Comparing Brazee’s Fire Ant to Kowal’s The Calculating Stars

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For readers following along, I’ve just finished reviewing the works on the ballot as finalists for the 2018 Nebula Award. When I started looking at patterns, I noticed that many of the authors used similar literary devices and plotlines. I’d like to take a closer look at a couple of these. In the first comparison, Jonathan Brazee and Mary Robinette Kowal have used the same plotline to write their books on the ballot this year, while expressing completely different worldviews in the results. I thought it would be interesting to have a look at what they’ve started with, what they’ve done with it, and how this affects the message they’re sending with their books.

Here’s how the plotline goes: There’s a threat to the survival of the human race. A minority woman who happens to be a pilot is front and center for the threat, and as a result gets an opportunity to advance her skills and experience in order to be instrumental in saving the human race.

Brazee’s heroine is Floribeth Salinas O’Shea Dalisay. Her name suggests mixed racial ancestry: O’Shea is of Irish origin, Salinas is Hispanic and Dalisay is Tagalog/Filipino. Floribeth seems to be from an humble background, and she works hard so she can send money home to her family. When she encounters an alien spacecraft, she uses her wits and skill to survive and escape. The company she works for refuses to believe her story and fines her for damages to their equipment. However, word gets out, and Floribeth is approached by government officials who offer her a chance to enter the Royal Navy as a pilot. Floribeth takes the chance and goes through the training. When she does poorly in the first live exercise, she acknowledges the damage to her reputation, but doesn’t let it affect her drive and belief in herself. She ignores snide comments about her qualifications and concentrates on doing her job. She goes on to heroically rescue a member of her unit as a last ditch effort in a real firefight with the aliens.

Kowal’s heroine is Elma York, a Jewish woman from a comfortable background with PHDs in physics and math. She has wartime experience as a pilot and works as a human computer for NACA, the space administration where her husband Nathaniel also works as an aerospace engineer. When a meteor strikes the Northeastern US and threatens life on Earth, NACA starts an accelerated program to develop space flight and establish a colony on the moon. Elma’s PHDs are aimed at research and teaching, but she has applied for a job well below her qualifications. She suffers from panic attacks when asked to make presentations of her work in public, takes tranquilizers and hides to puke in the bathroom. When her husband asks her to help him with a presentation before Congress, she totally freezes up and leaves him to labor through it alone. While the people around her try to give her opportunities to promote her abilities and expertise, Elma complains constantly about discrimination in the space program. When the astronaut corps is opened to women, she applies and is accepted. Once there, she carps about other women being advanced above her and bullies others in the group she feels are less qualified than she is. When an emergency arises, Elma successfully demonstrates her ability to make complex mathematical calculations in her head and is installed as pilot on the upcoming moon launch.

So, what do the writers mean to accomplish with these works? Brazee’s book has a very positive, you-can-do-it vibe. We get to follow along with Floribeth as she experiences terror in space and anger at the company. Then, given the opportunity, she takes risks and builds on her skills. She is rewarded by success and warm acceptance into her naval unit. On the other hand, Kowal’s book is meant to provoke anger at how Elma and her minority friends are mistreated by the society around them. We’re led to believe that Elma’s activism makes the space program more accepting of women, and that she ought to be recognized for her brilliance and promoted regardless of her poor career performance. Kowal has written the book as an alternate reality, drawing on real historical documents and events that blur the line between fiction and real history, and produced a very slanted story that serves as a condemnation of NASA and the US Apollo program.

Which is more fun to read? That depends on your reading taste, of course. If you want to read a success story in a universe that doesn’t discriminate based on sex or minority status, then choose Brazee’s work. It’s experiential and leaves you with a nice warm feeling that Floribeth is going to make everything okay, regardless of the huge hurdles in front of her. If you want to get angry about how women and minorities might have been treated at the end of World War II, then read Kowal’s work, which provides fictionalized examples designed to provoke you. (One note about this: It’s not that I don’t think the US space program was discriminatory in the 20th century, but any analysis of the program should include a look at World War II, the Cold War and the politics and huge societal changes that took place during these years.)

And last, which of these women characters is a better role model for young women considering military, technical or science careers? Elma and her paralyzing anxiety about performance, or Floribeth and her I-can-do-it attitude?

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Review of Echopraxia by Peter Watts

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This is Book #2 of the Firefall series, sequel to the Hugo finalist Blindsight. It was released by Tor Books in August, 2014, and runs 384 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Daniel Brüks is a biologist and a baseline human, which is a serious anachronism at the end of the 21st century. He’s collecting samples in the Oregon desert, looking for baseline DNA, when he gets caught up in a firefight between the hive-mind Bicameral monks and a squad of zombie soldiers. He wakes onboard a spaceship, along with some Bicamerals, a female vampire Valerie, a couple of her zombie bodyguards, and various transhumans including the pilot Sengupta, looking for the man responsible for her wife’s death, a friendly jargonaut Liana Lutterodt, and an old soldier Jim Moore who lost his son Siri on the Theseus expedition. The Bicamerals seem to have a plan and Brüks is stuck going along. They travel to the Icarus power station, where they find an alien slime infesting the facility. Brüks takes samples and investigates its biology. Too late, he realizes it’s intelligent and trying to capture humans as biological samples of its own. Most of the crew is lost, but Brüks, Moore and Sengupta manage to undock from the station and escape. They find that Valerie has fastened onto the outside of the ship, but expect reentry into Earth’s atmosphere will burn her up. Can they make it back alive? What will humanity do without Icarus station?

This book continues in the same vein as Blindsight. The plot is thin, and most of the pages are taken up with theme and discussion. I didn’t get the feeling of alienness from this book like I did from Blindsight. Instead, this seems to be about God, the nature of transhumanity, the blind success of evolution and how everyone eventually becomes extinct through natural selection. This may all seem fantastical, but Watts has written an addendum at the end that includes references for all the science behind the story. It’s kind of scary that this really is a projection from research and ideas already out there in the human knowledge base.

On the negative side, I didn’t like any of these people. Plus, this novel suffers even more from the high density, disturbing quality and poor readability that went on in Blindsight. The description isn’t really descriptive, as it tends to metaphor, and I ended up without any idea what these people look like and not much better idea of what the ship looks like, even though most of the story takes place within it. Readability is so poor that a quick Google suggests most readers didn’t understand the ending. Huge spoiler alert here: Brüks thinks he dealt with the problem, but he’s infected, and he’s about to be the agent that infects every living thing on Earth. (In my humble opinion, of course.)

Again, this gets a good score for the science and the ideas, but not for the execution.

Four stars.

Review of “The Colonel” by Peter Watts

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This novelette was released by Tor.com in July of 2014. It’s hard SF, serves as a bridge between Watts’ novels Blindsight and Echopraxia and features some of the same characters as Echopraxia. This review may contain spoilers.

Colonel Jim Moore has lost his son Siri on the Theseus expedition and his wife Helen has retreated to existence in Heaven, a repository that links human minds for computing, while allowing residents their own virtual landscape. Moore is in charge of monitoring private hived human intelligences, and is awakened to a threat when one of these attacks a commercial compound in Ecuador. He approaches Dr. Liana Lutterodt, a representative of the Bicameral hive he suspects is behind the attack, and she gives him a copy of a faint transmission that may have come from Theseus. Should he conduct a military op against the Bicamerals? Or should he hold off and try to get more info from them about his son?

As usual with Watts’ work, the projection and world building are way out there, and his vision is of humanity post-singularity. He’s definitely a 5 on the Ideation Scale with the question of whether we might actually link consciousnesses to produce a human super brain. There’s a bit of furry interest here to humanize the story. Moore has taken in an abused and mutilated feline named Zephyr that lives mostly alone in their apartment with an automated kibble dispenser. When the Colonel comes home, he works on cutting down the distance he can approach before Zephyr runs to hide. Talk about loneliness and estrangement…

This story moves along fairly smartly. Because of its length, Watts is unable to make the lengthy digressions that slow down Blindsight and Echopraxia, so the readability score goes way up. There’s not much plot here, either, but it does seem to be enough for a story of this length. There’s no real ending because it leads directly into the events of Echopraxia, but it’s satisfying enough, and I’m sure it served well as promotion for the novel’s release. The prose and the science are still a little dense—I had to check a couple of definitions to find out the Ecuadorian compound is likely a pharmaceutical plant.

Four and a half stars.

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.

Review of The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts

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This work is a short novel/novella, published by Tachyon Publications on June 12, 2018. It’s science fiction about space exploration and runs 192 pages. Watts is a multi-award winner and in 2010 received the Hugo Award for Best Novelette for “The Island.” This story takes place in the same ship, but apparently at an earlier time. This review may contain spoilers.

Eriophora is a black hole starship. It resembles an asteroid with a singularity in its belly, and it’s operated by an AI called Chimp. It has a human crew of 30K people carried in a state of suspended animation. The ship’s mission is to explore the galaxy, find acceptable locations for wormhole gates and then to build the gates. The mission is expected to extend until the ship runs out of resources, billions of years into the future, so Mission Control has set up safeguards for different eventualities. The AI Chimp has limited capabilities and reanimates human crew units for short periods of time when it needs higher intellectual capability or human judgement. This means the crew does not age except when they are on deck to deal with problems, and drain on life support resources is minimal. Several billion years into the mission, crewmember Lian Wei has a crisis of faith and begins to feel the human crew are only slaves to the AI. She fakes her own death, hides in the oxygen-producing forest, and begins to recruit revolutionaries to break free. One of these recruits is Sunday Ahzmundin. Sunday has a special relationship with Chimp, so she is conflicted about undermining the AI, but she ultimately agrees with Lian that humans need to be in charge of the mission. Over a period of thousands of years, about 30 revolutionaries leave encrypted messages for one another, learn to track Chimp’s movements around the ship and come up with a plan to destroy it. The plan fails, and Sunday realizes that Chimp is not what it seems. Is there a way forward?

So, this is pretty brilliant. I see the book advertised as hard SF, and it does have that feel. In the acknowledgements, Watts notes that anything this far in the future is basically “handwavium,” but that he made serious efforts at research to make it sound like it was real science. He’s made that rare effort, real projection of what humanity might be up to millions of years into the future, and actually managed to produce the traditionalist’s sense of wonder about the vastness of Spacetime. The characters and setting here are well-developed, and the plot has a lot of depth. Item of note, Eri is an Africa group of the Igbo people, and their founder was supposed to come to earth in a spacecraft to teach civilization to the people.

On the negative side, Watts doesn’t describe his narrator until he’s 1/4 of the way through, meaning I’ve squandered a lot of imagination making up the wrong mental picture. Also, this work assumes an affinity for science, and basic understanding of space exploration and singularities. Watts sketches in the basics, but doesn’t explain, which will likely put off a lot of readers. Unfortunately, that’s the risk of writing awesome hard SF.

Five stars.

Review of Ant Man and the Wasp

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This film was written by the team of Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Paul Rudd, Andrew Barrer and Gabriel Ferrari and directed by Peyton Reed. It was produced by Marvel Studios and distributed by Walt Disney Pictures, released to theaters on 6 July 2018. It is the second in this series, a sequel to the 2015 Ant-Man, and stars Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Peña, Randall Park, Michelle Pfeiffer, Laurence Fishburne and Michael Douglas.

After the events of Captain America: Civil War, Scott Lang is under house arrest. He works hard at being a better father to his daughter, hoping to successfully finish up his sentence and take a fuller role in the X-Con security business he’s founded with his buddies Luis, Dave and Kurt. Just a few days before the house arrest is due to end, Hank Pym and his daughter Hope, while hiding out from the FBI, manage to open a tunnel to the quantum realm. Janet van Dyne contacts Scott. Against his better judgement, he calls Pym, thus getting himself involved in a new mission to rescue Janet. Hope kidnaps Lang from his house and tries to buy parts from black market dealer Sonny Burch, but is attacked by quantum ghost Ava Starr, who makes off with Pym’s portable lab. Pym contacts his old enemy Bill Foster for help in finding the lab, but Foster turns out to be helping Ava. He’s hoping they can use Janet’s quantum energy to stabilize Ava’s existence. The FBI is in hot pursuit. Can Hank rescue Janet? Can Bill fix Ava? Can Scott evade the FBI? Can the X-Con security startup get off the ground?

This is a fairly complex plot with lots of moving parts. Rescuing Janet is a serious long shot, and Hank and Hope are heavily invested in getting her back. As the obstacles and complications build up, the action gets more and more intense. On top of that, this is a great comedy team. It took a while for the first Ant-Man film to hit its stride, and they were about half way through before the comedy really jelled. For this film, they’ve already got a smooth-working unit, and it’s clear the script is filled with material for them to work with. Peña, Park and Lang especially stand out, and Douglas, Lilly and Fishburne cooperate as great straight guys. Reed makes maximum use of the talent he’s got in the cast, turning one of Marvel’s only so-so characters into a fun, goofy romp through different realities.

The special effects are worth a mention here. For anyone who’s missed the origin story, Pym is a master of scale. Ant-Man and the Wasp have suits that will make them instantaneously larger or smaller. Scott’s suit isn’t working that well in this film, but Hope’s works great. This makes the fight scenes and car chases an eye-popping sequence of strategies with scale. There are various animated ants marauding about, too.

This film isn’t terribly thoughtful, but it is highly entertaining. It’s also got that old touch-of-wonder that manages to romanticize quantum physics. There’s a final post-credits scene that ties it to The Avengers: Infinity War.

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.

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