Category Archives: Fiction

“A Deepness in the Sky” by Vernor Vinge

Ah, it’s been a while since I’ve had a can’t-put-it-down reading experience.  While I don’t think I liked it quite as much as its predecessor, “A Deepness in the Sky” was still very, very good.

The OnOff star is a mystery – a normal sun for around 40 years, then it turns off for the next 200, on a predictable cycle.  Remarkably, intelligent life exists on the system’s only planet – the Spiders, a civilization on the cusp of a technological revolution and spaceflight.  This draws the attention of two groups, both of which send fleets.  The Qeng Ho are a loosely affiliated group of traders, and the Emergent are a newly risen militaristic civilization, about which little is known.

The Qeng Ho derive their trader identity from Pham Nuwen, himself a native of a medieval world and taken in by a group of early Qeng Ho refugees.  He quickly learns their ways and marvels at the speedy rise and fall of civilizations across the inhabited worlds.  This cycle is very rapid indeed to traders hibernating in cryosleep for hundreds of years at a time, while their ships travel at slower than light speeds to their next destination.  He figures that the traders are perfectly positioned to try to ameliorate the suffering of failed civilizations, as well as preserve the best technology produced by civilizations at their peak.  The Qeng Ho freely broadcast some of their knowledge continuously, as a way to bootstrap fallen civs back to the top.  They strive to build up civs back to prosperity, because it is a good ideal itself and also (more importantly?) because it sets up a good market for trading.

But Pham sees a way to have more – he envisions the Qeng Ho itself as an interstellar governing empire, with ability to prevent civilization collapse in the first place.  As he builds up support for his ideas, he calls for a meeting of Qeng Ho at a place called Brisgo Gap.  Just as he is about to clinch victory, he is betrayed by his wife, Sura.  (While Pham has been traveling and thus is still in his prime, Sura who managed things at home, is many centuries old by now, and many of his descendants are physically older than Pham.  Weird.)  She opposes him because … “it’ll never work!  You’d need an army of loving slaves!”  (groan … that’s not a reason!  And such lame forced foreshadowing…)  Pham is forced into exile – put into a ship bound for a target several hundred lightyears away, and he fades from history.  An incognito Pham may or not end up in the Qeng Ho expedition to the OnOff star (spoiler: he does!), still bent on achieving his empire one way or another…

Ok, so the Emergents are Not Very Nice.  They co-opted a brain virus to serve as a form of mind control, called Focus.  The Focused individuals can be tuned to a specific set of tasking, and they obsessively perform their tasks with superhuman attention and ability.  For instance, a key character in the story is a Focused translator of the Spider language.  Coupled with traditional computer systems, Focus gives the Emergents effectively all the sought-for benefits of nearly unlimited AI, except without the “A” part I guess.  And only at the cost of mental enslavement of many individuals!  Most of the non-Focused Emergents serve in roles managing the Focused chattel.

When the Qeng Ho and Emergent expeditions meet in the OnOff system, it’s not long before the Qeng Ho are double-crossed, mostly afflicted with the Focus virus, and sneak-attacked.  When it’s all done, all the ships on both sides are incapacitated and only a few habitats and supplies remain out in L1 orbit.  Emergents and Qeng Ho are forced to live and work together for survival, although the Qeng Ho are clearly the conquered, and the morally bankrupt, manipulative Emergent leader Tomas Nau takes charge.

The survivors strategy is to “lurk” out in space, and wait for the rapidly progressing Spider civilization to mature to the point where the spacers can reveal themselves and receive help (Qeng Ho: by trading!  Emergents: no, by force of course) from a capable industrial base in fixing up their ships.  The OnOff star flares back to life shortly after the Qeng Ho-Emergent battle.

When the OnOff star turns back on, its solar output is extremely elevated for a short (a few weeks or months? years?) duration.  This turns the Spider planet into a fireball, destroying most of what was created by the previous generation.  The Spiders themselves stay safe, however, as they retreated two centuries ago to hibernation (ha! just like the spacers on their long voyages!) in their deep underground shelters, the “deepnesses,” when the star turned off and air-freezing temperatures ensued.

Much like Vinge did in the previous book, the Spider’s story is told in alternating sequence with the spacers; and although quite alien in ways they also seem very familiar and even … lovable?  Yes.  Lovable, monstrous, giant spiders.  Sherkaner Underhill is a Spider technological genius who guides most of his civilization’s progress, including a determination to find a way to live, awake, right through the Dark.  As the spacers observe Spider progress from their far-away orbit, they are able to subtlety alter events by injecting data at opportune times into the Spider computer networks.  <spoiler>In a twist, Sherkaner catches on eventually that aliens are out there, manipulating things, and sets up a great “counterlurk” — while everyone thinks he’s gone a little bit senile, he and his team secretly gain control over the spacer systems via the Focused translators, and in the end avert Tomas Nau’s war of conquest.  Pham also sees the light and realizes that even his dream of empire is not worth the moral price of Focus slavery – now he works out a plan to free the Focuses, first in the OnOff system but with plans at the end of the book to carry on the fight at the Emergent homeworlds.</spoiler>

Definitely a theme of the rise and fall of civilizations going on in this book.  First there’s the Qeng Ho’s observations of the inevitable fleeting nature of human governments, when viewed on cosmic timescales.  (This reminded me of a similar treatment in “House of Suns“.)  Then there are the Spiders, forced to rebuild their own world anew with each lighting of the OnOff star.

“Henderson the Rain King” by Saul Bellow

I sort of liked the “adventure” parts but the philosophy was pretty much lost on me.  Recommend skipping unless you are an English undergrad…

Eugene Henderson is born into wealth, but by his forties/fifties he is frustrated with a lack of purpose.  He thinks he might want to be a doctor; his wife humiliates him by laughing at such a dream at his age.  He has a chance to accompany a friend to Africa and feels like there, in the wild, he might find whatever he is looking for.

The first tribe he spends time with, the Arnui (sp? Audio book…), are friendly but suffering from a plague of frogs in their water cistern, which means they can’t give it to their cows.  Henderson thinks that here is my chance, here is my purpose – to help these poor people.  He had some experience with explosives in the war and so rigs up a bomb to kill the frogs.  It does; but also breaks the cistern, making the Arnui’s problems infinitely worse.

He and his guide quickly make tracks, and end up in the tribe of the Wariri (sp?).  They are kind of suspicious people, but during a rain ceremony he once again jumps in to “save the day” when the village strongman fails to budge the huge statue of their goddess Mumma.  Henderson is a big, strong fellow and is able to move the statue with some effort.  He didn’t know it beforehand, but this entitles him to be the Sungo, the rain king.  He becomes friends with the actual king, Dafu, and becomes familiar with their customs: when a king first shows signs of weakness, he is murdered by his harem.  The body is dragged to the bush and left, but kept under observation.  No beasts are allowed to eat the corpse, except for a lion cub.  The cub is marked and released – this cub is said to now possess the soul of the dead king.  The Sungo gets to be the new king, and after some period of time his duty is to capture the now grown up cub and keep him as a pet of sorts.

Well, King Dafu captures a different lion in his first attempt, and decides to keep it.  He therefore is now facing insurrection as all other lions besides the old king are considered to be magical troublemakers.  Dafu admires lions in general; and embarks on program of familiarizing Henderson with the lion in an up close and personal manner, so that he takes on some lion qualities – nobility, confidence.  Soon, the actual lion Dafu is supposed to capture his spotted, but Dafu dies in the capture attempt (might have been sabotage by his enemies).

Henderson is held captive until his “coronation” but wisely escapes this death trap.  Before he goes, he swipes the lion cub designated for Dafu and flies it back to the states.  He resolves to become a doctor after all.

What’s the meaning here?  Maybe to follow your dream.  Maybe it doesn’t really matter.  One quote from near the end: “What is the universe?  Big.  And what are we?  Little.  So I might as well stay at home, where my wife loves me.  Or, if she is only pretending to love me, maybe that’s good enough, too.”

“The Gunslinger” by Stephen King

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I had heard great things about The Dark Tower series, and even tried to read this once before, long ago, but abandoned it.  Tried again with the audiobook version and made it through … but I’m still not a fan and will probably not be continuing.  For most of the book I was pretty lost – there isn’t a lot of backstory or explicit “world building” to let the reader know what’s going on.  It’s mostly a lot of flashbacks that the gunslinger Roland has on a journey to find the man in black.  The best part was towards the end when we get some answers on what the Dark Tower (which for unexplained reasons is the gunslinger’s real destination) really is.

Somehow the Dark Tower is a link between universes; not only parallel universes to our own, but also up and down in scale.  We can observe down to a subatomic particle level; each atom is like a cluster of galaxies itself.  If we go up, our own universe may exist on the tip of a blade of grass or within a grain of sand existing in a higher-up universe.  Somehow the Dark Tower pulls all these things together.  There are things and people from our own universe somehow teleported or stuck into Roland’s wasteland; for instance there is a boy Jake who the man in black killed, or saw being killed in our world (hit by a car) and then he was transported alive and well into Roland’s path.

The universe thing is kind of a neat idea.  Also in the book is kind of a hint of an interesting post-apocalyptic world that has “moved on” – everything is dirty and dreary and mostly miserable in Roland’s world.  But despite this, the storyline in this first installment was hard for me to follow and didn’t really draw me in; I was barely able to make myself finish the thing.

“The Inimitable Jeeves” by P.G. Wodehouse

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Basically a collection of short stories (with some links between them) involving Bertie getting caught up in his friend Bingo’s schemes to win over some girl he has just fallen in love with (different girl each story.)  Very funny stuff!  Didn’t quite like the narrator as much as the last Jeeves book I listened to though.

“A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens

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Despite “A Muppet Christmas Carol” being my favorite holiday movie, I have never actually read the book, until now.  The classic story is pretty familiar of course, thanks to the Muppets and other adaptations.

A few new things I noticed in the book:

  • In Christmas Past, when Scrooge is a boy left alone at school over the Christmas holiday (because of a strict father?  Because the next Christmas his sister Fan takes him home saying “father is much kinder now”), his only companions are his books.  He is (metaphorically) visited by some of his favorites, including Ali Baba and Robinson Crusoe.
  • There’s a passage in Christmas Present where the spirit expresses disgust with those who would deprive the poor “of their means of dining every seventh day”.  Huh?  Doing a bit of googling, it seems that there was a political tussle going on in England in 1843 when the book was published, where lawmakers were trying to close a loophole in the law that forbade bakers baking bread on the sabbath.  Instead, the bakers had been lending out their ovens for the use of the poor to cook their meals.  Ovens were not a commonplace item in every home, particularly not in the homes of the poor.  Dickens is making commentary on the cold-hearted self-righteousness of rich politicians and the like who are trying to get the poor to abide by their own conception of the law of the sabbath, even when that means they cannot eat a proper meal.
  • In Christmas Future, Tiny Tim’s death has happened very recently indeed.  In the movie versions, when Bob comes home from the churchyard and comments how nice and green the location looks, I always assumed that Tim was already dead and buried.  Apparently, the first part is correct but not the second.  A little while after Bob comes in and makes that comment, he goes upstairs to spend a little time and kiss the cheek of dead Tiny Tim, laid out on a bed. Eww.

“Sleeping Giants” by Slyvain Neuvel

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A number of giant robot pieces of extremely advanced, extraterrestrial design are discovered and assembled in secret.  It’s a superweapon ala Mechwarrior, cool!  Needs two pilots inside, one for the arms and one for the legs.  A linguist is also on the team, since they need to decipher the console controls.  Oh no!  Love triangle between girl pilot, boy pilot and boy linguist!!

Kind of interesting story at the beginning, but didn’t really go anywhere.  The style is unique – told entirely via “interview records” from some secretive, supra-national, illuminati-esque narrator who is the one calling (most of) the shots.

“Waypoint Kangaroo” by Curtis C. Chen

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A pretty fun, light read after John C. Wright.

Kangaroo (secret agent code name) has a superpower: he can open a portal to another universe, which is completely empty.  Makes it perfect for storing or smuggling stuff!  He is also employed by a sort-of future CIA.  A few hundred years or so into the future, colonized Mars has recently become independent following a brutal war with Earth.  Now, Kangaroo is on a (Disney-esque) cruise ship bound for Mars, ostensibly on vacation, albeit one forced on him by his boss.

It turns out that there is something sinister afoot.  A few murders, a hijacking, and a threat to re-ignite the Mars-Earth war keep the story moving at a pretty good clip.  Lots of humorous dialog.

My gripes (which are pretty modest) are 1) the stolen items out of cargo didn’t really need to be in the story and 2) the love interest fell for Kangaroo rather quickly – I kept thinking that she would turn out to be some bad guy trying the seduction angle on our hero, but nope.  She just falls in love at the drop of a hat, I guess.

“The Golden Age Trilogy” by John C. Wright

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This is probably the most far-out, wildest sci-fi future history I’ve ever read.  The singularity has occurred, and then some.  It is many, many thousands of years in the future and people are pretty much immortal.  Minds may be transferred with total accuracy between biological brains and machines.  It’s hard to tell (for me; it’s a plot point in the book though that they are very different) where AI ends and humanity begins.  There are a multitude of body types and even mind types; these are the new “races.”  Invariants are totally logical, with a brain structure prohibiting anything else.  On the opposite end, Warlocks are totally intuitive and spontaneous.  There are large group-minds, which are throngs of people all joined together somehow into a single conciousness.  There are Neptunians, which are big blue blobs that hang out in the atmosphere or out in the Kuiper belt.

Somewhat in charge of everything are the Sophotechs, incredibly advanced AI’s which guard over humanity.  (At least, the ones who get mention in the book seem to care about us.  Towards the end of the story, we realize that Saturn has been colonized by a huge number of Sophotechs doing who knows what.)

Fortunately for the reader, Phaeton is a member of the Silver-Gray school, which idolizes 19th century Britain as the epitomy of culture.  Therefore a lot of his actions contain a familiar-enough reference frame for us poor, primitive readers.  He has a pretty cool origin: he originally was a character in a simulation where he was a conquering warrior from a distant colony who destroyed the Earth.  Somehow during the simulation he became self-aware (hey it can happen…?) and thus it would have been a crime to allow him to be deleted when the sim ended.  So he got downloaded into a body and voila, new person.  The simulation’s author, Helion, is therefore Phaeton’s father.

Helion is a Peer, one of the most powerful people in the system.  He built a Solar Array to tame and control solar flares for useful purposes.  Another Peer, Gannis, ignited Jupiter as a sort of second Sun and built a supercollider surrounding it, which allows the creation of exotic materials.  Another Peer invented the technology which permits mind transfers and therefore functional immortality.  These Peers are Big Stuff.  Then there is Atkins, the only soldier left in a society that has evolved beyond physical wars.  He’s kind of melancholy but at the same time wields the entire military arsenal of thousands of years and thousands of armies.  (Although most of the “fights” in the book are handled in a split-second by dueling computer viruses or nanomachines.)  Not one to mess around with.

Alright, so that’s a bit on the world building.  Quite a complex society and difficult to grasp for us in the 21st century.  Now the story.  In the first book, Phaeton realizes he is missing memories and sets off to recover them.  These lost memories are about his constructing a giant starship, the Phoenix Exultant, in order to begin colonizing the galaxy.  The College of Horators, loosely the government, (the Sophotechs are in charge of the law and order type stuff) feel this is a bad idea, since some future colony may turn on its mother system.  (Like the simulation which gave birth to Phaeton.)  But Phaeton realizes that staying put in one system is a gradual death sentence; humanity must spread out, grow, and even be tested in order to meet its potential.  (This line of thinking kind of reminded me of End of Eternity.)

In the second book, Phaeton gets exiled and has to make a comeback.  The beginning of the book where he wanders the strange new Earth was much like the first part and I enjoyed it, but then there was kind of a strange change in style/tone.  I kind of lost track of the plot, and some of the situations and dialog became more slapsticky which was kind of jarring.

Then in the third book, Phaeton has to face an invader from an older colony.  Hmmm maybe those Horators’ fears were well placed.  A long time ago, there was an expedition to Cygnus X1 which flourished for a time, but then seemed to destroy itself with great suffering.  Turns out a rogue Sophotech-like being, the Nothing, from this “Silent Oecumene” is now poking about the Golden Oecumene.  (That’s what the solar system/humanity is called.  “oecumene (UK; Greek: οἰκουμένη, oikouménē, lit. “inhabited”) was an ancient Greek term for the known world, the inhabited world”  Betcha didn’t know that.)

Ok, on to the third book… Lots of philosophy here.  To defeat the bad guy super mind AI, Phaeton must …convince it that morality is absolute, not relative.  Not exactly the set up for an action-packed swashbuckler.  Throughout the third book, it is also hard to know who is lying – they catch the “big bad guy” about three times; each time it turns out he wasn’t really the big bad guy and there is someone else out there.  But along the way they believe most of the previous big baddie’s story, even though they realize he was a fraud.  Not sure why they thought they could trust anything he had said.  It’s hard to follow the jumbled plot and philosophy in the third book; I’m not even sure what evil deed the Nothing was planning to do.

If you can’t tell, I really enjoyed the first book, kind of the second, and not really the third.  Overall, I liked the world building, but the plot not so much.

“The Richest Man in Babylon” by George S. Clason

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Series of stories from ancient Babylon that teach by example how to get out of debt and/or make a lasting fortune.  The secret, which Clason practically beats over the reader’s head: save 10% of your income and live off the rest.  (If in debt, set aside an additional 20% to pay off creditors and live off 70% – yeah it might hurt, but you got yourself into this hole, so you can dig yourself out…)

Then safely invest that 10% with people who know what they are doing.  No risky speculation here.

Kind of interesting how characters in the stories are all kind of related somehow.  Eg. in one story, a guy name Bob learns the secrets of wealth, and then in the next story someone else talks about how rich Bob is and discovers the secret too.

Kind of amazing this book was written in 1926, if not before.

“Jeeves in the Morning” by P.G. Wodehouse

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Bertie Wooster tries to preserve the engagements of a few friends with the help of Jeeves.  Hilarity ensues.

Beware the fretful porpentine.

Read by the same narrator who did a Churchill book I recently read.  Great upper-class British voices for all characters.