Sunday, 27 April 2008

First Long Run of the Year...

I went for my first long run of the year, you can see the route below. It was clear and sunny and warm for this time of year. The wind was a bit strong, it kept blowing my earphones out of my ears. I saw five ships anchored off the coast, which was unusual and kept things interesting as I tried to figure out what kinds of ships they were, etc. A lovely day and a good run, hopefully the first of many for the season.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Review: "Forever Peace" by Joe Haldeman

I picked up an omnibus edition of "Forever War", "Forever Free" and "Forever Peace" a few days ago. I had read the first two a while back, and they remain among my favorites, so much so that I can't leave them lying around or I'll reread whole sections every time I walk past them.

I had high hopes for "Forever Peace", which is not a bad book by any means, but is perhaps a bit more ordinary than the excellent "Forever War" or the engaging "Forever Free". Both "Forever Peace" and "Forever Free" were written in the late nineties, around 25 years after "Forever War". "Forever Free" is less of a departure, as it expands on the technologies and situations of "Forever War", with a bit more philosophy and a bit less technology. "Forever Peace" seems less connected, there is in fact almost nothing to suggest that the story takes place in the same world as the other two novels.

It starts reasonably enough, with the life of Julian Class, a part-time soldierboy operator who joins with his platoon to form a kind of collective consciousness for ten days out of each month. During the other twenty-odd days, Class is a researcher and lecturer in physics. Both aspects of his life are introduced and fleshed out well. The work begins to falter when it the main dynamic of the second half of the work is unveiled. We are meant to believe that the immediate choice facing humanity is either utter and immediate self-destruction or utter and more or less immediate pacification. It's the forced juxtaposition that hurts the work.

This is not to say that parts of the work aren't genuinely enjoyable. Haldeman teases aspects out of "jacking" that other authors dealing with similar material haven't picked up. Most notable is his idea the that the prolonged joining of minds through technology leads to greater sympathy of joined individuals for the whole of humankind.

At any rate, it's a fairly short read and enjoyable enough if you're willing to invest the time.

Saturday, 19 April 2008

Review: "Cities in Flight" by James Blish

"Cities in Flight" is a remarkable and epic four-volume cycle of novels that follow space-faring humans from their first tentative rocket-powered journeys to the planets of our own solar system to the end of the universe itself.

The first volume introduces us to a near future which is about to be revolutionized by two key discoveries that will enable man to venture out into space en masse. The second volume follows one young man suddenly thrust into the "Okie" culture in which entire cities fly from planet to planet looking for work and raw materials (those of you who have read "Execution Channel" by Ken MacLeod may find this concept familiar). The third volume follows the decline of the civilization in which the "Okie" cities operate. The fourth volume continues beyond the decline of civilization to the end of time itself.

What's impressive is the way in which Blish manages to project his ideas about the life cycle of cultures and civilizations while still making it clear that cultures and civilizations are always composed of living, breathing individuals. In the first volume, there are three key characters who give us a vantage point to understand the declining western culture and the two key scientific discoveries that make possible the birth of the new culture of space pioneers. In the second volume, we follow a young man who is swept up ("press-ganged") into an "Okie" city, and through him we learn about the emerging "Okie" culture. Towards the end of the second volume, we are introduced to John Amalfi, the mayor of the space-faring city of New York, New York, who is the main character of the third and fourth volumes.

The omnibus edition I read includes an afterword that ties the timeline of the volumes to historical civilizations and compares them to the "Okie" civilization. Even without the afterword, this is a well-crafted exploration of culture and civilization with heavy references to our own Earth-bound history, and stands the test of time incredibly well. Well worth a read.

Sunday, 13 April 2008

Review: "The Rediscovery of Man" by Cortwainer Smith

"The Rediscovery of Man" is a collection of short stories (all set in the same universe at different time periods) by Cortwainer Smith. This universe is largely ordered by the Instrumentality, a governing body spanning centuries and controlling in fine detail the lives of almost every living human.

Like Huxley before him, Smith imagines a world in which genetics and behavioral conditioning sanitize life to the point where individual achievement is nearly meaningless. Smith's Instrumentality extends the control of science over nature somewhat further than Huxley, to the point where everyone is allocated 400 years of life (instead of the roughly 80 years of youth the denizens of Huxley's "Brave New World" lived). They live without fear of disease, weather, aging, hunger or the lack of material goods. Access to history is tightly controlled, and all divisions of language and culture have been more or less erased. At the height of the Instrumentality, the only human individuals not perfectly adjusted to the needs of their society and their own ability to fulfill those needs are extreme aberrations (and extremely rare).

The title "The Rediscovery of Man" refers to the reemergence of chance and diversity as means of allowing the human race continued growth. This relaxation of some of the controls on their society arises in no small part from the study of undermen, animals modified to resemble, interact with, and serve humans. Early in the timeline of the Instrumentality, undermen are slaves, less than human, destroyed when they fail or become inconvenient. They are utterly disposable labor, and only those who are strong, witty, and lucky survive. Thus it is that the various species of underpeople grow while the human race in its perfect control over heredity and environment stagnates.

The reemergence of human progress and the rise of the underpeople are two of the major themes. Minor themes include telepathy, the mob mentality and the progress of societies and technologies over millenia. Like Tolkien's Middle Earth, you get the sense that Smith had a full vision of this universe stretching over millenia, and that each story was just a window into a fully-realized world.

This is a great collection of stories, well worth reading and rereading. I look forward to reading the small collection of additional fiction works by the author.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Review: "Jem" by Frederick Pohl

I just finished another in the excellent SF Masterworks series, "Jem" by Frederick Pohl. I had previously read all four books (are there more now?) in Pohl's Heechee saga (although I enjoyed the later ones in the kind of way you enjoy the fifth series of a television show, more because you enjoy the characters and less because of the novelty or originality).

Anyway, back to "Jem". "Jem" is a well-crafted story of space colonization from the ground floor up. The three main political blocs on Earth (countries which export fuel, countries which export food, and countries which export labor) each hope to exploit a newly discovered world to give them an advantage over their rivals. They each ally themselves with one of the three sentient races on the new world, and very nearly complete the cycle of arms race and then mutually assured destruction on two worlds.

A good book, a quick read, with some nice characters and excellent descriptions of the culture of the alien races. Highly recommended.