need to Take Dramatic Action About It.) The meat of the story revolves around the following thesis statement: "It may well be the case that it was the cultivation of psychotropic substances rather than foodstuffs that prompted the initial development of agriculture, while fungal hallucinogens like psilocybin and muscarine were probably the catalyst responsible for the initial development of human self-consciousness." (The fact that that sentence was delivered as dialog gives you a little sense of the overall tone and readability of the story.)

So the thrust of the story is that we only became agriculturalists because of an odd evolutionary quirk that caused us to react to psychology-altering plant chemicals that caused us to become self-ware. This seems fishy to me - putting the cart before the horse, as it were. However, my background is physics, not biology, so I don't really have the chops to evaluate this one. I also thought Greg Bear's claims about seemingly-intentional insti-evolutionary changes (in Darwin's Radio and Darwin's Children) were ridiculous or at least implausible, but he (rather angrily) claimed at a Worldcon panel in 2006 that there were plenty of scientific papers backing him up (6 when he started writing that duology, more than 100 by 2006, he claimed).

So should I trust Stableford's research, or is it his responsibility to sell me on a concept so weird? I'm not sure. This is one of those stories where the climax is the infodump, so maybe some more detail wouldn't have hurt. Throughout the story Stableford deliberately conceals information that the protagonist is well aware of so that he can surprise/impress us with it at the end. He does answer all the questions that he raises, so that's fair. Unfortunately, having been formal and slightly stilted all the way through, the ending probably lacks the emotional punch that he was going for. This ends up being satisfying story in the presentation and examination of a cool scientific idea, but not much more than that.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

"The Smartest Mob..." by David Brin

The lead story in February's Baen's Universe is by David Brin. It reads as if it were a submission to the David Moles/Jay Lake-edited All Star Zeppelin Adventure Stories anthology, but instead it appears to be a follow up to the story Brin wrote for that volume. "Sky Light" had the same main character, a plucky female journalist named Tor, starting a zeppelin journey from San Diego to Washington, D.C. In "The Smartest Mob..." Tor is heading towards Washington, perhaps finishing the same voyage.

Although the plot is obviously an excuse to show off the nifty future he's developed, Brin is a talented writer who knows how to pace things and build dramatic tension. Tor's zeppelin is being delayed getting into Washington, because of suspicions of terrorist threats. Because of disinformation campaigns by various bad guys, it's impossible to know which threat is the real one, but Tor begins to suspect that it involves her zeppelin. She summons a smart mob from the internet, basically a real-time wiki/forum group, to advise her as she investigates. She gets some expertise by mob members who used to work on zeppelins. She polls the group when it comes to decisions, although since it's her butt on the line she ultimately has to decide what to do. In real-time her interest and reliability numbers go up and down, and the mob's numbers fluctuate accordingly.

Although the inclusion of real-time wiki groups accessible everywhere seems very "now," this story is closely related to one written by Brin in Earth in 1991. The fact that Tor's glasses use the same brand name, "TruVu" as the ones in that book suggest that it's basically the same universe. There he had scientists using the internet and subvocal interfaces to collaborate in real-time about quickly evolving crises. Things weren't as anonymous in that book as they are here, but that's the only significant change. The fact that the story works well using roughly the same concepts he used 17 years ago is a testament to Brin's talent as a forecaster. Compared to Earth this story backs off a little on the eco-catastrophe that he predicted: in this story parts of Washington are just being reinhabited after a terrorist attack and the zeppelins are a response to the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in long-distance travel. Comparatively in Earth, much of the coastal areas all around the world were essentially underwater already. Perhaps this story pre-dates Earth in that timeline, although it isn't clear.

Despite the wiki/Web 2.0/global warming elements of the story, I realize that I couldn't imagine Cory Doctorow or Charles Stross writing this story, and I'm trying to figure out why. In the near-future short fiction I've read from Stross he tends to write about the people who write the software, the ones pushing the boundaries (I'm thinking of Manfred Manx from "Lobsters," particularly). In comparison, Tor is simply a user of the tech that others have developed. She is not an innovator herself. I haven't read as much of Doctorow's short fiction, but I feel like his tends to get deeper into the fundamentals of how tech changes society. Here society, even with "reliability ratings" and instant polls, is roughly the same as ours (which may be more realistic in the long run than making the rather large conceptual leap to a fully reputation-based economy, as Doctorow did in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom). It seems that stories like Brin's function more as showcases for new futures, not so much as interrogations of them. That may be the main difference I'm sensing between Brin's fiction and our current cutting-edge guys.

This isn't a perfect story obviously, and I wouldn't go so far as to say it's worth the price of admission alone. It is contrived, and some twists are predictable, and sometimes he slows things down to admire his nifty toys and futurism. However, it's a good story, and when I asked myself if it's worth finishing the answer was Yes. Baen's is certainly continuing to attract top talent to their pages, and this issue is no exception.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Excellent Opening

In keeping with my intention to review short fiction, here is an example of a really good opening paragraph. It comes from Brian Stableford's novelette "Following the Pharmers" in March Asimov's.

It was early in June that the antheric alates began appearing on my verandah. At first I assumed that they were natural insects--some sort of butterfly nurtured in the evolutionary hothouse that Holderness had recently become. Their tiny wings were brightly colored, with a quasi-metallic sheen that enabled them to flare like sparks in the bright light of noon and twinkle like stars in the evening, when the sun sank into the bosom of the Wolds. Initially, I welcomed their arrival as a fortunate discovery, a safe distraction from the burdensome apects of my isolation.

I haven't finished this story yet, although further reading indicates that I probably will. However, the opening struck me as particularly encouraging. For one, the poetry and rhythm of the description of the insect drew me in. Next, despite the slight formal qualities of the writing, which sometimes indicate fantasy or historical stories, here there are clear markers that the story is sf: particularly concern with insects, and the word "evolution." In fact, the words that indicate recent change ("evolutionary hothouse that Holderness had recently become") also suggest it as sf.

Another promising aspect is the number of questions raised: what are antheric alates? Why is the narrator isolated? Where is Holderness and why is it now a place of change? And the important one: "At first I assumed that they were natural insects..." "Initially, I welcomed their arrival as a fortunate discovery..." BUT THEN... what? We know that there's a big BUT coming at the end of the paragraph, and I'm already curious to know what it is.

So far the rest of the story is proceeding nicely and answering some questions while raising more. Maybe I'll review it when I'm done, but if that paragraph has piqued your interest I suggest you find yourself a copy of this month's Asimov's. Although difficult with short fiction, I think it's particularly important to avoid spoilers. Often a short story's impact comes from some sudden punchline at the end, and it's just mean to spoil that sort of thing.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Reviewing Short Fiction

So I finally realized that I do actually like short fiction. For years I'd told myself that I prefer novels, but I have to face the facts. I'm keeping up with subscriptions to: F&SF, Analog, Asimov's Baen's Universe and Interzone. Obviously, short fiction and I have been getting along just fine. So since I'm reading so much of the stuff, I thought I'd start reviewing it here, both the good stuff and the ones I skip.

I'd usually enjoyed single-author collections by authors whose novels I'd enjoyed. The thing is, I tend not to have the same taste as say, Gardner Dozois. So the Year's Best-type collections tend not to have the things I like. So instead I decided to go straight to the source. That way I can read (and nominate for awards) what I like, without anyone else's filter.

Now, to keep up with all of these subscriptions I have to skim, and in my case skimming = skipping. I start every story with the default intention of finishing it, but usually at a certain point I ask myself "is it worth it to finish this story?" Often if I have to ask the question at all, the answer is No. If it's a really good story I will be so immersed in it that I never stop to ask the question.

Some things that make me skip a story: wandering openings that give no indication where the story is going; cliched-seeming plots that make me suspect I know what the ending will be; characters I really don't care about; and awkward prose. Now, there are exceptions to all these, and other stories I'll skip for other reasons. I'm hoping to examine in at least a few of my blog posts on the subject just what it is that causes me to skip some stories and finish others. My tastes will be as idiosyncratic as the next reviewer's, of course, but some may find it useful, and it may help clarify my own thinking.

Over the weekend I was at ICFA, I finally gave in to the reality of my joy of short fiction, and picked up some anthologies that I'd been avoiding: Feeling Very Strange (ed. Jim Kelly and John Kessel), Rewired (ed. Jim Kelly and John Kessel), and The New Weird (ed. Jeff & Ann VanderMeer). I'll also probably actually read the copy of Logorhea (ed. John Klima) that I had wound up with. So look for more short fiction reviews in this space. I'm still going to try to keep up with one novel review per week, but we'll see how it goes.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Blind Lake, by Robert Charles Wilson

Blind Lake is the third novel by Robert Charles Wilson that I've read. It shares characteristics with both The Chronoliths and the Hugo Award winning Spin. In all three, people are the focus even when poorly understood crises are erupting around them. His work is among the finest "character oriented" sf I've ever read. His characters are real, and even when they make poor choices or do silly things, what they do is understandable. He has a wonderful quality of empathy for his characters that helps us understand them as well.

The set-up for Blind Lake is that a scientific research station is put under quarantine with no explanation. The one guy who tries to leave is killed. Food shipments are sent in by automatic armored vehicle, but the information quarantine is as strict as the physical quarantine. Everyone suspects that the situation must be related to the research they do: through a poorly understood evolution of quantum computing, they have been observing life on an alien planet. They have been closely following a single subject as he moves through life on his world. There's no communication between themselves and the alien, but they try to learn all they can about their biology, geology, sociology, civilization, etc. from their observations. As the quarantine continues for months, some in the community recommend shutting down the observatory, saying that it may be a source of danger. Other scientists can't possibly countenance such a course of action. Friction, inevitably, grows.

The idea that no one knows why the observatory works, or why the quarantine has been imposed, is a common theme in Wilson's work. In Chronoliths gigantic time-travelling monuments begin appearing all over the world. No one knows where they came from or how it is possible for them to time-travel. In Spin, some force imposes a quarantine on the entire Earth, isolating it from the rest of the universe. Time on Earth slows down relative to the rest of the universe, and no one can explain why or how such a thing could be done. In midst of all this crisis and uncertainty, the characters of these novels must find a way to muddle through somehow.

In Blind Lake we have a fairly large cast of characters. In later books Wilson would usually focus on one or two, but here we have at least four important main characters. Chris is a disgraced journalist, whose assignment to interview folks out at the secretive Blind Lake facility could either be one more excuse for failure or an opportunity for redemption. When he gets stuck there, he ends up striking up a relationship with Marguerite, mother of Tess and ex-wife of Ray. Marguerite is a serious scientist, trying to keep observations going through the crisis as well as dealing with her odd daughter. Tess may be the focus of some weird activity that may have something to do with the quarantine - or she may simply be troubled by her parents none too friendly divorce. Marguerite's job is complicated by the fact that her ex-husband is now the acting facility director of the compound, most of the senior management having gone to a conference prior to the quarantine's enactment. Ray is a very unpleasant individual, mean to his staff, paranoid, and completely enmeshed in power politics. In his asshole-ness he seems more a straw man than a real character. Wilson tries to write a convincingly banal middle-management jerk, but the parts written from Ray's perspective didn't ring true to me. Throughout the story, the main theme is humans trying to keep things together in the midst of crises and changes they don't understand - an over-dramatization of normal life. The scientific compound does not devolve into rioting and anarchy; instead they organize into a community and do the best they can. Everyone pitches in to a greater or lesser extent, and tries to keep things moving smoothly. The interpersonal conflicts: Ray and Marguerite manipulating each other and those around them, trying to care for Tess as best they can, Chris fighting his demons and dealing with his growing attraction to Marguerite, these are the things that loom largest in the narrative, and it's all very well done.

In the end we get an explanation of the entire situation, from the quarantine to the seemingly magical quantum observatory and the enigmatic alien society. In the other books by Wilson that I've read, this explanation was absent and still left a satisfying conclusion. Here though, the complete wrap-up is rewarding. To the extent that I have any misgivings about the book, they center around the science. In his techno-babble describing the advent of the quantum observatory Wilson happens to use the jargon of two fields I've done professional work in, neural networks and pattern recognition, so I unfortunately was not able to suspend my disbelief in that regard. I know how impossible what he's describing would be. In a completely minor note that didn't actually detract from my enjoyment of the book, after the descriptions of the alien that the observations follow, I kept picturing him as Dr. Zoidberg from the Futurama TV show. Not a problem at all, but it probably introduced a little more levity than the serious tone of the novel was going for.

In general this book is up to the high standards I expect from Robert Charles Wilson, and it is developing themes that he uses in his later books. In fact, in his more recent work he divorces himself from the need to satisfy hard-sf explanations; a lot of his crisis-inducing occurances are never really explained in the later novels, and I think those novels are stronger because of it. By satisfying the usual need to wrap up all the scientific loose ends in Blind Lake he ends up introducing errors and also a completely different thematic direction at the end of the book than is covered by the bulk of the book. It's a minor flaw, only noticable in comparison to the later novels. Still, there is no reason not to pick this book up, either as an introduction to Wilson's amazing humanistic style, probably the best character-centric sf on the market, or to continue to enjoy the oeuvre of this remarkable author.

ICFA, Wrap Up

So after a mighty rough morning (up 'til after 3am having a wonderful time; not so wonderful when we had to wake up at 6:30 to catch a 9:40 flight), here we are at JFK waiting for our flight home. Thanks, JetBlue free terminal wi-fi! Still the march of luminaries continues: we shared the shuttle to the Orlando airport with Roger Luckhurst and John Kessel, and we realized that we'd shared the flight to JFK with Mike Kelly, Peter Straub's archivist.

Last night was wonderful. The awards went smoothly, the acceptors were brief and gracious, the expression on Brian Aldiss' face when he learned he got the retro BASFA award was priceless, and a good time was had by all.

Then out by the bar we did not get rained on, and thanks to the contributions of many dedicated alcohol lovers, we had a wide and splendid variety of things to drink. I got to talk to just about all the people I wanted to, and listen to brilliant people being very funny. And I've learned more about Flannery O'Connor, whose work's I'll have to look up now. By the way, all things Southern are funnier when told by Andy Duncan in his native accent, or Bret Cox in his original accent, apparently since moderated by time in Vermont.

So that's it for ICFA for this year. Every year (OK, two now), it feels more like home.

Saturday, March 22, 2008


Well, my official duty at ICFA is now over. I delivered my paper, and I think it was well received. There was an audience (at the last paper session on Saturday, you never know), drawn by papers on Charles de Lint (by Taryne Taylor) and on Octavia Butler (by John Pennington). Realted to my paper some interesting discussion ensued, partly driven by other fans of From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain. Last night I found out that it was the runner-up for the Philip K. Dick Award, which made it even better. I'm sorry it didn't make it onto the Hugo Nominee list, but we can't have everything.

Anyway, it looks like if I want to continue studying superheroes there's quite a bit of material there: relationships, power, myth, and post-9/11 narratives. That may end up being more serious than I want to deal with; I'll have to see.

Last night I went to a panel on the Global Fantastique. James and Kathryn Morrow were there, editors of the SFWA European Hall of Fame. Also on the panel were David Hartwell, Stefan Ekman, Javier Martinez, and the always witty Brian Aldiss. They discussed the practical difficulties of translation, the prohibitive cost, and some of the different purposes that SF plays in different contexts. In Communist countries it could be a way of criticizing the regime, but those authors had to find different roles after the USSR disintegrated. Aldiss pointed out that in Singapore, the sf he read was all basically complaining about the regime in Singapore. He pointed out that sf can be the language of complaint, and that it's important to have that outlet. Ekman also pointed out the difficulty native authors have - apparently English-language sf can dominate a market. They generate proven sales, and publishers are less likely to take risks on unknown native authors. All in all it was agreed that we need more dialog between sf in different countries, but there was no consensus about how to make it happen.

Other interesting ICFA bits:
  • Ted Chiang pointing out the similarities between the plots of Watchmen and The Incredibles, and wondering if a Watchmen movie is feasible now that The Incredibles has done the same thing in a funny way.
  • Ellen Klages and Marie Brennan discussing how much fun it is to do research - getting to talk to people with incredibly narrow specialties, and how much you can learn from them simply be being interested.
  • Having more and more people recommend novels dealing with superheroes when I mentioned my paper topic - I more than doubled the number of examples I could have used just over the weekend.
  • Listening to Sheila Williams recount the tale of meeting Isaac Asimov for the first time.
  • Having Robert J. Sawyer inform me that Canada invented standardized time zones.
All in all I've been having a great time, meeting and catching up with great people, and learning lots of new things. I'm sorry it's almost over, I'm looking forward to the banquet tonight, and I'm already looking forward to next year.

Friday, March 21, 2008


Luckily, I'm not the only person blogging from ICFA. Cheryl Morgan is going to lots of panels that I'm not, so between the two of us we're covering pretty good ground.

Another panel I'd like to mention is "Politics and the Singularity" from last night. Membership: John Fast (moderator), Vernor Vinge, Joe Haldeman, Robert J. Sawyer, James Patrick Kelly, Cristopher Hollingsworth.

Like so many panels about the Singularity and politics, this one never really got around to its subject. It was pulled off course by discussions of how to define the Singularity, all the different kinds of Singularities there are, and what their probabilities might be. At the end, I still declare myself to be a Singularity skeptic (although I do quite enjoy reading fiction about it).

However, a couple interesting points were made that I hadn't heard before. There was discussion of an arms race to build a Singularity-starting super AI computer, with two sides racing to be able to turn it on first. Sawyer pointed out that really, the side to "push the button" first would lose: they'd sacrifice all their power to the Super AI, which would presumably make all their decisions for them, and effectively enslave them. The problems I have with this scenario are the same ones I have with the Singularity concept altogether (it's unlikely people will, or will be able to, design AIs like that), so there may be some interesting dramatic potential there. Fast, the moderator, pointed out that politicians are likely to think of this sort of thing as a magic genie, and probably would push that button without fully understanding the consequences.

Haldeman put forth the theory that the Singularity might take a very long time, on the order of centuries, and in that case we're probably already in the midst of it. In the long run, that makes more sense to me than an over-night take-off. Also, I finally found out what IA means as opposed to AI: Intelligence Augmentation, i.e. designing better humans and better human intelligence. I can more easily see that leading to a Singularity-type scenario than AI.

All in all while I found some things disappointing in that panel, when you've got people that smart and interesting talking, you'll always find something new to think about.

ICFA, Part I

I've been here at ICFA 29 since Tuesday night, and I'm having a lovely time. I'm afraid I've been sober rather more often than I'd anticipated, due to some stomach trouble, but other than that things are going great.

ICFA is the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, and this year I'm giving a paper titled "Superheroes Used Symbolically in Novels." The wonderful thing about ICFA is that I've already heard some great new things that have made me revise the paper on the fly. I love this community!

So far for me the panel highlights have been a panel called "So You Want to Write a Superhero," where I heard from several authors who write unillustrated stories using superhero tropes (even poetry!). Some common elements were using Supers to examine power relationships and also the connection of comic books to modern myths.

A paper session titled "Audience, Adventure, and Archetype: Performance and Participation in Fantastical Texts" was also quite interesting. Jim Casey talked about the presentation of authorship, as well as the disconnect between the actor and the acted in Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess' Sandman issue "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Aidan-Paul Canavan gave a hilarious talk about how stock descriptions of gaming characters influence the subtext in character descriptions in normal fantasy novels (e.g. dark blades would indicate a rogue rather than a fighter, robes instead of armor indicate a wizard, etc.) Then Brian Attebery gave a fascinating talk on how the memorat ("telling of a personal experience without artistic pretense or traditional motifs") framing structure of many folktales and urban legends can be seen in fantasy narratives. He explained how these may function in at least three of the four categories of fantasy identified by Farah Mendlesohn. I certainly learned a lot from that paper.

Just now I attended the Scholar Guest of Honor speech by Roger Luckhurst titled "Contemporary Photography and the Technological Sublime, or Can There Be Science Fiction Photography." This was much more interesting than I feared. For one it gave me another interesting example of how to apply theory. Also, he made his point fairly convincingly for analog/chemical photography, before admitting that digital photography makes it even more likely that sf photography is possible. The pictures he showed as examples were very striking, and really helped make his case about photography using the iconography of the sublime.

Between all that, talking with friends and striking up interesting conversations with new people, this is just as much fun as I remembered from last year. I only hope that my stomach troubles will eventually clear up so I can enjoy some more food and wine - I feel like I've had to resort to a monastic diet to keep things settled.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Passing of Arthur C. Clarke

Arthur C. Clarke passed away yesterday. 90 years is a wonderfully long time, and apparently his passing was quick and relatively easy. On a personal note, I'm glad I heard about it at a convention dedicated to sf literature, from people who care passionately about the exact types of books Clarke dedicated his life to.

I don't think my life would have been quite the same if I hadn't read Childhood's End and 2010 in middle school. They were both, to me, mind blowing visions of very different futures. I'm glad his books have survived to be enjoyed by many generations of readers.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Paper Mage, by Leah Cutter

No question about it, when we think of generic "fantasy," there's a certain type we all have in mind. The setting is medieval European, the hero is a white guy, and there's a significant amount of violence. There has been a significant backlash against that stereotype, whether it's being mocked in The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, or bent into steampunk, or subverted with female heroines. Paper Mage is part of this backlash, with an Asian setting, young female heroine, and an emphasis on introspection instead of exterior violent conflict. The remarkable thing about the book is that while it fulfills a number of rather politically correct agendas, these are all beneath the surface. The subtext never dominates the story itself. Right up front it is a lovely read, well written and enjoyable.

Our heroine is Xiao Yen, and she lives in an Asian country, presumably China, in a roughly medieval time. Buddhism and paganism seem to comfortably coexist. Her story is told in alternating chapters, with one set following her from her childhood as she learns to be a paper mage, the other starting with her getting her first assignment after finishing school. In both time periods things are more difficult for her as the only female mage around. Her peers in school often make her feel outcast, and the only paying assignment she can get is to provide defense for a small party of foreign traders who presumably don't know any better.

The exterior plot involves her escorting the traders, then encountering a goddess. Xiao Yen is given a mission to defeat a supernatural warlord, and to do so she must also defeat a dragon in its lair. All this would be the stuff of a normal fantasy. The hero would charge forth, swing his sword around a bunch, and end up rightfully taking the conquered warlord's power. However here all the action is underplayed, and this important quest is basically wrapped up halfway through the novel. There is a beautiful scene where Xiao Yen uses a hairpin, in mockery of a sword, to defeat the all powerful warlord. Truly a commentary on women's ways of wielding power!

More important than these quests is Xiao Yen's internal struggle. She is pulled in many different directions: her aunt, the matriarch of her family (most of the men were killed) also has a quest for her. Her aunt is the one who pushes her to become a mage. She believes that if Xiao Yen is good enough, she will be granted a special boon and pass it back to her aunt, as would be required by family duty. Another pull is that her mother and sisters believe she should stop this magic silliness and get married, again as per duty. None of them can explicitly overrule the aunt, but they make clear what is expected of Xiao Yen. Having gone through all her training, and become exceptionally good at wielding magic through origami, Xiao Yen feels a duty to her craft and her master, but worries that being a magician, especially a female magician, will leave her terribly isolated from other things she enjoys in life. Finally she is pulled by the lure of romance, with one of the foreigners presenting himself as a possible partner. He's different enough, perhaps he has a chance of accepting her for who she is.

The resolution to all these threads is quite satisfying. It does not seek to impose a solution that might be favored by independently minded Westerners on a fully socialized Asian woman. Instead Xiao Yen seeks and achieves a balance of sorts between the different forces in her life. Her priorities are very different from a Western hero's. She generally eschews great wealth and power, but instead values her own internal and emotional balance. This is a beautiful tale, with a lot to say about different ways that fantasy can be written. It isn't perfect of course; the structural choice of alternating chapters sometimes doesn't synch up particularly well, and one wonders if the tale couldn't have been as well told chronologically. Specifically, the climaxes don't seem to enhance each other the way one would hope. Still, this is a worth read for fantasy fans, especially ones looking for a different perspective on a well-worn genre.

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Future, It Is Now

We're going to be putting a big ol' robot on the Space Station. How amazingly cool is that? Of course, the article in the Houston Chronicle today also contains a bit of "As They See Us:"

"When you see it on the side of the space station, it will look like this giant hood ornament, and the station will never look the same again," said Rick Linnehan, the Endeavour astronaut who is slated to lead the three space walks required to assemble Dextre.

"It's pretty science fiction, really huge," said Linnehan. He's reminded of Gigantor, the animated star of a 1960's American television series that was inspired by the Japanese illustrator Mitsuteru Yokoyama.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

The Clan Corporate, by Charles Stross

The Clan Corporate is book three in Charles Stross' on-going "The Merchant Princes" series. I'm running a bit behind. The fourth book, The Merchant's War is already out. If you have not previously read any books in this series, do not start with this one. This is not the sort of series where you can jump into the middle and understand what's going on. Go back and start properly at the beginning with The Family Trade. However, if you've already been enjoying the series, this book, while taking a turn for the depressing, will be only slightly less enjoyable than its predecessors. It promises many interesting things to come, and I will certainly be continuing with the series.

Although this series uses several plot devices related to the thriller genre, it has been anything but formulaic. It has heavily armed competing factions, but here they are from a different universe than our own, a medieval feudalism. Imagine a society where the merchant class and select nobles have guards armed with kevlar body armor and AK-47s but the general populace doesn't have indoor plumbing. The armaments come from our universe, and the merchants who have genetic world-walking abilities have a sweet set-up. In our world they courier secret documents from the medieval world, safe from any prying eyes. In their world, they ferry illegal drugs around, since they aren't illegal there. Low risk, tons of profit. However, their armaments and money make them a huge threat to the nobility of their universe, and in this book the nobles strike out at them. Meanwhile, in our universe the merchants begin to run afoul of the DEA. The government realizes something much, much more important than mere smuggling is going on. In thriller-ish style the government organizes a response to hunt down the bad guys. However, in real life style, a task force that cuts across several agencies is less than 100% effective. Who has access to what information? Who defines "need to know?" Which employees report to which bosses? Who pays for the building lease? Etc., etc. Most importantly, who gets blamed when things inevitably don't go smoothly? Stross seems to have an intuitive grasp of how bureaucracy works, or more importantly, fails to work. We get to see this series of snafus through the eyes of Mike Fleming, DEA agent and coincidentally, Miriam's ex-boyfriend.

Miriam has been the main character of the series to this point. Although raised in our universe as a tough investigative tech journalist with a background in medicine (slightly typically over-competent thriller heroine), it turns out that she's really a member of the world-walking clan. Once she discovers this, she starts to try to reconcile all the various demands on her: she wants to remain independent, they need her to have more world-walking children. She wants to diversify their trading scheme and bring modernization to their medieval universe, they like things the way they are. At the end of book two it looked like she was making some qualified progress. She'd set up shop in a third universe where the tech was closer to our 19th century and seemed to be reaching some level of accommodation with her world-walking family. In this book she gets seriously smacked down.

It's good that Miriam is less central in this book, because her story gets much darker. We begin to realize that she is not, in fact, the smartest and most capable character in the book, as she would be in a typical thriller. Her family gives her enough rope to hang herself with, and she walks straight into the noose. This leaves her effectively neutralized for most of the book, trapped and unable to make any progress. It even looks like she'll be forced into a child-bearing arrangement, until the ending of this volume throws everything into chaos again.

Stross has made expert use of thriller conventions in several of his books. The entire "Merchant Princes" series draws on that genre, as well as his "Laundry" books,
The Atrocity Archives and Jennifer Morgue. In those he gets to have fun wrapping the Cthulhu mythos into plots straight out of Le Carre and Ian Fleming, all the while remembering that real government bureaucracies track paper clip accounting. In "Merchant Princes," he also gets to include his interest in economic systems. The three universes that we've seen so far have very different political, social, and economic systems. In our world he gets to contrast how the underworld and governmental systems interact in a more realistic way than in your average Tom Clancy novel. In the medieval world he gets to show the real consequences of strictly striated class systems and how they inhibit progress. This contrasts to the background medievalism depicted in many fantasy novels and is over-romanticized in works derived from Tolkein. The third universe has a monarchy with an oppresive state police, but an economy that's only loosely controlled. Miriam quickly sees how she can profit from nudging this system forward technologically, and in this volume we find out that they may already be more advanced than they look. This can be compared to the recent steam-punk type novels from authors such as China Mieville, whose heavily urbanized and squalid worlds have a bizarre and amazing mix of technologies. As always with Stross, his fun, thriller-type novels hide intriguing intellectual exercises under the surface.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Gary Gygax's Passing

I'd like to join the legions of fans mourning Gary Gygax's passing today at the age of 69. Not many folks have made such a monumental change to the social landscape as he did. As a gamer from age 12 on, I will certainly honor his memory. Even though I game with friends online now instead of over a table, and have a computer roll my dice for me, we're still really playing his game.

Rich Burlew over at the Order of the Stick web-comic has posted a fitting tribute.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

The Dreaming Void, by Peter F. Hamilton

This review was originally published in Strange Horizons.

Returning to his Commonwealth universe, first presented in the duology Pandora's Star (2004) and Judas Unchained (2005), Peter Hamilton has now delivered the newest entry in a subgenre I have no choice but to call Fat Science Fiction (FSF, not to be confused with F&SF). Kevin J. Anderson has been taking advantage of this relatively new niche for several years, with his Saga of the Seven Suns, starting with Hidden Empire in 2002. He explicitly set out to bring the sort of thing he enjoys reading in long fantasy series to SF, and one can see its potential in terms of granting an author a large, imaginative canvas. A precursor to this trend might be David Brin. In hindsight his Uplift universe, and particularly the latest trilogy in that universe, had galactic scope, a large number of plots, and significant page counts, although not quite up to The Dreaming Void's level. Between the page count, the legion of viewpoint characters and plots, and the epic scale of his story, Hamilton too is bringing science fiction fans the sort of gigantic texts that have been enthralling fantasy fans for decades.

The size of Peter Hamilton's novels has been gradually increasing over time. His first novel was a normal-sized near-future SF mystery, Mindstar Rising (1992). The second book in what became a trilogy, A Quantum Murder (1994), was similarly themed and sized, but the third book, The Nano Flower (1995), was quite different, bringing in all sorts of out-there not-near-future SF elements, and also being roughly two hundred pages longer (in paperback) than its predecessors. Next up was the more overtly space-operatic Night's Dawn trilogy, each individual book of which was so long that they were split up into three duologies when published in the US. A return to shorter length extrapolative SF with 2003's Misspent Youth (which laid some of the conceptual world building ground work for the later books set in the Commonwealth universe) went more or less unnoticed by a large segment of Hamilton's usual audience. Then came the relatively enormous volumes of Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained, which were not split for the US market, and their sales success, and one might say that Hamilton's course is now firmly set.

This is not a bad thing. There may not be much poetry in The Dreaming Void—mostly the sentences exist to convey information, to fill the spaces between dialogue, and to move the plot from A to B—but one doesn't read Hamilton for the language. One reads his books for the world building and the plots. In this case, the world building is meticulously done, and the epic scope gives Hamilton more than enough room to allow his imagination to run rampant. The Dreaming Void takes place roughly a thousand years after the events of Judas Unchained, and he makes sure that Void's future is much different than that of Judas, more advanced and more tech-magical. The human race has met more aliens, restructured itself politically a few times, and gone through several technological paradigm shifts. For readers who want to see futures that are detailed and lived in, this is a great big playroom of joy. Hamilton's characters come from different class backgrounds, and the multitude of characters allows him to show a broad spectrum of the possibilities available in this society.

Since we last saw them, the oldest human worlds have been losing population and seeing increasing numbers of people migrating into an AI society, ANA. ANA is divided into several factions, each with their own representatives and agendas. Within ANA, humanity is heading towards something like a technological singularity. Outside of that community, people are headed in many different directions. For those still embodied, there are various levels of body modification available, resulting in Naturals, Advancers, and Highers, each with their own set of ethics. You've also got multiples, who share a single consciousness among many different bodies. In this diversity you can see one of Hamilton's great strengths, and the way that the FSF format enables him to showcase his talents. He can show how the progress of technological development will not be monolithic—much as in the present day, we in the West enjoy computers and almost ubiquitous internet access, but many people in developing countries still lack access to reliable electricity. Progress does not progress at the same rate across all of humanity. Often in the past SF has ignored that truth, showing all of humanity existing at roughly the same level of technology at one time (consider Cory Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, or go back to Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End, for instance). This may sometimes stem from a lack of imagination, but it may sometimes stem from a lack of space. If one must concentrate on only one or two major plotlines, one cannot show a wide diversity of technological adaptation. In the epic form, where the more POV characters the merrier, one has the opportunity (still sometimes squandered; really only one POV character here is from the lower economic class, and she quickly uses her native talents to move up in the world) to show a broader range of human experience in the future.

The driving force of this trilogy, though it is rarely center stage, is a cult. Using gaiamote technology, cult members share visions from the First Dreamer, Inigo, and envision a paradise for themselves within the Void at the center of the galaxy. Many alien races have been keeping an eye on this Void, a space surrounded by seemingly impenetrable defenses that has been known to expand and devour solar systems from time to time. As the action of the story starts, the leadership of the cultists decides to take steps towards a massive migration of believers into the Void, and their actions make all the other factions very nervous. The aliens in particular worry that this will cause the Void to enter another expansion phase and destroy the galaxy. They start moving to block the pilgrimage, and thus does our multitude of plots get underway.

That would be enough for a Space Opera, perhaps, but for a Fat Science Fiction story you need more. So you also have people out looking for Inigo, who has gone into hiding from his followers; more than a few people searching for the Second Dreamer, who is sending out new dreams of the Void into the gaiafield; people playing espionage games for the various ANA factions; plus two seemingly unrelated threads. One of these is the story of Edeard, a young boy coming of age in a society that seems feudal, except for its members' rather remarkable genetic engineering capabilities and telepathy. As he grows up and changes come to his town, he discovers that he has unusual powers. The other thread belongs to Amarinta, who on another world has finally gotten a settlement from her ex-husband and is trying to make a go of it as a one-woman real estate developer. As she becomes more successful and confident, she moves through her society experiencing many of the social and sexual behaviors available in this future. So there are multiple quest narratives, some fulfilled at the end and some not, along with two coming of age narratives, for a total of nine major plotlines to keep track of. Structurally this is very similar to many fantasy series, and one simply has to wonder why it took SF this long to really start picking up on that story telling formula. Hamilton makes it look very natural, playing on the strengths of both fatness and SF.

At the beginning of the book, it seems that the Void trilogy will stand apart from the original duology, aside from passing references here and there. After all, in a thousand years history moves on, and even the most worlds-spanning catastrophe fades into the mists of time. That is pre-effective-immortality thinking however, and sooner or later a significant portion of the cast of characters from the duology shows up in The Dreaming Void. I found this a little disappointing. In a future where Hamilton had moved so far forward, realizing what a millennium could really mean in a future where technology is already so far advanced, this seemed like bringing in throwbacks, and also possibly like a sop to fans of the original books. However, their presence isn't overly distracting, and in most cases they are reasonably integrated into the plot lines; and after all, they were some of the best and brightest people around in a time of tumultuous chaos, so they are probably going to be the survivors of history. And they have (mostly) undergone some growth and change in the intervening millennia. Unfortunately, their presence means that this volume doesn't really stand alone at all. In order to really understand the nuances of what's going on, one has to go back and read Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained. Hamilton makes some attempt to recapitulate what the reader needs to know, but in the absence of ridiculously extensive historical infodumps (although there are a few), a new reader will be missing a lot of subtext.

At the end of The Dreaming Void, as the trilogy structure demands, we begin to see how all the plot threads might relate to each other. Some mysteries are solved but many remain, and some characters are left in shameless cliff-hangers. Hamilton is not a novice at this sort of thing. The epic host of characters, the cliff-hangers, and the multivolume doorstopper novels: this is all undeniably commercial, but just because it fits in with a marketing paradigm doesn't make it inherently bad. Science fiction as much or more than fantasy is a literature of imagination, and there is no reason why an author shouldn't use huge series of books to create a galaxy-wide playground for himself and his readers. When done well, it can also have some thematic heft to it.

For instance, here there is a lot of discussion about the effect of the pilgrimage on the Void. The alien Riel have been observing the Void for millions of years, having suffered losses the last time it went through an expansion phase. Other aliens, and now humans, have joined them in a multilateral observation effort that spans eons. None of them have been able to penetrate the boundaries of the Void—every probe sent has been destroyed, and none have sent back any useful information. There are many theories as to why: black holes at the center, an alien refuge from which intruders are repelled, or even some sort of paradise. None of these theories has garnered any empirical evidence. The only new thing that is known is that at some point, a human ship went into the Void, and after that the dreamers, led first by Inigo, began dreaming of life on a planet within the Void, apparently peopled by the descendants of that expedition ship. Are the dreams real proof of existence on the other side of the boundary? Are they a trick? A test? A hoax? No one can say for sure. So when it comes to the cultists' efforts to move their entire population of believers, numbering well over a millions souls, into the Void, no one knows exactly what will happen. But some of the alien species will fight to the death to prevent it, whatever it is. Mostly they are afraid that an action that dramatic will spawn another expansion phase, dooming thousands of worlds, but again there is no proof that will happen. No one knows what, if anything, caused the last cataclysm. No one knows what may set off another one. The arguments must go on without an accurate predictive model.

All of which seems to be rather cutting commentary on some of the scientific/political dilemmas of today (think of the analogy to global warming, for instance). But this isn't the first time Hamilton has used cultists to drive the action of his stories: in the duology it was the Starflyer cult who kept watch on invisible alien conspiracies that no one else could see. Now there are the Dreamers. True believers have always had a role in history, and it will be interesting to see how these cultists will be portrayed in the next two volumes. Will true belief be rewarded, or will true gullibility be punished? Hamilton does an excellent job of making his universe interesting enough, and his characters empathetic enough, that we will tune in once again to find out the answers to these big questions. It may be commercial, but it is also good craft.

The Fat SF story structure does give an author a lot of room to stretch his or her creative legs, and I suspect that we'll be seeing much more of this sort of thing in years to come. The Fat SF novel shares some qualities with the shelf-dominating media tie-in series novels: both present a consistent universe that can be enjoyed for a long time, with empathetic characters that the readers come to know and care about. FSF books don't have the built-in audience that the tie-in novels come with, but they are free of some of the tie-in constraints: not having to follow an existing canon means that an author can inject more suspense into a tale, and has the liberty to put major characters in real jeopardy, something that the media novels can very rarely do.

So as with all approaches to literature, FSF has its upsides and its downsides. However, it seems to complement Peter Hamilton's specific strengths well. It allows large-scale world building and provides a broad canvas for his imagination. His prose, while not inspired, moves the reader quickly through the different plots, making eight hundred pages of reading seem less onerous, while having the plots spread out over so many viewpoint characters distracts the reader from noticing that perhaps not all the characters are as three-dimensional as they could be. Obviously not every author would get the same benefits out of this kind of framework. Still, for those like Hamilton who have the imaginative volume to fill up this kind of page count (without becoming tedious), it's a framework that seems destined for success.