Tag Archives: Science fiction

Steve Stanton, Freenet

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Once in a while, I like to dive back into a good science-fiction novel. Sci-fi used to be a staple of my reading diet back in high school where anything as far away as possible from the mundane, restricted world I lived in (home, school, the suburban town I lived in). Over time, other genres have displaced sci-fi but I will still gladly pick one up once in a while.

In Freenet, human beings from Earth have travelled to different parts of the universe and have set up colonies connected to each other through wormhole portals. In a remote corner of the universe, a young woman, Simara, seeks to escape from a lecherous stepfather by boarding a space capsule that she crashes on a desert planet called Bali.

Much of what follows is the classic stuff from space travel fiction: encounter with locals, learning about lifestyles and culture, dealing with misunderstandings, exploring the technological possibilities of escaping from an unwanted situation. For Simara and Zen, who rescued her from the crash, this also results in romantic entanglement.

A complication occurs when Simara is accused of murdering her stepfather. She is arrested and put on board a space ship travelling to another planet where she will be judged. Zen finds a way to follow her on this journey and is instrumental in proving her innocence.

Another complication more seriously affect their relationship: Simara is an omnidroid, a human with brain implants who is in constant interaction with an information network, with an incredible capacity for information processing. The omnidroids, a very small group of “freaks”, are under attack…

What distinguishes this book is the author’s tongue-in-cheek approach. It starts with the name of the desert planet, Bali… and it continues with descriptions of locations and scenes which make the novel nearly a satirical version of sci-fi/speculative fiction. However, this does not detract from the tension building as difficulties pile up for Simara and Zen, and I was captivated right until the end.

This book will be published April 12, 2016. Thanks to ECW Press and NetGalley for access to a review copy.

 

Reference:

Stanton, Steve. Freenet. ECW Press, Toronto, ON, 2016.

Other things:

http://stevestanton.ca/

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C.J. Higgins, Lightless

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This was a quick read from a young author that shows quite a bit of promise. I look forward to seeing where she goes from here, and whether she will keep developing the universe she started creating with Lightless.

A very small crew operates a state-of-the art space ship in a remote part of the solar system. They are suddenly invaded by a couple of “space terrorists” and their manipulation of the ship computer creates all sorts of problems for the crew. The ship’s engineer is puzzled by the output from the computer who seems to have a virus but one that behaves in very unusual ways. It seems to acquire a capacity to learn and develops a sort of “free will”. She is also very concerned about how this will affect the ship’s mission. It is an experimental craft that is testing an entirely mode of propulsion and it is top secret.

The crew manages to capture one of the intruders and they soon have to contend as well with the visit of a special investigator who wants to interview the captive. Suspense about what the intent of the intrusion was is maintained until the end, when we find out the identify of one of the most sought after terrorist leaders of the solar system.

While the rhythm is a bit slow in the first half of the book, it does pick up in the second half.  I expect the author to further develop her ability to create rich characters in future books. It will be a great addition to creating a compelling setting for her story.

Reference:

Higgins, C.J. Lightless. Del Rey, New York, 2015.

Other things:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/03/books/review-lightless-about-the-bratty-machine-on-a-spaceflight.html?ref=books

Dave Eggers, The Circle

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Mae Holland gets a new job at a hip high-tech firm thanks to her old friend Annie. It is quite a relief after 18 months of boredom and inept management at a utilities company in her hometown. She is starting off in the “Customer Experience” department, providing customer service online. The basic job is not hard but she still has quite a bit to discover about The Circle and the many layers of expectations she is facing.

The Circle seems to be a mix between Facebook, Google and Twitter all rolled into one and then some. The office complex, the “campus” is high-tech, designed by architects and each building is names after an era of history (for e.g., the Enlightenment).

Dan, Mae’s boss, tells her this in their very first meeting:

“Mae, now that you’re aboard, I wanted to get across some of the core beliefs here at the company. And chief among them is that just as important as the work we do here — and that work is very important — we want to make sure that you can be a human being here, too. We want this to be a workplace, sure, but it should also be a humanplace. And that means the fostering of community. In fact, it must be a community.”

This sets up the blurring of the boundaries between work and private life. Mae just does not know to what extent yet. She gets the third degree when she returns from a weekend visit to her parents’ house. She was offline for the whole weekend… which is not desirable at The Circle. As her father suffers from MS, chatting about that experience of having an ill parent may be of help for others and therefore part of community contribution that is expected of Mae. Each little omission in the sharing of information is viewed with suspicion. When Mae goes kayaking by herself, she is asked whether she realizes that not taking and posting pictures and not sharing this experience with others is selfish and may deny others who cannot take part in this activity the discovery of the beauty she is so fortunate to enjoy.

Mae finds herself at odds with a former boyfriend, Mercer, who is a frequent visitor at her parents’ place. He has serious misgivings about the online tools that The Circle provides.

“It’s not that I’m not social. I’m social enough. But the tools you guys create actually manufacture unnaturally extreme social needs. No one needs that level of contact you’re purveying. It improves nothing. It’s not nourishing. It’s like snack food. You know how they engineer this food? They scientifically determine precisely how much salt and fat they need to include to keep you eating, You’re not hungry, you don’t need the food, it does nothing for you, but you keep eating these empty calories. This is what you’re pushing. Same thing. Endless empty calories, but the digital-social equivalent. And you calibrate it so it’s equally addictive.”

“And it’s eliminated my ability to just talk to you.” He was still talking. “I mean, I can’t send you e-mail, because you immediately forward them to someone else. I can’t send you a photo, because you post it on your own profile. And meanwhile, your company is scanning all of our messages for information they can monetize. Don’t you think this is insane?”

The Circle develops mini-cameras that can be worn or placed unobtrusively anywhere and advocates “transparency”. People going “transparent” can be viewed online at anytime and this goes for politicians as well. In fact, not going transparent soon becomes seen as a sign of corruption; if you are not “transparent” you must have something to hide. Mae herself becomes “transparent” and her job becomes that of a hostess of a permanent online guided tour of the Circle campus. Mae learns to live by what are now seen as necessary basic principles:

Secrets are lies

Sharing is caring

Privacy is theft

In the end, the principle of transparency leads to a totalitarian surveillance society… when all that was sought was to enhance democracy. Mae’s parents flee the surveillance in their home, Mercer tries to live off the grid and drives his truck off a bridge while being pursued by drones. One of the founders of The Circle, one of the Three Wise Men, uncomfortable with what some of his work has lead to encourages Mae to walk away, tells her he knows what needs to be done to dismantle The Circle, but she chooses to denounce him instead. She is been so thoroughly indoctrinated she can no longer distance herself from The Circle.

Throughout my reading of this book, I found myself very uncomfortable with the corporate social environment that was described. To be sure, organizations try to foster corporate cultures that take humans into account while also seeking to control some behaviors. Within a culture, some behaviors are desirable, and others unacceptable. However, the level of control sought by The Circle, the pervasive influence of the beliefs it forces on people were a lot more similar to a sect than your usual corporation. The reason that the book was so scary to me is the existence of most of the technologies that it puts into play. It is science/techno fiction, but by such a slim margin…

The other way in which the book was uncomfortable was its writing. Eggers describes the everyday world of Circlers in excruciating detail, over and over again. The computer technologies, social media interactions, the surveys, the social events, the corporate presentations… the descriptions are repeated until the world of The Circle takes such life for the reader (or at least this reader) that it seems logical and even right.

But I still would not want to live in this world.

At least one of the “blurbs” in the front matter compares this book to Huxley’s Brave New World. I was thinking about Orwell’s 1984.

References:

Eggers, Dave. The Circle. Vintage Books, New York, 2013.

Other things:

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/09/circle-dave-eggers-review

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/03/books/review/the-circle-by-dave-eggers.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2013/nov/21/eggers-circle-when-privacy-is-theft/ (by Margaret Atwood)

http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/sharing-is-caring-is-sharing

http://www.xconomy.com/national/2014/07/25/dave-eggers-the-circle-fails-as-satire-succeeds-as-prophecy/

http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/books/2013/10/dave_eggers_tech_novel_the_circle_reviewed.2.html

Bernard Werber, Les fourmis

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A work colleague with whom I have been exchanging books suggested this odd novel that she had borrowed from a friend (books do get around, and the paper copies do have that definite advantage over e-books). There are two main plot lines. The first one describes the existence of some ants from a specific ant colony. They have different functions in the colony and therefore different physical characteristics and they are described a specific individuals with the power to act and make decisions as individuals. The second plot line concerns a human family who inherited a building from an eccentric uncle. There is some mystery attached to the basement of the building and a mysterious instruction to stay away from the basement. While the uncle was an expert in entomology and was particularly interested in ants, it takes a very long time to find out the connection between the two plot lines. I will not give it away here.

Werber’s work as been described as “scientific fiction” and indeed parts of the book read more like an encyclopedia entry than a novel, but it is absolutely fascinating. It is the first volume of a trilogy; the second volume is called Le jour des fourmis and the third, La révolution des fourmis.

References

Werber, Bernard. Les Fourmis. Albin Michel, 1991.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernard_Werber

http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernard_Werber

 

Karen Russell, Sleep Donation

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Karen Russell offers us a fascinating satire on the blood donation business, its benefits and problems, even scandals. In bleak twist of faith, at some unspecified future time, North America is facing an unprecedented epidemic of terminal insomnia. Victims lose the ability to sleep and can only be treated through sleep transfusion. Sleep must be donated after donor screening, and filtered to ensure it is not “contaminated”. Most victims are cured after one such transfusion although some seem to be incurable.

This terminal insomnia is described in the following way:

Neuroscientists have since concluded that for a significant portion of our country’s population, the signalling function of the neuropeptide orexin has become impaired. Orexin deficiency has been linked to human narcolepsy, but this disfunction causes the opposite effect: an untenable hyperarousal. Sleep becomes impossible. People like Dori [Trish’s sister] remain conscious for months and even years, hostages of their brain’s chemicals, trapped in the vigilance state that eventually kills them.

The story is told through the eyes of a Slumber Corps volunteer, Trish Edgewater, whose sister was one of the first to die from this ailment. The Slumber Corps, similarly to the Red Cross, operates a network to collect and redistribute sleep, supported by both employees and volunteers. To honor her sister’s memory, Trish is a volunteer recruiter for the organization.

One of her recruits is Baby A, baby girl of the Harkonnen’s, who sleep is so pure, so untainted, that she is considered a “universal donor”. Because of the quality of her sleep, she is pumped to the max weekly, to her father’s great dismay.

When Trish discovers what may be fraudulent behavior on the part of one of the Slumber Corps leaders, she starts questioning her commitment to the organization and feels guilty about her behavior towards the Harkonnen, which she is starting to think is manipulative.

What attracted me to this novella is the “sleep” theme, given my own current inability to have a night of uninterrupted sleep. Granted, my own problem is nothing like terminal insomnia, so maybe I can draw comfort from the fact that it could be much, much worse.

Some people have labelled this book science fiction (or a dystopia), but I prefer to call it satire. The parallels between the issues related to blood donation and how the press covers them are sometimes so witty and incisive that in my mind, it is clearly satire.

Russell, Karen. Sleep Donation. Atavist Books, New York, NY, 2014.

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

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In Fahrenheit 451, firemen’s jobs are not to extinguish fire but to burn books and burn down houses where libraries have been found. The main character, Guy Montag, loves his job as a fireman. In fact, the first sentence of this novel is “It was a pleasure to burn.” However, a chance encounter leads him to question most of the taken-for-granted aspects of his life. He is also prone to salvaging some books that he was supposed to burn and he hides those behind an air vent in his house. Eventually, his carelessness leads to a denunciation and he is asked to burn down his own house.

The most disturbing aspect of the book is the description of the mass media programs Guy’s wife and her friends like to watch. Mind-numbing, fast-moving, meaningless programming fills room-size screens that replace interaction with other and one’s own reality. Scenes of nonsensical interaction and random flashes and swirls of color fill the screens. Interactive devices enable programs to insert the name of audience members into programming to foster the pretence that audience members are interacting with characters on the screen. In effect, Guy’s wife prefer watching her screen “family” to spending time with her husband, but is not quite able to tell about what she is watching (as there is no plot or content to speak of) in the three wall-size screen of her parlor. Even the snatches of dialogue features in the novel are nothing more than empty exclamations and onomatopoeias. Given that the book was published in 1951 and that television was not the commodity it now is, it is eerie how the author could anticipate one of the possible future uses of this tool (i.e. dumbed-down entertainment for the masses).

In the end, Guy manages to escape being punished for his crimes and joins a group of renegades outside the city. Given that they are outside the city, the escape a bombing that is part of some unexplained impending war. While Guy does worry about the faith of his wife who escaped before the house was to be burned, he is also disturbed by his lack of affect for her. One of his renegade companions tells that it is necessary to leave something behind to move on… and not to be broken-hearted about it. In a way, the renegades are not better people than the conformists, not better and more caring… but they have plans to preserve and restore some of the knowledge lost by the burning of books. Maybe that is a better purpose?

I loved the style in that book, the bleakness of it, the dry description that forces you to read between the lines to search for the emotions that may feel each scene but that are rarely openly acknowledged and brought to the forefront. The writing style is very similar to the one of The Martian Chronicles and Guy’s kerosene hose reminded me of the bee-filled guns.

Margaret Atwoodd and Madd Addam

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I was really looking forward to this book, in part because of the cool title and in part because Margaret Atwood is my all-time favorite author. This book was a delight to read. I am not sure it would completely make sense to those who have not first read Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, in spite of the synopses given at the beginning of Madd Addam. The book jacket calls this series “speculative fiction”, as if not all fiction was speculative, but I would call it right out “science fiction”. It is very much about scientific manipulations gone wrong.

First, Crake creates a new human race with slightly different characteristics from homo sapiens. They get referred to as the “Crakers”. They are gently and helpful, can communicate with other life forms in ways human beings cannot, do not know jealousy or hatred, and have no taste for violence. It makes them vulnerable to manipulation because of their trusting nature. One of their most endearing features is their ability to purr, which they use to comfort others when they are unhappy or ill. This purring makes others feel better. They also love to sing but their singing is described as eerie and somewhat annoying to humans. Hence, we find this series of statements, often repeated in the book:

Please stop singing.

Please don’t sing yet.

Please don’t sing.

You do not have to sing.

These injunctions usually appear as single-sentence paragraphs so they really stand out. It gets to be really funny. The Crakers like to sing to express emotion, to comfort themselves and others, to celebrate meaningful moments. In fact, they like to sing a lot. They are also very gullible and do not understand irony and figures of speech. A lot of the humor in the book comes from misunderstandings between humans and Crakers. As a scientific experiment, the Crakers do not seem to be the future of human kind, even though they were conceived as an improvement.

Second, most the human population gets wiped out by an invisible plague. This happens in The Year of the Flood. In Madd Addam, we find out about one mechanism used to disseminate the plague agent, which was to include it in another seemingly innocuous pharmaceutical product.

Third, genetically engineered life forms that appear in the trilogy are usually more threatening than useful, such as giant pigoons (my spell-checker keeps wanting to change that to pigeons), wolvogs, and liobams. Only the dumb and cuddly rakunk is used as a pet. In the end though, the humans create an alliance with the giant pigoons with the help of a Craker interpreter in order to rid the area of two hardened murderers that are threatening them.

As speculative fiction, the book is a thought-experiment about how people can deal with crisis situations and survival in a harsh and unpredictable environment. The survivors should a great deal of resilience and survive through collaboration and altruism. If there is to be an overarching moral theme to this book, it may be that one can survive almost anything, but that one does not survive alone. And not without humor.

 

H.G. Wells, The Invisible Man

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A man swathed in bandages shows up at an inn in the village of Iping in West Sussex. He rents a large room and cases of materials arrive for him. His behavior and appearance attract quite a bit of attention. It is suddenly revealed that he is invisible. One person can see right into his jacket sleeve. There is nothing there! The Invisible Man attempts to escape from this location and he gets help from a tramp and manages to run away to another town where he lands at the house of a former fellow student.

We find out, as he is explaining his current predicament to the fellow student, that his name is Griffin and that through his scientific pursuits he found a way to make himself invisible. He thought there was going to be quite a few advantages to being invisible but soon finds the situation to be quite the opposite. First, in order to be invisible, one has to be naked which can be quite uncomfortable. One is also not completely invisible if matter can deposit itself on the body and stay there. In effect, the outline of body parts will be visible is there is rain, snow, mud or dust. Griffin also finds out that being safe on the street relies as much on being careful and staying out of people’s way as on others seeing him and avoiding colliding with him. While he is invisible, he keeps getting bumped into by passers by and risks being run over by horse-drawn carts. Being invisible also makes it difficult to attend to injuries as they are not visible either to him or others. Food consumed by the Invisible Man is also visible until absorbed. What the author does not say is whether the food matter that is not absorbed by the body remains visible until it has made its way out of the digestive system…

In the end, the fellow student is instrumental in revealing Griffin’s presence and the ensuing chase results in serious injury and the death of the Invisible Man. As he is dying, the body slowly becomes visible again in the reverse order as the process of becoming invisible was originally described.

H.G. Wells provides an interesting thought-experiment of the possible consequences of being invisible. All in all, it does not sound like a very desirable state.

The story is well constructed and suspense is effectively maintained throughout. This is the second H.G. Wells book I read after The Island of Doctor Moreau and his writing is a delight. I definitely have to get into The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds soon.

 

A man swathed in bandages shows up at an inn in the village of Iping in West Sussex. He rents a large room and cases of materials arrive for him. His behavior and appearance attract quite a bit of attention. It is suddenly revealed that he is invisible. One person can see right into his jacket sleeve. There is nothing there! The Invisible Man attempts to escape from this location and he gets help from a tramp and manages to run away to another town where he lands at the house of a former fellow student.

We find out, as he is explaining his current predicament to the fellow student, that his name is Griffin and that through his scientific pursuits he found a way to make himself invisible. He thought there was going to be quite a few advantages to being invisible but soon finds the situation to be quite the opposite. First, in order to be invisible, one has to be naked which can be quite uncomfortable. One is also not completely invisible if matter can deposit itself on the body and stay there. In effect, the outline of body parts will be visible is there is rain, snow, mud or dust. Griffin also finds out that being safe on the street relies as much on being careful and staying out of people’s way as on others seeing him and avoiding colliding with him. While he is invisible, he keeps getting bumped into by passers by and risks being run over by horse-drawn carts. Being invisible also makes it difficult to attend to injuries as they are not visible either to him or others. Food consumed by the Invisible Man is also visible until absorbed. What the author does not say is whether the food matter that is not absorbed by the body remains visible until it has made its way out of the digestive system…

In the end, the fellow student is instrumental in revealing Griffin’s presence and the ensuing chase results in serious injury and the death of the Invisible Man. As he is dying, the body slowly becomes visible again in the reverse order as the process of becoming invisible was originally described.

H.G. Wells provides an interesting thought-experiment of the possible consequences of being invisible. All in all, it does not sound like a very desirable state.

The story is well constructed and suspense is effectively maintained throughout. This is the second H.G. Wells book I read after The Island of Doctor Moreau and his writing is a delight. I definitely have to get into The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds soon.

 

References

Wells, H.G., The Invisible Man, 1897. (web edition published by eBooks@Adelaide)

 

Wednesday Night Ramblings 2013 04 10

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I am having trouble concentrating on reading so I might as well spend some time writing. I just finished the Coursera MOOC on Fantasy and Science Fiction. I got to read a whole bunch of books I would not otherwise have gotten too. I am also digging into The Routledge Concise History of Science Fiction as well as a critical description of science fiction written by Guy Bouchard, who was at the time of publication a philosophy professor at Laval University in Québec City (most likely retired by now). I am also diving into Frank Herbert’s Dune and finishing to read H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man.

I was so intensely into the Cory Doctorow book last weekend, it is hard now to get into something else. My mind is not yet quite ready to take on another universe. The “busyness” of the work day is also getting in the way of letting my mind wander into another world.

Because of the postings I made on science fiction books, I got “likes” and “comments” from people who did not seem to have visited my blog before. That’s cool. What is cooler is what I found when I visited theirs. I was particularly impressed with Jim Harris’ blog. He’s got lists of key sci fi works by decade as well as some commentary (and tons of other stuff too). I’m sure I’ll be visiting again.

 

References:

Bouchard, Guy, Les 42 210 univers de la science-fiction, Sainte-Foy : Le Passeur, 1993.

Bould, Mark and  Sherryl Vint, The Routledge Concise History of Science Fiction, New York and London: Routledge, 2011.

Herbert, Frank, Dune, New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1965.

Wells, H.G., The Invisible Man. 1897. (Web edition published by eBooks@Adelaide)

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Cory Doctorow, Little Brother

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That was a relatively quick read and some fun but it also had a tedious side. Maybe I’m just too old to read books featuring (sometimes horny) teenagers who think they can change the world… Marcus, a 17-year-old high school student from San Francisco interested in computers and other gizmos, is in the wrong place at the wrong time on the day when a terrorist group decides to bomb the Bay Bridge and the BART tunnel. He gets arrested and is jailed by Homeland Security. He is released on the condition that he reveals no information about what he has seen and returns home after a few days. In spite of the explicit threats made by his jailors before his release, he tries to make a difference by creating ways for young people to circumvent surveillance and creates an alternate computer network where encoded information can be exchanged. This works for a little while, until the network is infiltrated and Marcus gets arrested again and is submitted to torture. In the end, the Governor of California throws out Homeland Security operatives and re-establishes the normal workings of the law.

As a piece of speculative fiction, it proposes an interesting thought experiment of what could logically follow from the state having too much control. Because it is set in either the “now” timeframe or in the near future and because the technology looks believable (based on my own limited knowledge of information and security technology), the events that Doctorow describes look like they could really take place.

As I was reading this book, I was reminded of Cliff Stoll’s The Cuckoo’s Egg that I read some twenty years ago. While this book was not a novel, but an account of tracking a hacker through computer networks (academic, commercial and military), it has a similar portrayal of how permeable computer networks could be for those with the right knowledge and tools.

Doctorow’s message to young people (to whom he apparently directs his message) seems to be not to take for granted the ubiquity and apparent benignity of computer technology.

 

References:

Doctorow, Cory. Little Brother. 2008. Source: http://craphound.com/littlebrother

Stoll, Cliff. The Cuckoo’s Egg. Pocket Books, New York, NY: 1989.