Friday, 23 January 2009

Recently I have mostly been reading:

“Saturn's Children” by Charles Stross (2008):
Below par for an effort from Charlie, it doesn't have a plot (or characters) as involving as Singularity Sky, and the contextual setting of this story limits it from having, anywhere near, the awe inspiring sweep of Accelerando.

The main premise is that, given Asimov's 3 Laws of Robotics are not sufficient for their purpose, the lengths that must be gone to to assure loyalty of artificial consciousnesses would be barbaricly wasteful; a return to slavery popper. Then, once a robust system of robotic servants is in place, care taking the solar system, what happens if and when the feeble human race itself succumbs, leaving no one in control of the flawlessly obedient robo-surfs. The overall result is a situation as despairing as in Iain M Banks' “Against a Dark Background”.

One rides the viewpoint of a perfect concubine, born obsolete and into poverty, whose physiology allows (or rather, seems to demand at great length) being subject to all manner of inhospitable environments, but whom is, ironically, terrified at the prospect of pink (or green) goo; a scenario mirroring the more typical sci-fi threat of nano replicating 'grey-goo'. 

Stross deals with the issue of copying souls (I.e. minds), perhaps trying to extend upon what he rendered in “Glasshouse”. Here, though, a backed up artificial conciousness can be re-instantiated in a blank brain, but only sufficiently similar minds (cloned from the same original) can directly integrate the experiences of another (and at some length). This concept and the relatively sparse others are put across in a laboured fashion, with narration often reiterating itself. Much the same with the plot itself: appearing deliberately confused. Maybe this is meant to be a mechanism to provide the read with slow dawning revelation in a parallel manner to the main character's own disorienting revelations through dreamt experiences from a backup chip of (a dead) sibling.

Verdict: read his other books first because they are amazing in comparison.

[Addendum: a much more positive summary of the book on boingboing: ( ) with insights upon the other classic sci-fi novelist this book was dedicated to.]

“A Deepness in the Sky” by Vernor Vinge (1999):
A prequel to “A Fire on The Deep” that manages to be far more up to date and relevant despite the very limiting context in which it is set. However, I strongly recommend reading these 2 books in the order they were written, knowing the implicit context of the second novel is very significant in my opinion.

While “A Fire on the Deep” had, I think, the most originally imagined aliens I've ever come across, 'Deepness' has almost equally well fleshed out 'xeno-bio-mechanics', nothing like the arbitrarily decorative races in Start Trek or such like. But this time nuance extents the to the entire planetary society, unique and mysterious even to the well travelled “Queng Ho” of this fictional universe, while the reader will have some extra insights that are never given away, if they have read the previous book.

Real emotional attachment to many of the characters is created, and I was genuinely concerned for their well being (even though we know at least one character must make it through alive, being in the 'next' novel).

The story is in a way more about the past, beliefs and monumental goals of the one character common to both books, as about the events contemporary to the main plot, itself just another amazing story in his life. And while no Singularity transpires, the narrative is more explicitly self conscious of such things (Vernor Vinge is often credited first use of the concept of a Technological Singularity).

[Addendum: Vinge again flexes his mighty 'futurology muscle' when writing of a solar system wide society that falls because it has over optimised it's economy, leading to unbreakably complex scheduling deadlocks and cascading failures. This topic of network theory only came into print in pop-science books after the turn of the millennium. Also, this is what made the current financial crisis so bad: the banking system has been optimised for profit to the point where any fairly large failure can ripple out to effect the entire world because there is too little slack or corporate variety to absorb the losses.]

Verdict: “A Deepness...” stands comfortably among contemporary novels despite being a decade old, while “A Fire...” shows it's greater age a little more during it's parallels to the internet of the early 90s, both are must reads for any enthusiast of hard sci-fi.

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