Review of The Consuming Fire by John Scalzi

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This book is science fiction, released by Tor Books on 16 October 2018. It’s Book #2 of the Interdependency Series and runs 320 pages. The Collapsing Empire, Book #1 of the series, was a finalist for a Hugo Award in 2018. This review contains spoilers.

This book picks up immediately where The Collapsing Empire leaves off. Flow physicist Marce Claremont is offering his father’s research for review, which predicts the collapse of the Flow streams in the very near future. This will mean that transportation and commerce along these pathways will soon also fail. The only habitable planet in the Empire is End, and the various space habitats will soon be isolated. There is already a civil war going on for control of End. Emperox Grayland II is having prophetic visions about the collapse, which is convincing to the public, but not the Church hierarchy or the nobility. Grayland is planning to put Nadashe Nohamapetan on trial for treason for attempted assassination of the emperox, and has assigned Kiva Lagos as caretaker of her estate. Meanwhile, the Wu family is plotting with the Countess Nohamapetan to take over the throne. Claremont’s data attracts a challenge from Flow physicist Hatide Roynold. The two of them put their work together and predict the Flow will reestablish after a period of instability, which has already reopened a path to the lost Dalasysla habitat. The Emporox sends an expedition there to check for survivors, and Claremont is surprised to find evidence the Flow was manipulated in the past to isolate the Empire. Meanwhile more streams are failing. Can Grayland II keep control of the Empire? How can she plan for the future?

Like The Collapsing Empire, this is a quick, entertaining read. Scalzi’s strong point is in the plotting and the politics, where he plays the different factions against one another in a cat and mouse game for power and influence. The dialog tends to the snappy and cynical, and the nobility comes off as self-absorbed and somewhat hedonistic. The power players are mostly women and Emperox Grayland II shows considerable growth in this installment, moving from an inexperienced girl to a woman controlling the reins of power.

On the not so great side, this is all brash, surface-level entertainment, which means there’s no depth in the characters. The snappy dialog really is great in producing interesting players, but then Scalzi treats them as expendable—don’t get attached to any of them. Kiva Lagos seems almost a caricature, and her sexual exploits seem slyly contrived as a hook for some readers. Also on the negative side, Scalzi hasn’t done much in the way of projection into the future. We meet a couple of advanced AIs, but most of the population is still using “computers” and “tablets” the same way we do now. Surely a space-going population like this would have better technology.

A fun read, but not much depth. Three and a half stars.

Review of Death’s End by Cixin Liu

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Okay, I’m finally done with this novel. It’s a finalist for the 2017 Hugo Award, translated by Ken Liu and published by Tor. It runs about 600 pages.

Cheng Xin is an aerospace scientist. The Earth has been in contact with the Trisolarians and has benefited from their science, while a program of dark forest deterrence ensures the two civilizations will respect one another. The Trisolarian fleet is on the way to Earth, and scientists there send out a probe with the brain of the cancer patient Yun Tianming. Cheng Xin goes into hibernation and wakes to find the probe has gone missing and the deterrence Swordholder Luo Ji is retiring. Cheng Xin is elected the new Swordholder, but when the Trisolarians launch an invasion, she falters, setting the human race up for extermination. A backup system on an interstellar ship acts, and the Trisolarians flee. This it to no avail, as their home world is destroyed by a dark forest strike against their sun. The interaction also exposes the Earth’s position to dark forest cleansers. A surprise contact with Yun Tianming provides possible defenses against a strike, so scientists start to prepare. Will the human race be ready in time?

This is a narration that crosses centuries to the end of time, addressing Earth’s attempt to join the community of outer space and the challenges that have to be overcome. It’s a tour de force of theory and ideas, as Liu imagines threats and technical responses on a grand scale. There’s probably still a lot lost in the translation, but some of the elegance of Liu’s prose comes through in this novel. His imagery is front and center this time, including descriptions of technical matters and some moments that are just for pure enjoyment. It’s definitely hard SF, as the problems, solutions and developments are all based on hard scientific theory.

On the negative side, Liu’s characterizations still tend to be weak, as he’s clearly more interested in the historical sweep and the technical details. Cheng Xin feels passive and doesn’t seem personally involved in any of the conflicts. I can’t see why people defer to her, as she seems to have no particular authority and tends to pass off responsibility or obligation. I suspect this might be a Chinese view of modesty and selflessness, but I think she needs a stronger power base in order to be the main protagonist.

Four and a half stars. Recommended.

NOTE: The dark forest is explained in the previous volume of this series, titled, appropriately, The Dark Forest. It’s based on the Fermi Paradox, i.e. there should be other civilizations out there, so why haven’t we heard a peep out of them?

Review of “The New Mother” by Eugene Fischer

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royalty-free-writing-clipart-illustration-1146779 RSR rating: hard SF, published in Asimov’s. This one is also on the novella recommended reading list for the Nebula Awards.

Tess is a journalist writing an article on a new communicable disease, Gamete Diploidy Syndrome (GDS), which causes women to reproduce by parthenogenesis. This means their eggs divide without sperm and they give birth to clones of themselves. During her research, Tess reviews a number of social, medical and political issues that the new disease has kick-started. The narrative switches back and forth between the article and Tess’s viewpoint.

I agree with RSR that this is hard SF. There’s no hardware and the issue is subtle, but it’s one of those rare efforts to make a “what if” projection for the future. Fischer has a degree in physics and a MFA. He’s well equipped to write it, and it seems like he’s done some research to get his ducks in a row. Fischer has also done an excellent job of thinking through the social, medical and political implications of this kind of change in reproduction.

This story starts off with a high impact hook, and then settles into a slow, leisurely pace. RSR complained about the info dumps, but mostly they worked okay for me as part of the research Tess does for her article. Fischer adds background for Tess, who is pregnant from donor sperm, but the fact that her mother bought drawer pulls adds nothing to the story and comes across as padding.

I do have to pick at the science a little bit. The disease is represented as caused by a drug resistant bacterium (obligate intracellular parasite), but after six years there’s still no test to identify it. Despite the species-wide threat, there’s no apparent frenzy to produce a cure. If there’s no test for this, how does Kelli (with no children) know she’s GDS positive? Hm.

I’ll give this story a 4.5. I’m impressed with the hard SF, the predictive quality and the style, but I’m slightly offended by the visible structuring (how to write an award-winning story) which intrudes a bit on the flow. This novella has a high diversity rating, as Tess is a woman-of-color and a lesbian. Because of its position on the Nebula reading list, it has a high chance of award nominations. (More on this tomorrow).

So what is hard and soft SF anyway?

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FeatherPenClipArtBesides proposing a hardness scale for SF, the TVTropes article made some interesting comments on the science fiction genre as a whole. First, it discussed the term “soft SF.”

On one hand, a distinction pretty much falls out from use of the term “hard SF.” Once we’ve identified “hard SF”, this suggests everything else must be soft, particularly works that use only a science fictional setting to discuss something else. Soft SF is generally expected to encompass literary SF stories that concentrate more on qualities like message, characterization, symbolism, imagery, theme and story structure, rather than the actual science of the situation.

On the other hand, there are “hard” and “soft” sciences, based on perceived methodological rigor and objectivity of the research and application. Hard sciences are considered to be disciplines like physics, chemistry and engineering that use mathematical calculations to apply natural laws. Soft sciences are generally considered to be social science disciplines like psychology, political science, sociology, geography, history, medical science and economics that have to use statistics to identify and predict population trends in order to form theories and models to predict results.

The existence of these different classifications is one thing that confuses our expectations of what hard vs soft SF really is. As Stanley Schmidt commented, the reigning definition for hard SF in the public mind seems to be about engineering (i.e. clanking hardware), and possibly about extensive and boring discussions of quantum mechanics. However, if you include the “soft” sciences in your definition of what science really is, then you’ve got a much broader base for what’s actually real, science-based science fiction. It doesn’t have to be all about clanking hardware.

Do SF writers have a responsibility?

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royalty-free-writing-clipart-illustration-1146779
Getting back to McCalmont for a bit, it’s clear his big complaint is that current science fiction writers don’t attempt to deal with the future in any serious way. This suggests he thinks science fiction writers have some kind of responsibility to do this. Is that right? Or is McCalmont assuming speculative fiction writers are some kind of intellectual elite they really aren’t? Does the current crop of SF writers have the technical, scientific and/or intellectual capacity to filter any small part of technological/social/political trends and make any sense of these for the future?

I do think the expertise and is out there. Both men and women have technical degrees these days. While women may still be underrepresented in theoretical physics, there are plenty of female engineers and scientists out there who could have the inclination to write hard SF. What’s lacking, according to McCalmont, is focus. And, he says, there’s an issue of complacency. Good quality hard SF stories won’t happen unless people with the capability make the effort to get out there and write them. In addition, editors and publishers have to assign some value to the science content and not just opt for the emotional content when choosing stories to publish.

Scientific revolution

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A while back I wrote a couple of blogs on the new paradigm in publishing. Now I need to spend a few lines of text on where these ideas come from. Thomas Kuhn (1922 – 1996) was an American physicist, historian and science philosopher who wrote a book in 1962 called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. This was not well received in scientific circles, but the business community picked it up, making Kuhn a successful, but controversial figure. The book introduced the term “paradigm shift,” which means everything you ever thought about something could now be wrong.

Kuhn outlined a number of characteristics of scientific progress. First, he noted that science actually progresses through “paradigm shifts” instead of through research in a smooth, continuous line. Next, these paradigm shifts often invalidate things that were thought to be true and produce new theories. This means that scientific truth isn’t something that’s objective, but instead it’s subjective and defined by consensus in the scientific community.

You can see why these weren’t popular observations. Kuhn went on to say that these paradigm shifts were never sparked by anyone who was deeply invested in a particular theory. Instead, it takes someone from outside, someone on the fringes who can look at something with fresh eyes, to point out what’s wrong with it.

Commitment to the paradigm allows the mass of average scientists to make great strides within the boundaries of current thought, but according to Kuhn, they will never be the geniuses who make the jump to the next great theory. For example, it takes Albert Einstein, a patent clerk with a teaching degree, to point out what’s wrong with Newtonian physics, or for another example, the lawyer Antoine Lavoisier who identified oxygen’s role in combustion and thus destroyed the Phlogiston Theory.

The classic example of a paradigm shift in business is the move to digital watches. From about 1900 to 1970, the watch industry was dominated by Swiss watchmakers. They produced fine quality mechanical watches powered by a spring that were highly regarded by the market. In the 1960s three groups of engineers in the US, Japan and Switzerland all independently came up with a design for an electronic watch. Swiss watchmakers refused to believe anything could topple the Behemoth of the Swiss watch industry. They rejected the idea, but within ten years the fine Swiss watch was totally obsolete. The paradigm had shifted.

Go figure.

Failing to engage with the future

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The clear trend in the awards nominations over the last few years it to more sentimental stories. This means that hard SF, the kind that actually deals with current science and with possible futures, tends to get marginalized. This is because the editors are sifting the slush pile for award-winning stories, and the present and future just aren’t popular topics.

I want to take another look at what Stanley Schmidt said about hard SF, as McCalmont suggests something similar. In pointing out “Flowers for Algernon” as an example of “hard SF,” Schmidt broadens the field considerably. This is a story that’s not much concerned at all with the scientific details of an experimental procedure, but instead concentrates on the effect this has on the subject’s life. It investigates scientific policy, in other words, and the ethical and moral implications of medical procedures that are meant to improve life but really may not. In this day and age, the story would likely be about financial issues instead.

This is what McCalmont points out. He notes that there seems no current alternative to the neoliberal vision of capitalism, and points this out as fertile ground for science fictional investigation. This would be a matter of social and political science, rather than hard science like physics or chemistry. But, would anyone actually consider this kind of story science? Because it’s against the prevailing ideology, would anyone consider it worthy of note? Or should we go with the next zombie best seller instead?

This is nothing against zombies. It’s just that they’re not generally focused on scientific, social or political ideas.

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