Archive for the ‘Science Fiction’ Category


 

(The Corporation Wars: Emergence, by Ken Macleod. Orbit, 2017, 402 pp., $9.99)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

This final portion of the Corporation Wars trilogy wraps things up neatly. Whether that’s a good thing or not is questionable. It leaves hanging (appropriately) the question of whether machine-intelligence is a good thing or not. That it exists here, is beyond question.

The narrative also, barely, leaves hanging the question of whether capitalism is a good thing or not — though the mayhem in pursuit of the profit motive seems persuasive evidence to the contrary. (Macleod has delivered a much less nuanced judgment in The Stone Canal and many of his other works.)

Another mostly unaddressed but central question is whether stored backups of personalities would, when revived, constitute continued life for the backed-up personalities. (I’d argue, pessimistically, that it wouldn’t, because the dead versions would in fact be dead — when we’re dead, we’re dead — and unaware of the “revived” versions, and unaware of their perceptions.)

As well, Macleod gives a good impression of the alienness of machine intelligence in such passages as:

“‘<Very well> said Simo. <Talis and I will wait deeper in this tunnel. If there are any indications that you have been caught, you may rely upon us to save ourselves>”

Anyway, here, in this final portion of the trilogy, we follow the protagonist Carlos, and the “freebot” (self-aware robot) Seba through their struggles against both the neo-fascist “Rax” and the neo-liberal Direction.

Without giving away too much, what I can say here is that Macleod neatly winds up the plot, without leaving much room for a sequel.

Beyond that the text is replete with mostly sci-fi references, including to the munitions company “Morlock Arms,” and a clever rephrasing of Clarke’s famous dictum: “She understood in principle, but the engineering details were at a level where the most strictly materialist explanation might as well be magic.”

Even funnier: “Entire automated law firms stored like flat-packs, ready to be assembled at first notice . . . Imagine a robot stamping an official seal . . . forever.”

The one real problem with this book and the previous one is that Macleod does not provide sufficient back story — nowhere near. So, if you haven’t read the previous books, you’ll be at a loss in understanding Emergence.

Here, for once, a prologue would have helped tremendously, as it would have with the previous book, Insurgence. As is, the lack of back story makes it impossible to fully enjoy this part of the trilogy without having read the first two parts of the trilogy almost immediately beforehand.

So, please don’t even think about reading this final part without having read Dissidence and Insurgence first, and in short order.

Recommended with that qualification.

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Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia (pdf sample here). He’s currently working on the sequel, two translations, a nonfiction book, two compilations, and an unrelated sci-fi novel in his copious free time.

Free Radicals, by Zeke Teflon front cover

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(The Moon and the Other, by John Kessell. New York: Saga Press, 596 pp. $27.99)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

To understand The Moon and the Other, it’s helpful to be familiar with the reformist political current called identity politics. In the U.S., it’s been all the rage over the last few decades among liberals, especially among those in the corporate wing of the Democratic Party and those holding positions at Ivy League colleges and other elite East Coast institutions.

For those not familiar with the term, “identity politics” refers to the assumption that a person’s race, gender, and/or sexual orientation is the most important factor in politics, and that those in such groups should band together to further their own interests, making all other political goals secondary. The unspoken assumption is that everything is fine (or at least a minor problem) in comparison to the interests of the identity group.

This is a divisive, self-limiting political approach. It would be difficult to devise one better designed to distract from fundamental political and economic problems while fitting neatly into the existing political and economic power structure’s divide and conquer strategy.

More concretely, liberal political elites translate identity politics ideology into programs such as race-based admissions to universities and forced busing of school children to distant schools to give at least some poor minority kids access to better schools.

One wonders why those who foist such policies upon the public do not, instead, demand free higher education for all who want it (a fact in some European countries), and why they do not demand equal per-student funding for all public schools, thus ensuring reasonably high quality education for all students, not just some.

You’d have to ask those who advance such identity-politics “solutions” why this is so. My best guess is that they either: 1) see nothing fundamentally wrong with the existing politico-economic situation and just wish to make it marginally fairer to specific groups; 2) they see no hope of fundamentally changing that politico-economic situation and again just want to make it marginally fairer to specific groups; or 3) they’re conscious tools of the economic elites who fund their campaigns and their well paid positions in academia and the media.

The Moon and the Other’s background, the Society of Cousins (SoC), comes straight out of a virulent strain of this ideology, what one might term biology-is-destiny politics. The idea upon which the book revolves is that men are so violent and competitive that they must be disenfranchised, and that women, inherently peaceful and cooperative, must control society through a coercive political power structure — government. (On the surface, this concept is grossly insulting to men, but when you think about it it’s also grossly insulting to women, positing that they’re too weak to stand up to men in an egalitarian political and social structure.)

To provide contrast with his Society of Cousins, Kessell sets up Persepolis, another domed-crater society whose sketchily drawn political, economic, and social structure is all but indistinguishable from that of present-day liberal western democracies. (There’s also an all too brief, but perceptive, look at an Ayn Randist society.)

As the story begins, we meet the book’s protagonist, Erno who’s working as an immigrant in the bottom layer of Persepolis’ society after being exiled from the SoC for involvement in a “terrorist” dumb political stunt carried out by an extreme wing of the men’s right movement.

We shortly meet the novel’s two other central characters, both of them involved in the men’s rights dissident movement: Mira, the SoC’s unstable, immature, female version of Banksy, and Carey, her on-and-off boyfriend who resists being drawn into the movement despite his involvement in a high profile custody case.

All of these characters are well drawn, quite believable, as are several of the secondary characters, notably Hypatia, the charismatic, manipulative, intellectual leader of the dissident movement, and Sirius, an “uplifted” dog and leading newscaster in Persepolis.

Inevitably, years after the opening scenes, Erno, who has risen in life, is drawn back to the SoC as part of an Organization of Lunar States investigation of the status of men in the Society of Cousins, not incidentally at a time of the ascendancy of the men’s rights dissident movement.

The investigation is brought on, in part, by the SoC’s deletion of all published materials relating to its scientific and technical investigations over the previous thirty years. And here, Kessell posits not only internal deletion, but deletion by SoC hackers of all materials in electronic form everywhere, on both the moon and the Earth. Such an attempt would be ridiculous — doomed to failure — today, and it seems even more so set centuries in the future.

Worse, shortly after Erno’s arrival back in the SoC, Kessell throws the reader a curve. Rather than follow the struggle for men’s rights in this biologically determinist society — which, given how well the author has set up the situation, would be fascinating — Kessell presents the reader with two interwoven major events, which derail the course of the dissident movement.

Beyond that, the authors of the first event are never revealed, and their possible motives seem weak given the event’s drastic nature. As for the second related event, Kessell devotes quite a bit of space to establishing the motivation for the character responsible for it. However, a large amount of that motivation lies in the character’s resentment over his physical limitations — and those physical limitations would make his supposed actions all but impossible.

One minor problem with the book is that Kessell has an annoying habit of ending chapters or portions of chapters by revealing that something awful will happen, and then inserting pages of unnecessary material before revealing the nature of the event. That unnecessary material is there simply to keep the reader in a state of anxiety, and, for anyone who’s paying attention, that’s annoying.

In sum, the plot problems, unsatisfying conclusion, and manipulation of the reader outweigh the well drawn characters, interesting social background, and well set up social conflict. That’s unfortunate, because The Moon and the Other could have been a considerably better than average science fiction novel. As is, it’s a considerably more frustrating than average sci-fi novel.

Not recommended.

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Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia (pdf sample here). He’s currently working on the sequel and an unrelated sci-fi novel in his copious free time.

Free Radicals, by Zeke Teflon front cover

 


Doomed City, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, front cover(The Doomed City, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2016, 462 pp., $18.99)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

Brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky were the most popular science fiction writers in the Eastern Bloc from the 1950s through the early 1990s (when the Bloc dissolved), and were arguably the most popular science fiction authors ever. In his illuminating forward, fellow Russian sci-fi novelist Dmitry Glukhovsky, author of Metro 2033, reveals that their many novels in the 1970s had initial press runs of 500,000 and sold out immediately. Their 1964 novel, Hard to be a God, is very probably the biggest selling science fiction title of all time, the world over.

During the 1980s and 1990s, I became a Strugatsky enthusiast and read everything I could find by them in English. So, I was excited to see the appearance of Doomed City last year — a Strugatsky novel I’d never heard of.

It turns out that they wrote it in 1972, but hid the manuscript and didn’t dare to send it to a publisher for fear of being thrown in a gulag (yes, it could have happened even to such immensely popular authors) until the perestroika period in the late 1980s. It finally appeared in Russian in 1989, and the English translation only appeared last year.

Why? Doomed City is a bleak, brutal, and very thinly veiled critique of the Soviet Union and the ideology that produced it and all of its horrors.

Doomed City is set in the City (always capitalized), a place entirely isolated that might not even be on Earth, and which is the site of the Experiment (the nature of which is never explained, nor are the experimenters named). The residents of the City are all volunteers drawn from all over the world: Russians, Americans, Brits, Chinese, Japanese, Mexicans, Swedes, and Germans, including former Nazis. Once in the City, they’re arbitrarily assigned to jobs unrelated to their previous occupations.

The protagonist, and by far the best drawn character, is Andrei Voronin, a former astrophysicist who, at the beginning of the book, is working as a garbage collector. He’s also, not coincidentally, a former Komsomol (official Communist Party youth organization) member, a conventional Marxist-Leninist, and a bit of a blockhead.

Through the following 400+ pages, we follow Voronin and his acquaintances as he works respectively as a garbage collector, detective, journalist, political boss, and adventurer/expedition leader (while still a political boss).

What’s striking throughout all this is how Voronin’s work, the amount of power he has in each job, and his position within the City’s hierarchy, is reflected in his attitudes.

As a garbage collector, he’s a blind believer in the Experiment, despite his bottom-of-the-heap position and the grossly obvious flaws in the City and its workings.

As a policeman, he becomes distrustful, suspects everyone, and becomes increasingly willing to use brutality — supplied by former Nazis who are now fellow policemen — against those he looks down on, which is pretty much the entire population of the City, including his supposed friends.

As a journalist, he adopts an adversarial attitude toward those in power.

And as a political boss, he adopts the attitudes of a political boss: entitlement, contempt for those he supposedly serves, willingness to suck up to even the slimiest political hierarchs, willingness to use violence and coercion to remain in power, and acceptance of a rigidly stratified society, with the political bosses on top and the vast army of proles (including personal servants) beneath them.

It would be hard to provide a better description of the characteristics of the “leadership” that ran the Soviet Union.

This political critique is by far the best part of the book. Other than that, Doomed City doesn’t have much to recommend it. It has a certain dreamy quality, which, however, is largely the result of poor, or at least deliberately hazy, writing (done in part in the vain hope of disguising the political critique, or at least rendering it nonspecific).

Almost all of the descriptive passages are vaguely written, using generalities rather than concrete physical description. The geography of the City, even its size, is all but indecipherable (as is the geography of the lands Voronin explores in the final section of the book). And there are too many nearly nonsensical stream-of-consciousness passages (from inside Voronin’s head), some lasting for pages. (At many points, I found myself asking, “When will this passage end?”)

As well, the secondary characters aren’t very well drawn, there are numerous loose ends, there’s almost nothing in the way of a conventional plot, and the authors offer nothing even approaching a solution to the dismal situation they critique so effectively.

That critique is summed up in a line by Izya Katzman, the most prominent and arguably the best drawn secondary character, in the latter part of the book:

“Any elite that controls the lives and fates of other people is odious.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Recommended only for diehard Strugatsky fans and those with an interest in critiques of Leninism and the former Soviet Union.

(For those new to the Strugatskys, rather than starting with Doomed City, I’d recommend Hard to be a God and Roadside Picnic.)

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Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia (pdf sample here). He’s currently working on the sequel and an unrelated sci-fi novel in his copious free time.

Free Radicals, by Zeke Teflon front cover

 

 


Doomed City, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, front cover

“Once upon a time in a little town there lived two night-soil men — father and son. There weren’t any sewers there, only pits full of slurry. And they scooped that shit out with a bucket and poured it into their barrel, and what’s more, the father, as the more experienced specialist, went down into the pit, and the son handed the bucket down to him from above. Then one day the son lost his grip on the bucket and dumped it back on his old man. Well, his old man wiped himself down, looked up at him, and said bitterly, ‘You’re a total screwup, a real lunkhead. No good for anything. You’ll be stuck up there your whole life.'”

–“Andrei” in The Doomed City, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

(This “lost novel” appeared for the first time in English last year. Expect a review shortly.)


(The Delirium Brief, by Charles Stross. Tor, 2017, 381 pp., $25.99)

After the last two Laundry Files novels, I thought the series was floundering. I was wrong.

The previous two books in this genre bending (sci-fi/fantasy/horror) series, The Annihilation Score and The Nightmare Stacks, marked a fairly sharp break from the five previous books in the series (not counting novellas and story collections), in that the primary narrator changed, and with it came a change of tone. The characteristic dark humor of the sardonic narrator, “applied computational demonologist” Bob Howard, was largely though not entirely absent, as was much of the pointed political and social commentary that marked the previous books in the series.

In The Delirium Brief, Bob Howard is back as the first-person primary narrator, and with him some of the humor. (There are also third-person passages from the p.o.v. of other characters.)  The tale is so dark, though, that the humor is somewhat muted. But it’s there nonetheless, as is the pointed political/social commentary, which was largely absent from the previous two books. At one point early in The Delirium Brief, Stross devotes nearly a full page to a wonderfully precise description of how privatization of public services screws the public, which is reminiscent of his description of how the banks screw the public in his very funny The Rhesus Chart.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that the plot of The Delirium Brief is so dependent on back story, so dependent on the reader understanding the references to events and characters from the previous books in the series, that The Delirium Chart does not work as a stand-alone novel.

I’ve read all of the previous Laundry Files books, plus much of the subsidiary material, and I had trouble remembering some of the essential references. It doesn’t help that the novels have been spread out over more than a decade, and that I’ve read at least 500 other sci-fi novels since the first Laundry Files book, The Atrocity Archives, came out in 2004, but still….. The upshot is that only readers fresh to the series who read all of the books in a fairly short period, or readers willing to reread the previous ones, will fully appreciate this very dark tale that leaves the reader hanging, eagerly awaiting the next installment in the series.

And damn it! I want it now!

Recommended with the above provisos.

* * *

Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia (pdf sample here). He’s currently working on the sequel, a nonfiction book skewering Christianity, a translation of a nonfiction anarchist history book, and an unrelated sci-fi novel in his copious free time.

Free Radicals, by Zeke Teflon front cover

 

 


The Rise and Fall of Dodo front cover

(The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O, by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland. William Morrow, 2017, 752 pp., $35.00)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

Well, from Stephenson, this is something completely different: a light, comic, genre-bending (sci-fi & fantasy) novel that mixes quantum physics with computer science, magic, witchcraft, time travel, and parallel universes. If this sounds more than a bit like the set-up of Charles Stross’s “Laundry” novels, it is. (Stross’s latest such novel is just out, and I’ll review it shortly.)

Another similarity is that both the protagonists in both the Laundry Files novels and The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.  are employed by a super-secret government agencies dealing with the occult. There are, however, major differences between the Stross and Stephenson/Gallard novels. One is that the “Laundry” stories feature first-person narration from a single point of view, and The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. has first-person narration from eight p.ov. characters (four male, four female), and the story is told via journal entries, memos, historical documents, transcripted conversations, and e-mail exchanges. This sounds like it could be a mess, but it’s not: the story is quite easy to follow, which given the narrative complexity is no mean feat.

All of the characters are well drawn, with distinctive behaviors, physical appearance, dress, speech patterns, writing styles, and personality quirks. Those characters range from the very sympathetic (Melisande, the primary character, and Tristan, the primary male character), to the utterly loathsome (Blevins, an abusive, puffed up hypocrite).

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. begins with a time-lock device: we learn from Melisande’s first journal entry that something has gone horribly wrong, and she’ll be stranded in 1851 unless she’s rescued within a few weeks.

From there, the story unwinds detailing the development of D.O.D.O. (Department of Diachronic Operations) from its humble beginnings with Tristan, who works for the Department of Defense, recruiting Melisande, an ancient language expert, to work on a nascent time travel project. Following that, D.O.D.O mushrooms, with Tristan and Melisande quickly recruiting Frank, a physicist working in the area of (what else?) quantum physics, who creates a time travel machine in which witches can practice magic and send people back in time.

Shortly, the DOD begins using the time machine to alter the past, and shortly after that the DOD official overseeing the project, General Frink, appoints a slimy, incompetent crony as its administrator in place of the competent Tristan. From there, several disasters ensue, ending with the time-lock situation (Melisande stranded in 1851) described at the beginning of the book.

There’s no point in detailing the plot further, except to say that it makes sense as much as any time travel plot can make sense (ultimately, they don’t — they’re inescapably paradoxical). So, time travel is one of the book’s two “gimmes”; the other is the existence of magic and witchcraft.

One very attractive feature of the book is that it has many genuinely funny moments, including a wonderful three-page passage on the reactions of surveillance personnel forced to watch the virtually nonstop sexual antics of two of the characters. This is the high, or at least the funniest, point in the interplay between the male and female characters, which is both amusing and believable throughout the book.

If there’s any lesson to be drawn from The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., it’s that hierarchical institutions are inherently dangerous, in part because incompetents in command positions can and do make terrible decisions, overriding the concerns of the competent people beneath them.

Other than that, The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. has no redeeming social value other than being for the most part — it’s a bit on the long side — highly entertaining.

That’s more than enough to justify picking it up.

Recommended.

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Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia (pdf sample here). He’s currently working on the sequel and on an unrelated sci-fi novel in his copious free time.

Free Radicals, by Zeke Teflon front cover


(Walkaway, by Cory Doctorow. Macmillan, 2017, 379 pp., $26.99)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

In Walkaway, Cory Doctorow takes on one of the most vexing matters of our time: Automation (more broadly, technological advances) is, at an accelerating rate, making human labor ever less necessary.

But what will it lead to?

A post-scarcity, egalitarian, “to each according to their wants” economy of abundance in which working is a matter of choice? Or to a version of the present artificial-scarcity economy in which there are an army of the poor and oppressed, and a few super-rich individuals who will resort to anything to retain their positions of power and privilege?

In Walkaway, the answer is both. In Doctorow’s medium-near future, there’s both a drastically more repressive version of current society — to alter the famous quotation from Lincoln Steffens, “I have seen the future, and it’s worse” — and a (small “l”) libertarian and egalitarian alternative built by those who “walk away” from the dominant “default” society, a “post-scarcity” alternative made possible by sweeping technological/productivity advances.

Therein lies the main virtue of Walkaway: Doctorow’s convincing, detailed, and attractive portrayal of that post-scarcity society and its workings.

To get a bit politically wonkish, what Doctorow describes, though he never uses the term, is an anarcho-communist society (in contrast to the other flavors of anarchism: individualist, mutualist, and syndicalist).

Other virtues include Doctorow’s insightful treatment of technological advances, notably in the liberatory and repressive possibilities they entail, and in the book’s humor, which mostly appears in its first 150 pages.

One of the main points Doctorow makes in support of a post-scarcity, egalitarian societal set-up is that meritocracy, in both authoritarian capitalist society and in libertarian alternatives, is a very bad idea, as the following dialogue between two of Doctorow’s characters, Gretyl and Iceweasel, illustrates:

“Your people are all fighting self-serving bullshit, the root of all evil. There’s no bullshit more self-serving than the idea that you’re a precious snowflake, irreplaceable and deserving . . .”

“I’ve heard all this. My dad used it to explain paying his workers as little as he could get away with, while taking as much pay as he could get away with. . . .”

“You’re assuming that because [the rich] talk about meritocracy, and because they’re full of shit, merit must be full of shit. It’s like astrology and astronomy: astrology talks about orbital mechanics and so does astronomy. But astronomers talk about orbital mechanics because they’ve systematically observed the sky, built falsifiable hypotheses from observations, and proceeded from there. Astrologers talk about orbital mechanics because it sounds sciencey and helps them kid the suckers.”

“You’re calling my dad an astrologer then?”

“That would be an insult to astrologers.”

Two other notable aspects of Walkaway are the full-spectrum sexual diversity of the characters, and that Doctorow includes two explicit, well written sex scenes. (This is in stark contrast to the usual, annoying avoidance of such scenes in the vast majority of science fiction novels, where disgustingly graphic depiction of violence is perfectly acceptable, but — horrors! — not graphic depiction of sex; the only other sci-fi authors I can think of who include explicit, fitting sex scenes in their work are Richard K. Morgan and Walter Mosley.)

As for the plot, it would give away too much to say more than that it revolves around the brutal repression of the walkaways, and their use of nonviolent resistance in response, after they develop a technology that the ultra-rich of “default” society find threatening.

The description of this conflict takes up more than two-thirds of the book, which is likely too much of it. In too many places, the latter portions of Walkaway drag. After reading the first 225 or so pages, I found myself wondering when it would ever end; I kept reading only because I wanted to see how Doctorow would resolve the conflict between the walkaways and “default.”

Anther problem with the book is that it seems disjointed at times. This is in part due to Doctorow’s using five p.o.v. characters. This isn’t necessarily a problem (see George Turner’s effective use of multiple [five] p.o.v.s in Drowning Towers), but it is here. Doctorow switches from one to another purely to advance the story, with the amount of time devoted to the different p.o.v.s varying considerably; and, as Walkaway progresses, it all but abandons the p.o.v. of what I originally thought was the primary p.o.v. character.

It doesn’t help that there’s little if any overlap — no differing views of the same things, a la Rashomon — in the events described from the different p.o.v.s, which aggravates the disjointedness problem.

Still, Walkaway‘s virtues — especially it’s detailed, attractive portrayal of a libertarian post-scarcity society — outweigh its faults.

Walkaway is quite probably the best fictional description of a post-scarcity society ever written.

Recommended.

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Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia (pdf sample here). He’s currently working on the sequel, and on an unrelated sci-fi novel, in his copious free time.

Free Radicals, by Zeke Teflon front cover