Posts Tagged ‘Hard Science Fiction’


Artemis, by Andy Weir front cover(Artemis, by Andy Weir. Crown, 2017, $27.00, 305 pp.)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

Three years ago, Andy Weir’s debut sci-fi novel, The Martian, arose out of the morass of self-published books, the vast majority of which never go anywhere. (Over 800,000 self-published books appeared last year alone; typical lifetime sales figures for such books are in the range of 100 to 200 copies.)

The Martian, a near-future novel about a stranded astronaut, was the best hard sci-fi novel to appear in ages. So, like many other readers, I’d been eagerly awaiting Weir’s next book.

Like The Martian, Artemis is a near-future hard sci-fi novel that features a plucky, oftentimes funny protagonist who overcomes difficulty after difficulty, often of a technical nature. (The difficulties in The Martian are almost exclusively of a technical nature.) Also, as in The Martian, Weir gets the science right, weaving it into the story without ever condescending to the reader; and both novels take place in familiar near-space settings: Mars and the moon, respectively. Another similarity is the quality of the writing: it’s concise and it flows, in large part due to Weir’s consistent use of active voice, his avoidance of adjectives and adverbs, and his avoidance of taking off on tangents.

The Martian, by Andy WeirThe differences between the two books lie primarily in their protagonists, the difficulties they face, and their goals. In The Martian, the protagonist is Matt Watley, who uses his ingenuity and scientific knowledge to solve a stream of seemingly intractable technical problems in order to survive; in Artemis, the protagonist is Jasmine (“Jazz”) Bashara, a markedly immature, young lapsed Muslim and petty smuggler who uses her wits and technical knowledge in order to survive and to pursue wealth. On the surface, she seems an unlikely, unlikable protagonist, but Weir manages to make her into a sympathetic character through exploration of her rough background and through her having a consistent moral code.

Shortly after Artemis begins, Jazz finds herself hired by a smuggling client to take part in a major criminal operation, and quickly finds herself in over her head. At that point, the seemingly intractable problems and ingenious solutions begin, and continue nonstop through the rest of the book.

As for weaknesses in Artemis, there are a few. The primary one is that the outcomes at the end of the book are just a little too neat, and that on reflection one of the most important outcomes (involving an ownership transfer) seems possible but far from inevitable. Weir presents it so smoothly, though, that it’s easy to let it slide by; only when you think about it a bit will you realize, “Hey! That doesn’t necessarily follow.”

I’d have enjoyed Artemis more if I hadn’t previously read The Martian — the similarities are just too great: a plucky, wise-cracking protagonist facing and overcoming technical problem after technical problem in a familiar setting. Because of that, Artemis wasn’t as fresh and surprising as The Martian. But it’s still a very good book.

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, a Spanish=English translation, a Spanish-English translation, two compilations, and an unrelated sci-fi novel in his copious free time. He hopes to complete at least two of those projects over the next year.

Free Radicals, by Zeke Teflon front cover

 

 

 


 

The Immortality Option by James P. Hogan cover(The Immortality Option, by James P. Hogan. Gallantine, 1995, 323 pp.; out of print, but commonly available in used bookstores and also available as an overpriced e-book)

 

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

 

This is the sequel to Hogan’s amusing and insightful Code of the Lifemaker, which we reviewed in June. It takes up where Code of the Lifemaker leaves off, with the Taloid mechanoid civilization on Titan, the mutant spawn of a damaged interstellar alien probe a million years ago, temporarily saved, but still under both internal threat from religious and political authoritarianism, and under external threat from GSEC, a rapacious Earth-based corporation.

The cast of characters is mostly the same as in Code of the Lifemaker. Like that book, this sequel is a combination of hard sci-fi and social sci-fi, and the political and social subtext is essentially the same: that science, free inquiry, and free expression are essential to progress, and that religion is  inimical to progress, and its practitioners often irrationally and sadistically cruel.

What’s new in The Immortality Option is the revelation of where the interstellar probe came from that set off the explosion of mechanical evolution on Titan: the Borjilans, an avian-descended race from a star a thousand light years off. The description of that race and their ultra-competitive civilization is highly amusing. From reading it, I strongly suspect that Hogan was at least somewhat familiar with avian behavior; here, he focuses almost exclusively on its negative,  darkly comedic aspects.

The one real problem with Hogan’s description of the events leading up to the launching of the probe is that it hinges on a cover up of an existential threat to the Borjilan home world that would be impossible to hide in any even remotely open society. That’s unfortunate, because there were ways Hogan could have avoided this implausibility. But he didn’t, and at least the chapters on the Borjilans are so intricate and amusing that it’s fairly easily to overlook the implausibility of the pivotal cover up.

Without giving away too much, The Immortality Option deals largely with the encoded personalities of one the Borjilans (especially Sarvik, the primary Borjilan character), the pompous scientist (Weinerbaum, a new character) who discovers them, GENIUS, an AI created by Sarvik, and the machinations of the Borjilans and the Taloid priests and authoritarian politicians, and their rational foes among the Taloids and “Lumians” (humans).

While probably not as good a book as Code of the Lifemaker, The Immortality Option is still a lot of fun in its own right.

Recommended — but do yourself a favor and read Code of the Lifemaker first.

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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.

Free Radicals front cover


 

Code of the Lifemaker cover

Code of the Lifemaker, by James P. Hogan. Del Rey, 1983, 295 pp., $13.95 (reissued in 2010)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

When the Huygens probe descended to the surface of Titan in 2005, I was bitterly disappointed. I’d been irrationally hoping that it would deliver images of the exceedingly strange mechanoid civilization and environment that the late science fiction author James P. Hogan vividly describes in his 1983 novel, Code of the Lifemaker.

But no. All the probe returned was a bonanza of scientific data.

In Code of the Lifemaker, Hogan achieved something difficult: a successful synthesis of hard science fiction and social science fiction. He devised a well developed, unique setting for the story, and in the story he examines questions such as what makes us human? does god exist? what is the role of religion in society? what is the role of science in society? Despite delving into these heavy questions, the tone of the novel is light, and in places it’s very funny.

Most of the book’s events take place beneath the impenetrable (to telescopes) clouds of Titan, where a million years ago a radiation-damaged alien ship set off an automated, runaway explosion of technological development–extraction processes, factories, machines of all types, robots–all controlled by badly corrupted software. The end result was the evolution of a very complicated mechanical ecology, whose development Hogan describes in a lengthy prologue (10 pages!) that’s entertaining despite being pure exposition (what sci-fi writers often describe as an “infodump”).

This unique ecology is inhabited by the Taloids, sentient robots, who are remarkably human in thought and action, who are at approximately a Renaissance level of social and political development, and who understand their mechanical ecology no better than Renaissance humans understood their biological ecology.

In the novel, the first probe to Titan revealed this ecology (in roughly 2015), but the government suppressed the images so as to be able to exploit the knowledge to be gained and get a leg up on the Soviets. (Code of the Lifemaker was written in 1983; at the time, almost everyone–including this reviewer–assumed the Soviet Union would exist well into the 21st century.)

The action begins with a joint government/corporate (General Space Enterprises Corporation–GSEC) mission to Titan consisting of scientists, government functionaries, a military contingent, corporate tools, and, as part of the GSEC p.r. campaign to sell the exploitation of Titan, one of the novel’s two protagonists, the famous psychic, Karl Zambendorf. (The other is the Taloid scientist and victim of religious persecution, Thirg The Questioner.) Once at Titan, the expedition quickly establishes contact with the Taloids and conflict commences in the Earth delegation between those who would enslave the Taloids and those who would assist them, and on the Taloid side between the budding scientists and their version of the Inquisition.

Zambendorf, originally presented as an unsympathetic fraud, is later revealed to be a confirmed rationalist who hoaxes the public largely because he thinks they’re so stupid that they deserve to be hoaxed, and why shouldn’t he be the one to profit from it? The detailed descriptions of how Zambendorf and his team pull off their hoaxes add an enjoyable, and unexpected, element to the novel. (All but one of the hoaxes Hogan describes are standard scams “psychics” routinely perpetrate; the only exception is an elaborate hoax that would only work over interplanetary distances.)

Thirg, the Taloid scientist, is also entertaining, mostly in his role as an acerbic critic of religion. The following quote is fairly typical:

“Does it not seem strange that eternal salvation for the many, in a hereafter which they are asked to accept on mere assurances, should be attainable in no other way than by their enduring hardships gratefully and laboring their lives in wretchedness for the further enrichment of a pious few who exhibit a suspiciously unholy interest in the quality of their own herenow?”

And some of the descriptions of Titan’s mechanical ecology are whimsical and wonderful:

“[Thirg’s] home was situated in a small clearing amid pleasant forest groves of copper and aluminum wire-drawing machines, injection molders, transfer presses, and stately pylons bearing their canopy of power lines and data cables, among which scurrying sheet riveters, gracefully moving spot welders, and occasional slow-plodding pipe benders supplied a soothing background of clattering, hissing, whirring, and clunking to insulate him from the world of mortals and their mundane affairs…”

While scientific discovery has rendered impossible the setting of Code of the Lifemaker, its treatment of the many philosophical, scientific, and religious questions it raises remains as timely as when Hogan wrote the book over thirty years ago.

Highly 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.

Free Radicals front cover