Review of Blindsight by Peter Watts

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I enjoyed The Freeze Frame Revolution, so I thought I’d try a couple of Watt’s older novels. Blindsight is Book #1 of the Firefall Series. It was released by Tor in October 2006 and runs 294 pages. It is seriously hard SF and was a finalist for the Hugo Award in 2007. This review contains spoilers.

In 2082 a mysterious array circles the Earth and flashes, seemingly taking readings of some kind. Then an old space probe picks up a signal from a distant comet. Earth sends out fresh probes, then mounts an expedition, sending a live crew of transhumans on the ship Theseus to investigate. They include a super-intelligent vampire recreated by paleogenetics, a linguist with multiple personalities, and a combat specialist, a biologist and a synthesist augmented with electronic implants. There are other crew in ship’s storage in case of loss. The ship’s AI bypasses the comet and follows the signal to the Oort Cloud, where the crew wakes from hibernation to find a gas giant too small to ignite into a star, orbited by some massive artifact under construction. They board the artifact and take “samples” of the alien life forms, bring them back to Theseus and try to analyze their biology, intelligence and use of language. Quickly they find themselves under a terrifying counterattack. Can they destroy the alien artifact? Get word of what they’ve found back to Earth?

I’ve been asking for science fiction with more ideas. So, here it is. The plot in this novel mainly serves as a vehicle for theme and discussion, and the main theme seems to be alienness. Our protagonist is Siri Keeton, the synthesist, who lost half his brain to a childhood illness and had it replaced with electronics. He experiences no emotion and has no feel for real social interactions, mimicking behavior patterns instead. The other crew members are also radically different from baseline humans, and the aliens on the artifact are orders of magnitude different. We get some character development as background for the crew, but this serves mainly to point out the pressures and results of transhuman advancement. There is also an ongoing discussion on the nature of intelligence and consciousness.

Negatives: The worst problem here is with readability. The plot is actually very thin for the length of the novel, and Watts fills up the pages mostly with description and discussion. This makes the narration very dense and the story hard to get into. There’s no fun or adventure here; it’s all very cerebral, nihlist and disturbing–I had higher hopes for the future of humanity. Watts tends to belabor the points, too, forcing the characters to come to them in successive stages. As he points out in the acknowledgements, these are hardly warm, fuzzy characters, either, which makes it hard to care about what he’s saying. He gets points for brilliance in the ideas, but loses audience on the execution.

Four stars.

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Review of Souls and Hallows by S.R. Algernon

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Souls and Hallows is S.R. Algernon’s second collection of short stories, released November 1, 2018, by ReAnimus Press. Algernon was a Hugo award finalist in 2016 with the short story “Asymmetrical Warfare.” This new collection runs 342 pages.

There’s something to be said about the short story form. This isn’t normally a hugely profitable venture for the writer, but it does provide particular opportunities. Short stories allow busy writers to explore thoughts that might not be workable for a full novel, or maybe small meanings that reveal themselves suddenly. A well-developed short story can broaden our horizons, tug at our heart-strings or tickle us with humor. It can also provide for psychological investigations.

As with Algernon’s last release, you get a lot for your money here, including 36 short stories, some previously published and some brand new. As usual, these tend toward the thoughtful and psychological rather than the emotional, and offer a lot of variety in style, genre and subject matter. The collection is divided up into themes, including Spirits, Ghosts in the Machine, Creatures and Creations, and From Outer Space. Standouts for me include “The Eye of the Gods” where residents of a world come to term with their gods, “The Palimpsest Planet” where a extremophile planetary scout tries to rescue the residents, “A Nose for Emily” about a pair of augmented reality glasses looking for a human host, and “One Slow Step for Man” about microscopic tardigrades that take over a colonization effort.

As with Algernon’s last collection, I was impressed with his willingness to write stories about alien characters and environments. The stories often include a dry, ironic humor. On the other hand, I didn’t get much in the way of strong imagery or description of the settings, and the characters tended to be a little flat, without much in the way of background or emotional depth. This meant the stories were a little shorter and had a little less to say than what they could have presented.

Three and a half stars.

Review of Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse

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This is a fantasy novel released by Saga Press/Simon and Schuster in June 2018. An upcoming second novel in the Sixth World series, titled Storm of Locusts, is due for release April 23, 2019.

The Sixth World has dawned. Magical walls have arisen to enclose Dinétah, ancestral home of the Diné (Navajo), which protect it from the devastation of the Great Water outside. However, the Sixth World has brought the ancient powers back to life. Maggie Hoskie is a monster hunter, especially outfitted for combat by her clan powers and taken as apprentice by the immortal Neizghání, son of Changing Woman and the Sun. Now Maggie feels abandoned, as she hasn’t seen Neizghání in over a year. Locals desperate for help enlist her aid in killing a child-stealing monster, which sets her on the trail of whatever witch created it. When she consults her friend Tah, he recommends his grandson Kai Arviso to work as her partner. The two of them follow the witch’s trail through empty towns, to a tournament to the death and onto Black Mesa, where Maggie’s dreams warn her of failure and death. Can she find and overcome the witch behind the monsters? Can she deal with the evil inside herself?

So, Maggie is pretty tough. She is outfitted with an old pickup truck, a shotgun she carries in a holster, a good-sized Boker knife, obsidian and silver throwing blades, and a bandoleer of shells filled with obsidian and corn pollen. She has a dog pack, too, but they look to be pretty worthless at monster hunting. Kai is a sweetie with a silver tongue, and when that doesn’t work, he’s pretty good at healing and weather work. Because of Maggie’s slash-and-burn tactics, this starts off on a horrific note and continues with considerable violence. Kai does his best, but Maggie is resistant to healing. Still, she’s eventually forced to face her pathological issues and deal with at least a few of them.

This is reasonably character driven, but there’s more emphasis on the plot than on deep character development. I’d like to have had a bit more world building, more imagery related to the countryside, more ordinary people, and a feel for some of the everyday magic that must be present in the Sixth World. Given the clan powers Maggie and Kai have, this must be a fairly complex place.

On the pro side, Roanhorse is pretty good with symbolism, which makes Neizghání both Maggie’s idol and her nemesis. Kai is her opposite, his healing powers versus her thirst for blood. By the end, we’ve achieved at least a temporary balance.

Four stars.

Review of Incredibles 2 

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This is an animated film written and directed by Brad Bird, starring Holly Hunter, Craig T. Nelson and Samuel T. Jackson. It was produced by Pixar, distributed by Walt Disney Pictures, and released to theaters June 15, 2018. This is the second animated film in this series. For anyone who missed it, the first film titled The Incredibles was released in 2004. This review contains major spoilers.

This film picks up right where the last one left off. The Parr family are “Supers” who are hiding out under a government enforced program of secret identities called the Super Relocation Program. The Underminer bores into the Metroville Bank and the Parr family (a.k.a. The Incredibles) tries to stop him from vacuuming all the money out of the vault. There’s a lot of property damage but they fail to stop the robbery. This leads to bad press. Man-in-Black Rick Dickers informs the Parrs that the Super Relocation Program has been discontinued, which means, at this point, they’re on their own in maintaining their secret identities. The program will only pay for two more weeks at a motel, so the family is facing homelessness. Bob and Helen are approached by media mogul Winston Deavor and his sister Evelyn, who admire superheroes and want to launch a media campaign featuring Elastigirl to get them back to work on stopping crime. Bob agrees to watch the three kids, Dash, Violet and baby Jack-Jack, while Helen takes the job. This turns out to be more than Bob bargained for, as he has to deal with math homework, budding romance and Jack-Jack’s emerging powers. He gets support from his buddy Frozone and super-costume designer Edna Mode. Meanwhile, Helen finds her job isn’t what she thought. Can Bob and Helen figure out what’s going on? Can the kids save the day again?

So, Brad Bird made his point about superheroes hiding out in the first film, and the messages here are a little different, leaning heavily to the adult philosophical. Some of it comes out in straightforward conversations between Helen and tech talent Evelyn, and between Helen and Bob, while more of it is embedded in the characters and plotline.

Message #1: Can you help people too much? Evelyn thinks superheroes make everyone weak and unable to fix their own problems, while, as a Super, Helen thinks it’s right to help people in any way she can. When asked what people really want, Evelyn thinks it’s always ease over quality, and to be taken care of by Supers, which will lead to disaster. Again, I’m not the greatest on ideologies, but this looks like libertarianism vs. socialism with some overtones of Social Darwinism. How much should we help others? Does too much help really keep people from reaching success on their own?

Message #2: What should you do if laws are wrong? If laws are immoral, is it more right to follow the rules or to break the rules? Helen decides on breaking the law to appear as Elastigirl, with the hope her actions will bring about a change in government policy.

Message #3: Role reversals are tricky. Everybody needs to respect the jobs other people do to make the world run—especially moms. Bob really struggles through the family thing, but eventually gets it under control.

Message #4: Beware of social media. Evelyn turns out to be a social media activist. In her role as Screenslaver, she hypnotizes anyone who looks into her screens and forces them to become her minions in a bid to destroy the Supers. Besides this, Winston looks suspiciously like someone who recently testified before the US Congress about the use of social media in the last US presidential election.

Highly recommended. High five on the Ideation Scale.

Five stars.

The Incredibles, an Elitist Skreed?

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When I was reading the press leading up to the release of Incredibles 2, I was (and also wasn’t) surprised to find that The Incredibles (2004) was apparently criticized as elitist because of the message it sends.

The Incredibles (a.k.a. the Parr family) are all “Supers,” that is, people with talents that make them different. Mr. Incredible is super strong and fast: Elastigirl is stretchy: Dash is really fast, and Violet can become invisible and project force fields. Because of government policy, they are required to bury their talents and to adhere to secret identities and live as ordinary people. The kids have grown up under this program, and are surprised that mom and dad, when things get dire, expect them to step up and perform as superheroes. Syndrome, the villain of the story, means to sell inventions that will make everyone super, so everybody will be the same. As I interpreted this, the message to kids is: Don’t hide out; step up and learn to use your own talents for the good of society.

So, is this message really elitist? Where did it come from leading up to 2004? And why did writer/director Brad Bird feel it was necessary to say this in a children’s animation film? Everyone is supposed to be equal under the law, of course, and democratic ideals say that everyone should be respected the same regardless of race, creed, talent or color. But does that mean everyone should be an ordinary interchangeable cog in the great machine of society?

There’s some background here: For anyone who isn’t aware of how the Bush era No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 was interpreted, it meant the US educational system should work for equal outcomes from all students—no one should have undue advantage or disadvantage. The Act set minimum standards and required that schools spend their time and resources to bring all children up to this level, but no further. In some states, funding for gifted programs was cut by 90% as a result. Schools shifted to achieving the mediocrity of minimum scores. Add to this the tendency of children to persecute anyone who is different, and the result was that talented kids were hiding out left and right, without any avenue to discover and develop their talents. All the emphasis in the public schools is still pretty much on achieving minimum performance, and anyone who stands out is pretending they are better than everyone else. Right?

So, what do we do about the fact that people really do have individual talents? Some people are world-class athletes and some are Pulitzer Prize-winning authors and some are Nobel Prize-winning scientists. If you try to substitute a scientist for a ball player, then there’s going to be a problem. Right? And if you try to dump all those kids who have been encouraged to adhere to minimum standards into a job market, then there’s going to be a problem there, too. Right?

But then, maybe I’m wrong. Surely it’s elitist to look for the best job candidate.

Ahhh. Okay. Now I feel better.

Next, a review of Incredibles 2.

More on Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140

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Looking back at Kim Stanley Robinson’s body of work, I get the idea that he’s sort of interested in the idea of engineering both social and environmental problems, and that he thinks these two areas are heavily intertwined in producing threats to the future of humanity. Most people won’t want to commit to the intellectual exercise of slogging through all 600 pages of the teensy font and slow-moving plot in New York 2140 to unpack his ideas, so I’m going to summarize some of it here and ask for discussion. This summary includes major spoilers, of course.

Robinson’s first economics lesson is on the tyranny of sunk costs. This means the money already invested in putting New York City where it is and adding utilities, infrastructure and population. Because of this, nobody wants to move it somewhere else when the tide starts rolling up Wall Street and into the Theatre District. Instead, everybody copes.

Change is definitely coming in the next century, regardless of your political persuasion. Robinson has suggested methods for dealing with the need for different housing and transportation methods as sea levels rise and fossil fuels near exhaustion. This includes a return to airships and clippers ships, plus solar power and villages floating both in the air and on the water. Building methods make a difference. Because many of the NYC buildings are anchored into bedrock, they will continue to stand and be usable, like a new Venice, but buildings built on a slab won’t do this. (That’s just for informational purposes. See also Miami Beach, which continues to stand through major hurricanes while cheap development housing washes away.)

It’s clear Robinson thinks the recent US propensity for uncontrolled capitalism is the cause of a number of social ill, and a couple of his schemes relate to bringing this under control. First, he mentions in passing that people should be housed vertically, rather than in the spread out single-family developments currently popular in the US. This is already implemented in Europe, which has high population density. I was there in the 1990s and saw it then. A recent trip confirmed the continued policy. In Germany, for example, it’s really hard to get a permit to build a single family home outside of a city–though it is fairly easy to get a permit to renovate old buildings. Plus, home mortgages are really expensive and hard to get. Therefore, most of the population stays in vertical housing, allowing for extensive farms, parks and woodlands. Amsterdam has about 800K people and about 900K bicycles. The main streets consist of a bicycle lane, a car lane, and a tram lane. The cars will stop for you to cross but the bikes won’t. In contrast to this, many towns and cities in the US encourage extensive development of farm and woodlands to increase revenue from real estate taxes, while having no public transportation at all. As buildings age, they are abandoned for new development, leaving urban blight in the central cities. This system of constant new development generates wealth, but is really bad for local ecologies, and also the people trapped in the blight, who have little access to jobs and services and are therefore unproductive and need lots of police and social services.

Robinson’s next question is, whose fault is this? He thinks it’s government policy, of course, because government is owned by capitalists. It looks like he’s still steaming about the Bush recession of 2008. For anyone who wasn’t paying attention, this was brought on by the sub-prime mortgage crisis, and because of automation, bank controls and globalization trends, it resulted in a “jobless recovery.” This is what current President Trump is trying to change with his negotiations in trade policy. However, Robinson thinks the people, a.k.a. the democracy, should have demanded a different response in 2008. The financial crisis caused major failures in large corporations in the US, especially financial firms on Wall Street, similar to the Great Depression. The Obama administration took over trying to fix things, as Bush’s term was up. The government tried to just let the market handle things, which is what capitalists always say should be done, but it quickly became clear this would destroy both the US and the world economies. In other words, some of these firms are just “too big to let fail.” The government bailed out banks and Wall Street firms with taxpayer money, which Robinson thinks was never fully paid back. In other words, this was a huge transfer of wealth from the US middle and working class to the wealthy. Robinson thinks the government should have bought the companies instead and nationalized the financial firms, which would have generated a considerable profit for the taxpayers. He’s suggesting the voters insist on this the next time around.

Besides that, I get the impression Robinson has no patience with amateurs who mess with animal migrations and habitats. His air-headed Cloud star is a real eye-roller.

Recommended.

Putting the Ideation Scale to Work – Rating the 2018 Hugo finalists

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If you’ve followed the last couple of blogs, you’ll know that I’ve developed an Ideation Scale to rate SFF stories as “the literature of ideas.” In this post, I’m going to have a look at the Hugo finalists. Since we have no winners at this date, I’ll just have to pick out the works I think stand out for their ideas. Here’s the scale:

1 Our heads are empty
2 Political message fiction
3 Rehash of common themes
4 Decent points here
5 World shaking ideas

Best Novel
The clear heavyweight here is New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson. If I could squish this into the mold, I’d call it hard SF because Robinson has analyzed social, environmental and economic problems and offered real world solutions. It does lack engineers and clanking technology, though, so it’s a tough fit for what’s normally called hard SF. Still, the concepts are first rate, so this is the five star world-shaking-idea winner. None of the other finalists really stand out for ideas. I have to give Scalzi a mention for doing his homework on plausible science for The Collapsing Empire, but the story is a political intrigue without much in the way of different ideas. It scores an average 3.

Best Novella
We’re looking at the same list here as in the Nebula with only a couple of differences. I’ve already awarded “And Then There Were (N-One)” by Sarah Pinsker a three and a half. Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor gets a mention for being about racism and dealing with change. Again, three and a half. Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire gets a mention for framing the conflict between good and evil as a battle between death by vampirism and life via STEM. Nothing earth-shaking but worth three and a half stars.

Best Novelette
More repeats of the Nebula list here. Again, I have to mention “Wind Will Rove” by Sarah Pinsker, which was about whether or not we need history and how we can be frozen by tradition into refusing innovation. It gets 4 stars.

Best Short Story
This is again very similar to the Nebula finalists. “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian ExperienceTM” is a political message, so it gets 2 stars. “Sun, Moon, Dust” by Ursula Vernon turns the usual epic fantasy message upside down, where the farmer refuses his chance to become a heroic warrior in order to tend to his crops. Three and a half stars.

Next, a wrap up of the ratings.

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