Sunday, 26 August 2007

Review: The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

Reading "The Demolished Man" got me in the mood, so I reread "The Stars My Destination" on my way back home.

The central conceit of the work is human teleportation, not through technology, but through force of will, and as is a recurring theme in these reviews, a fair amount of the details of the world depicted are everyday concepts rearranged in reaction to the central conceit. What sets "The Stars My Destination" apart is the nuanced interactions, the character growth, and the continued focus on the future not only as a place for new technologies, but as a place for new states of human awareness and development.

Gully Foyle's driven journey to higher and higher levels of awareness is timeless, and his growth is always believably the result of exploration, discipline, instruction, and takes time. Gully Foyle and most of Bester's major characters are imaginative, adaptive, driven, playful, and believably flawed in both subtle and gross ways. Bester also has a fine sense of narrative. The plot does not march in lock step towards a clear ending, but does not wander aimlessly either. Each short term curve reconnects with the larger narrative in a satisfying way, and yet does not feel simplistic or contrived.

As with most rereadings, the key revelations late in the narrative are memorable enough that they color the understanding of earlier portions. Thankfully, I had forgotten enough that the work was enjoyable to revisit.

The edition I picked up (with the orange cover) had a nice introduction by Neil Gaiman, although I wish in retrospect that I had read it after the work itself, as a reasonable interpretation of the work sets up expectations and steers your own synthesis of a work. Here's hoping that the more descriptive reviews presented here aren't giving anyone unwanted preconceptions.

Thursday, 23 August 2007

Review: "The Demolished Man" by Alfred Bester

Today I started (and finished) "The Demolished Man" by Alfred Bester, who also wrote "The Stars My Destination".

The opening passages of the book didn't initial strike much of a chord with me, but as I worked my way into the narrative, I found it quite enjoyable, and can see why it comes so highly recommended.

Like "Black Man", "Demolished Man" deals with a change in human society resulting from the emergence of a new form of human. In "Demolished Man", the new model of humans are "peepers", psychic individuals. Unlike the variant thirteen genetic soldiers in "Black Man", the psychics in "Demolished Man" are a natural stage in evolution, and are slowly becoming the dominant form of human rather than an isolated minority.

Like "Minority Report" by Philip K. Dick, the main narrative in "Demolished Man" revolves around someone driven to commit murder in a world in which the act of murder is almost by definition impossible. There the similarities end. "Minority Report" was a meditation on the imprecision of clairvoyance and the effect knowing your fate has on your decision to act out your part of that fate. "Demolished Man" is instead a cat and mouse game where reading someone's mind gives you access to a truth that is more or less absolute, but which is not admissible in court, and which must be supplemented with objective evidence.

"Demolished Man" also offers some wonderful interplay between its psychic characters, and addresses well what relationships between psychic men and women would be like. Unlike many lesser and cliched treatments of the subject, the interplay of any two of the adult psychics in "Demolished Man" can be playful, calculated, intimate, nuanced. Lesser works use ESP as a cliched device to advance the plot and telepathy as a hands-free phone. Bester on the other hand does a good job of demonstrating that like sign language, a new form of communication would have its own character rather than simply being a direct translation of written and spoken language.

"Demolished Man" is also interesting as a narrative, in that the narration follows one character almost exclusively for the first half of the book, and follows their nemesis almost exclusively for the last half.

I'll have to reread "The Stars My Destination" and work through the rest of the author's work at some point (preferably this year, as the movie version of "The Stars My Destination" may come out in 2008).

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

Review: "Black Man" by Richard K. Morgan

Just finished Black Man by Richard Morgan, which is apparently also marketed under the title "Thirteen".

The book has a fair amount in common with the Takeshi Kovacs trilogy ("Altered Carbon", "Broken Angels" and "Woken Furies"), in that it's a mix of Science Fiction and noir detective drama. The book is set about a hundred years in the future, and the science is accordingly a shorter leap from the present day.

I'm continually impressed with how well Morgan can tease new variations out of concepts that he and previous writers have already explored. In the Takeshi Kovacs trilogy, the key concept was that of stored human experience and the ways in which it would change individuals and their society. Class dynamics, warfare, family, death itself were all still present, but were changed by the key concept. The key concept in "Black Man" was genetic manipulation, and that was similarly explored, although again, not extrapolated as far because of the shortened projection into the near future rather than the distant future.

A secondary concept in the Takeshi Kovacs trilogy was that of virtuality. The same concept is touched on lightly in "Black Man", but as befits a nearer future, it's not as widely explored. Given that, it was all the more surprising that Morgan managed to tease out another variation on the territory he mapped so extensively in the Kovacs trilogy. My favorite concept from his earlier works was the dilation and contraction of perceived time in virtual environments. In "Black Man", the concept of a virtual visitor's ward in a hospital is put forward, such that the terminally ill can interact with visitors free from the weakness and pain of their flesh, such that their final days are lived in greater strength and confidence.

Although there is certainly a fair amount of technical flair, "Black Man" is more firmly focused on the human condition, and what could happen if we as a society had the ability to produce less domesticated humans to deal with challenges civilized people are unable or unwilling to handle. The undercurrent of both "Black Man" and the Kovacs trilogy is that it is experience and discipline that make the indvidual, even if their physical and mental abilities are enhanced by technology or superior genetic material.

On the whole, a good read, and I look forward to further work from the author. It will also be interesting to see if a reasonable film can be made from "Altered Carbon" (aimed for release in 2009, apparently).

Thursday, 16 August 2007

Our ship has finally come in...

Elaine and I shipped our belongings from the states in a cargo container (our pallette would only have been in a small corner of a single container). After being unloaded and clearing customs, our belongings made their way up from London to Glasgow, and then over on the ferry. Our house now has a few modest piles of boxes for us to unpack, it should really be the tipping point in making a home here.

We unpacked the kitchen last night, I finally got to put together the two knives I bought in Amsterdam with the rest of our set. I've missed our bread knife so much, it's just incredibly useful for thinly slicing onions and tomatoes.

Our guitar hero rig is also here, which should be a blast to get back into.

Anyway, it'll take a while to integrate everything and get enough furniture to make our place livable, but it's getting there.

Sunday, 12 August 2007

Saki: Complete Short Stories...

I finally finished my copy of The Complete Short Stories of Saki (H. H. Munro). Witty, dark, just plain fun to read.

Most of the stories collected in the above volume are in the public domain and available to read for free online:

Some of my favorite stories (among the very many that are excellent):

- Ministers of Grace
- The Cobweb
- The Feast of Nemesis
- The Elk
- The Hounds of Fate
- The Interlopers
- The Occasional Garden
- The Stalled Ox
- The Storyteller

Saturday, 11 August 2007

Another great day for a run...

The weather really turned around for the weekend, clearer, warmer, but with enough of a breeze to keep the midgies away yet again.

Went for a much longer run than intended, ended up finally finding the trail to the Arnish lighthouse. You can see the run here:

I hope to go back with Elaine on our bikes soon and take some pictures, the views along the way and from the lighthouse are really outstanding.

Monday, 6 August 2007

Black Man

Just picked up Richard Morgan's latest, "Black Man".

I've read each of his previous books, which offer a nice mix of adrenaline and compelling hard SF concepts. I plan to start reviewing the books I read somewhat, will let you know how the latest prize goes.

Deathly Hallows

Just finished "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows". The prose was not all that challenging or finely crafted, but the weaving of plot threads from the previous books into a coherent whole and a consistent and satisfying ending was worth the wait. I'll hold off on saying anything further for the benefit of anyone (like my wife) who hasn't finished the book yet.