Friday, 27 August 2010

"House of Suns" by Alastair Reynolds

During my recent journey around the world, I caught up on a lot of reading. I don't usually think of myself as a fan of space opera. I think of it as something I'm not often in the mood to enjoy. Looking back, it seems like I've been in the mood often enough, as I made my way through the works of Ken Macleod ("The Star Fraction", The "Engines of Light" trilogy and others not reviewed here) and Iain M. Banks ("Player of Games", "Use of Weapons", "Against a Dark Background", "Excession", "Consider Phlebas", "Look to Windward", "Inversions, "Feersum Endjinn", "The Algebraist" and "Matter").

I had skimmed portions of Alastair Reynolds' work in bookstores in the past, but was never hooked until I finally took the chance and bought "House of Suns". I wasn't disappointed.

"House of Suns" tells the story of "the lines", families of a thousand clones of the same individual, who began life with a shared set of memories, and who set out to explore the galaxy. They reunite every hundred thousand years or so to exchange their memories over the course of a thousand nights. The telling takes three years and (owing to relativistic effects and the distances they must cover), it takes ten to twenty years for everyone to assemble. That the equivalent of a family reunion takes ten or more years is a sign of how long members of the line live and the time scale they operate in. These are explorers who plot wide arcs in both space and time.

Into this already interesting base Reynolds throws familiar but well-handled material such as forgotten civilizations, machine intelligences, conspiracy, treason, and murder. To dwell on any of it in great detail would be a disservice. Suffice to say it's an enjoyable mix of hard Sci-fi and drama and a fairly short read (as space operas go). I found it a good introduction to Reynolds' work and worth checking out.

Friday, 20 August 2010

"Roadside Picnic" by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

I had never read any Science Fiction coming out of the former Soviet Union until I finally sat down and read "Roadside Picnic", one of the few remaining books in the Sci-Fi Masterworks series.

The Strugatsky brothers describe a world scarred by alien visitation. The central metaphor is of a roadside picnic viewed by the ants, for whom each piece of trash left behind is an artifact of a god-like intelligence. The unseen aliens are the picnickers, and we are the ants. The picnickers left behind scarred, altered places, littered with strange artifacts and dangers. The artifacts bring new discoveries, new technologies, new money to those daring enough to find, study and exploit them. Enter the "stalkers", fortune hunters who brave strange death to retrieve alien artifacts and sell them to those who would study them.

What makes this book great is that the dynamic it describes is only marginally related to alien technology or even science. "Roadside Picnic" is really a study of how money is exchanged for life. Some sell their lives as a hopeful gesture, thinking that their sacrifice will mean greater things for themselves and their family. Some sell their lives for drink, and smoke, and women, and then risk it all for another day of the same. All are making the same choices that people have made for millenia, and are recognizably human and full of life, love, and fear. Put another way, it's a study of the potential of capitalism, and the terrible costs.

As with many translated works, the language, expressions, and meter are a bit strained at times, but it rarely detracts from the book. It's a great book, a quick read, and well worth the time.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Three Tales of Immortality: "Welcome, Chaos" by Kate Wilhelm, "Time Enough for Love" by Robert Heinlein, and "The Passage" by Justin Cronin

When I started grazing through the Sci-Fi Masterworks series a few years ago, I had never heard of Kate Wilhelm. Her "Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang" was a wonderful discovery, a meditation on the changes cloning might have on the nature of individuality. Wilhelm's "Let the Fire Fall" reminded me of Robert Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land", with its mix of superhuman potential, power politics, and religion, and recently I happened to read two books on similar topics by Wilhelm and Heinlein within a few weeks of one another. I had planned to compare their takes on immortality, but while mulling things over I read Justin Cronin's "The Passage" (one of this summer's hot reads), and it just made sense to write about them all in one sitting.

Justin Cronin's "The Passage" follows the outbreak of a virus which both prolongs human life and turns humans into unthinking monsters. These "virals" are destroyers of life, and despised and feared by the few remaining humans, who struggle to enjoy what little time they have on Earth amidst the horror of their world. We follow one of the last colonies as attrition slowly grinds it away, and a handful of adventurers who look for a last bit of hope in a long trip across the shattered remains of America. Their story provides the same mix of ordinary people and extraordinary times, natural and supernatural that made Stephen King's "The Stand" such a great book to read many years ago.

In an interview with Trisha Page over at BookPing, Cronin likens immortality to "steal[ing] the future from our children", and this philosophy is borne out by the book. He finds the desire for immortality misguided, the costs too high, and thus his take on immortality is bleak, a nightmare world.

"Welcome, Chaos" tracks the accidental development of an indefinite life-prolonging treatment during the Second World War, and its threatened exposure to the public in the midst of the cold war. The immortals Wilhelm depicts are also resistant to disease and radiation, and so become a kind of nuclear deterrent that could prompt each side to start a war before the other can protect their people.

In addition to the struggles of world powers to control and use longevity as a political tool and a weapon, Wilhelm focuses on the effects of longevity on personal identity. Wilhelm's immortals are full of life and energy, but are also less hurried, more willing to simply enjoy each day and work towards even the most important goals on a longer scale. They have the time to get to know and love each other along the way. Wilhelm's take on immortality is cautious, but hopeful. Immortality has the potential to destroy humanity, but also the potential to free humanity from death and old age, to let people enjoy life for as long as they care to.

"Time Enough for Love" takes this second idea to its extreme. It's a lusty tale that follows Lazarus Long, who, through a combination of breeding for longevity and artificial rejuvenation techniques, becomes the longest lived human. Immortality is the secret province of a select few families, who live the equivalent of dozens or even hundreds of normal human lifespans. These immortals are living during a pioneer period, in which humanity is peopling the stars.

Heinlein's is the most positive take on immortality by far. Human society is expanding to other worlds, so even if everyone were immortal, there would be no overcrowding, no lack of resources, no exploitation of the younger generations. No matter how long Heinlein's immortals live or how far they go, time is longer and space farther still. The immortals are still constrained, just on a much larger scale. Heinlein's immortals keep going as long as they can still live in the moment, as long as they can find ideas, challenges, friends and family to keep them engaged and, almost literally, alive.

All three are great books for different reasons and highly recommended.

Friday, 6 August 2010

"Camouflage" by Joe Haldeman

I just finished "Camouflage", another quick and fun read from Joe Haldeman, author of "Forever War", "Accidental Time Machine" and "Marsbound". Joe Haldeman fills his book with thinking characters, outsiders who succeed because they take leaps of faith, outwit or just outluck the problems they encounter. His characters are self-aware, but not navel-gazers by any means. They are pragmatists, survivors, but also tend to have a sense of humor gained through hard experience in the absurdities and harshness of life.

The main characters in "Camouflage" are immortal aliens with the ability to mimic humans. Think of it as "Highlander", but with much less romanticism and simplicity, and a lot more alienness. They may pretend to be human, but they are much more than long-lived humans.  They can change identities, changing their apparent age, sex, race not quite as easily as we change clothes, but easily enough that they can move from life to life, career to career as they live through our history.

For most of the book we follow the more naive of the two aliens, the changeling, who has emulated a shark and other sea creatures for millions of years, and one day emulates the sailors it has seen and wanders ashore. Thus begins its journey from being only slightly more than animal to being more than human. Although life is nasty and brutish at times for the changeling, it's not short, and this makes all the difference. "Camouflage" is one of three books I read during my trip that deal with the challenges and advantages of a very long life.  Stay tuned for a double-bill comparing "Welcome, Chaos" by Kate Wilhelm and "Time Enough for Love" by Robert Heinlein.

As with "Accidental Time Traveler" and "Marsbound", this is a short book, a fun read, and highly recommended.