Category Archives: Sci-fi

“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.

“Seveneves” by Neal Stephenson

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The moon mysteriously breaks into seven pieces, destroyed by a traveling black hole or some other unexplained anomaly.  At first everyone is just kind of puzzled, but not too concerned.  Then, after two of the pieces collide and one breaks, astronomers realize the implications of this unstable gravitational system.  The collisions will become more and more frequent, until in about two years there will be so many moon rock meteors entering the Earth’s atmosphere that ambient temperatures worldwide will rise to several hundred degrees.  This is what they call the “Hard Rain” and it is not good news for life on Earth.

The book has three parts – one during the preparation for the Hard Rain, the second during the Hard Rain and a few years after (until humanity gets to safety) and the final section about 5000 years in the future, just as mankind is starting to repopulate the stabilized Earth.  (I agree with reviewers on Amazon and elsewhere – part 3 is kind of weak; interesting “future history” and some cool mega-engineering projects wrought by our spacer descendants, but the storyline is pretty predictable and ho-hum.)

In its final two years, Earth puts together plans for a “Cloud Ark” of spacecraft, centered on the International Space Station, which will preserve humanity while everyone else dies.  Initially I thought it was odd to try escaping high velocity space rocks by going into space, but I guess it kind of makes sense: if you are directly hit by a bolide, whether on Earth or in a spacecraft, you are dead.  But, even if many bolides miss you directly, you still get toasted on the Earth due to atmospheric heating.  Too bad.  So space it is, where at least some of the “arks” will not get directly hit by a bolide.

Pretty soon after the hard rain starts, the ark kind of falls apart, thanks mainly to the interference and ignorance of the ex-President of the USA*. Annoyingly, she is still playing old world politics when the remnants of humanity need unity and the brains in charge in order to survive.  Most of the arks split off from the ISS lead and eventually run out of food and turn to cannibalism.  The ISS crew ends up seeking shelter in Cleft, the old core of the moon, a voyage which takes several years because orbits and mass. (I like Stephenson’s explainy-ness!  Really, I do.)

[* Julia Bliss Flaherty “JBF” – I felt she was modeled on Hillary Clinton, but a bit younger.  Two other characters had pretty clear real-world models: Dr. Doob, astronomer and “science popularizer” = Neil Tyson Degrasse; Sean Probst, .com billionaire turned space startup CEO = Elon Musk/Jeff Bezos.]

Once they finally reach the relative safety of Cleft, there are only eight survivors – all women.  Game over for humanity?  Not quite … luckily Moira, a certified genetics genius, is one of the eight and evidently reproduction is a piece of cake even with no males involved.  Happy day!  In about a fifteen minute pow-wow (eh, it’s only the future of humanity, no big deal), the gals decide to each genetically modify their offspring to introduce new traits.  (Hmmm… kind of just boosting the population might be in order before you start messing with that stuff, I think.  Also, hard to believe that someone didn’t keep on tinkering over the next several thousand years – why are there still only basically seven races after all that time?)

One of the eight is beyond child-bearing years, so that leaves seven progenitors to found their own races: Dinans (heroic), Ivyns (smart), Teclans (strong), Moirans (genetic shape shifters … told ya it was cool that she scored that 0.000000133% chance of being one of humanity’s survivors!), Aidans (sneaky and counterbalanced to each of the others – Aida was the head of the cannibal contingent), Camites (non-aggressive, so as to thrive in cramped space habitats.  Lame!) and Julians (manipulative schemers).

Well, in 5000 years the races are up to 3 billion population in a habitat ring around the equator.  Life is not too shabby.  Earth terraform has begun.  Humanity is divided more or less on the same lines as rebel arkers vs ISS, eg. Julians and Aidans “Red” vs everyone else = “Blue”.  Turns out there were other survivors of the Hard Rain besides the spacers.  Diggers – descendants of Dinah’s family of miners; Pingers – descendants of an underwater equivalent of the Space Ark, which took refuge in deep ocean trenches which never dried up – genetically engineered some fishy traits.  Loose end – an expedition to Mars that gets launched, but never talked about again.

Some final observations on technology.  Those on the ISS and in the Ark use cell phones, blogs, the internet, “Spacebook” … in 5000 years, they still haven’t gotten to our current state of gadgets, mainly from a choice to focus more on massive space infrastructure, but also from desire to avoid “Tav’s mistake” = wasting time with social media and etc.  But, then it is interesting that Blue’s “General” is a media-conscious reporter.  Winning battles is not so important as convincing people of the right “narrative.”

“Revelation Space” by Alastair Reynolds

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<WARNING: spoilers ahead>

Starts out great.  This is a summary of the first 50 pages:

  1. A space archaeologist, Dan Sylveste, is excavating an extinct starfaring civilization (the Amarantin) from 900,000 years ago; assisted by consultations with a simulation of the conciousness of his dead father (Calvin); embroiled in planetary politics and a rebellion.

  2. A massive, virtual ghost ship, the “lighthugger” (almost, but not quite as fast as light) Nostalgia for Infinity, crewed by just a handful but with thousands of empty cryocells, overtaken by computer viruses and in one case a cancerous fungal form overtaking the Captain’s cryocell; armed with planet-killer “cache weapons.”

  3. A world with “Shadowplay”, entertainment where daredevils hire professional assassins to try and kill them, with the resulting chase being captured by the media.

All together, an interesting semi post-Singularity future roughly 500 years from now.  The three threads, one each for the main characters Sylveste, Volyova (weapons officer on the lighthugger) and Khouri (a Shadowplay assassin), quickly come together.  A shadowy individual, the Mademoseille, hires Khouri to kill Sylveste; Volyova unknowingly recruits Khouri onto the lighthugger – bound for Resurgam, the Amarantin world Sylveste is investigating.  Meanwhile, there is a runaway entity loose in the lighthugger’s computers called Sun Stealer which had its own agenda.

The middle of the book kind of bogged down, sadly.  Maybe too many unexplained motives and weird happenings that only make sense after the big reveals?  Not sure I can articulate why I got kind of lost and bored…

Turns out the plot involves the solution to the Fermi Paradox – intelligent life does routinely arise throughout the galaxy, but is fairly quickly wiped out by a race called the Inhibitors, created in the aftermath of the first great, billion-year long, intergalactic war.  Thus was the fate of the Amarantin … but not before they sealed themselves off inside “Shrouds”, impervious shells of weird physics which can’t be pierced by anything.  Turns out Sylveste visited one and was infected by the Amarantin Sun Stealer; his companion in a sister ship died but was possessed by a different Amarantin entity … the Mademoseille.  These entities represent rival factions – the Sun Stealer is wants to use Sylveste to bring humanity to the attention of the Inhibitors to see if they are still an operational threat (if not then the Amarantin in the Shroud can come out of hiding) while the Mademoseille doesn’t think this is a good idea.  Both manipulate and infect the decision making of all the main characters throughout the story.

Finally there is a giant neutron star computer thing, origin unexplained but not a product of any race or species involved in the story.  Kind of a plot hole?  Maybe some explanation in later books.  Sylveste ends up in here, living as a simulation.  There is definitely a theme of making copies of oneself – either living as a simulation (Calvin, Sun Stealer, Mademoiselle, Sylveste inside the neutron star computer) or totally taking over another’s body (the Captain into Sajaki, Calvin’s unrealized plan for Dan Sylveste).

“Jack Glass” by Adam Roberts

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One way that I find new books to read is to check out winners/nominees of the Hugo and other awards.   “Jack Glass” was on the list for a few awards; and I was immediately smitten by the beautiful cover!  It tries to be a sci-fi detective novel of sorts – we’re told up front that Jack is the murderer in each case (but he’s not the bad guy; or a least he’s not the worst bad guy), but the trick for the reader to figure out is the how and why.  That’s the idea at least … in practice, it was kind of like “aaannnddd he had a secret death ray all along!”  Kind of hard to deduce magical deus ex machina.

So I felt it was kind of a failure in terms of the whole murder mystery aspect.  But, as a bit of world-building and a haunting version of dystopian future, it was very intriguing.  Humanity numbers in the trillions, only a fraction still on Earth and the rest spread throughout the solar system in millions (billions?) of artificial structures in the asteroid belt and elsewhere.  The Ulanov family wields dictatorial power; their “government” is mainly a gigantic criminal syndicate aimed solely at keeping themselves in power.  But, tyrannical as they are, it keeps the peace.  But most of humanity is miserable, stuck in poverty and constant danger (one-inch thin walls keeping out the vaccuum of space) and without hope.

In the first story, seven prisoners are exiled to an asteroid.  Their sentence is to labor for 11 years excavating and improving the asteroid, whereupon the prison company will come to free them and collect the asteroid for resale – real estate is at a premium!  The seven are granted the barest of necessities and supplies and left to themselves.  As all are criminals of one shade or another, things get ugly quickly.  And very violent.  I was glad that the rest of the book did not continue on as gruesome as the first bit – far-fetched as it sounds, Jack escapes in a spacesuit (of sorts) fashioned from the body of one of his fellow prisoners.  And he was almost the most sympathetic character of the seven….

The rest of the book deals with Jack’s involvement with Diana Argent, genetically engineered heir to the Argent clan, one of a handful of families just a step below the Ulanovs.  The story’s MacGuffin is the secret of FTL, faster than light travel.  Obviously the chance to leave the oppressive Ulanovs and settle the galaxy brings a lot of hope to the unwashed masses; indeed even the idea of FTL, without proof, is feared to be enough to incite a revolution.  It turns out that the secret of FTL comes at a cost (and this is kind of clever): the speed of light is a constant in physics, which makes FTL travel impossible.  The new technology, however, involves changing this physical constant somehow, in some region of space.  But as we know from E = mc^2, if you can change c you can make some very big explosions indeed.  Diana’s sister, Eva, is an astronomer investigating Champagne Supernovae, where the star’s mass seems much too small to generate the magnitude of energy released.  The half-dozen or so observations of these supernovae are deduced to be alien civilizations that figured out FTL, but then somehow destroyed their whole solar system via the super bomb.   (A somewhat foreboding answer to the Fermi Paradox!) So, while FTL would be great relief for the trillions of surplus population, it would be horrible for someone like the Ulanovs, or someone trying to overthrow them, to gain FTL due to its weaponized potential.  Jack, hero of the oppressed, must make sure the secret stays hidden at all costs.

Much more summary and analysis here.

“The Robots of Dawn” by Isaac Asimov

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Well, not even Babe Ruth hit a home run every at-bat.  I thought this novel was, unfortunately, a huge strikeout vs other Asimov novels.  The plot was 1) boring and 2) was much too focused on sex (even, but not limited to, robot sex!); in particular I really disagree with the degree to which Asimov (or his characters) equate sex with love.

It was hard to relate to Baley’s neurosis about being outdoors and being virtually crippled by a rainstorm.  Yes, I get that he and all Earthpeople have been changed by generations living in enclosed cities.  I got that during the last two books.  This time it just seemed to get hit over and over again though.

There’s almost a cheesy bit of linkage in the book between Robots and the Foundation series.  One character muses about learning so much about the human brain (via attempts to recreate it in robots) that it might be possible to predict human behavior.  “We could call it, uh I dunno, … psychohistory!   Yeah, I like the sound of that.”  There was another bit that made me groan, where the same character wonders if, after millenia of colonization and spread throughout the galaxy, if mankind will ever forget its origins on Earth.  (that was the focus of one of the Foundation books)

In the end, the big reveal is that at least one robot has inadvertently been programmed in such a way as to provide telepathic powers.  The robot, Giskard, can read minds and influence them to some extent.  I wonder if this might be a hint about the origins of the Second Foundation –  are they really a group of robots quieting monitoring humanity’s development, still obeying the Three Laws?

Relevant xkcd today.

“The Three-Body Problem” by Cixin Liu

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<Arrrg, matey, spoilers ahead!  Ye have been warned!>

A young astrophysicist, Ye Wenjie, is working at a secret SETI base in the late 1960’s/early 1970’s.  Her professor father was disgraced, beaten, and killed by Red Guards in the Cultural Revolution, and Wenjie had been working at a nearby logging camp before being pulled into work more suited to her talents.  One day she stumbles upon a method of using the Sun as an amplifier for the radio greeting they are sending out into the cosmos.  She thinks it is a failure.  But several years later, a return message comes.  It’s actually a dire warning – “do not answer!!!”  An advanced, militarized race detected the first transmission and any others will give them a firm fix on Earth.    But, Wenjie is still pretty ticked off about her father and the whole Cultural Revolution in general (who wouldn’t be?) … and replies: “Come here!   Our civilization is no longer capable of solving its own problems.”

And thus a mega force of “Trisolarian” invaders is on the way, ETA around 400 years (they travel pretty fast, but still much slower than radio transmissions).  Also, they have “folded” (?) protons into super-AI Sophons which are already at the Earth, messing up physicists’ particle accelerator experiments.  The Trisolarians were worried that human technology, while currently inferior to their own, was progressing just too exponentially to leave alone for 400 years.

The Trisolarians are named such because they live on a planet revolving around three stars (Alpha Centauri) which experiences an unstable mix of super hot and super cold periods depending on relative distance to each star.  Civilization is routinely (yet randomly!) destroyed in either fire or ice.  After millenia of trying to figure out what was going on with their world, then trying unsuccessfully to solve the three-body problem, they ultimately determine to find some better planet and move.  Wenjie’s description of Earth sounds nice…

Wenjie finds plenty of sympathizers on Earth who agree that humanity needs help, or even that it deserves to be eradicated.  I thought this was going a bit too far – are there really that many eco-terrorist types out there who would root for the aliens over humanity, including their own self and family?  Especially the character of Michael Evans in the book was really hokey.  Billionaire tree-hugger who wants all humans to die and leave the birds and bugs alone.

Some of the group more-or-less worship the unseen Trisolarians (some interesting commentary in the book on how even a solitary confirmation that ET exists, and nothing more, would still fundamentally alter civilization) and put together an odd MMORPG, 3body, to tell about the Trisolarian world and history.  It’s through this game that the protagonist (and we the reader) first learn about what’s going on.  Little bit of reveal at a time.

There is a REALLY funny incident in the game, where a 30 million man medieval Chinese army becomes a von Neumann architecture computer: squads of soldiers with black and white flags become logic gates, scribes become memory, and cavalry becomes the bus.  Pretty ridiculous but funny.

“The Robot Novels” by Isaac Asimov

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I’ve written before about my affection for Asimov: entertaining stories that make you think; always clever and thought-provoking.  The Foundation series in particular is a favorite.  I don’t remember what led me to it, but I saw a post about the links between the Foundation series and the Robot series; quite a lot of Asimov’s SF novels are the same “universe” so to speak.  So, I thought I would fill in the gaps in my reading history per this post on suggested reading order.

This book is the first two “Robot novels,” first published in the 1950’s.  (The cover image is a bit puzzling – the big thing about Asimov’s robots in these stories is how human-like they are.)  Both are murder mysteries – one on Earth + a few thousand years, the other on a colony world called Solaria – and both are tied together by the same protagnist, NYPD detective Elijah Baley.

The Asimov cleverness as mentioned above is not in the somewhat-meh plots, nor is it really tied to robots.  Rather, it is in the interesting look at future human society.  On Earth, mankind has retreated from the open air into vast enclosed metal megacities – the titular “Caves of Steel.”  Crippling agoraphobia has become a universal trait and everyone is used to the lack of privacy and freedom that exists when close-in, communal living is the norm.  On the other end of the spectrum, Solaria (the planet that Baley visits in The Naked Sun) was colonized as a luxury world for the uber-elite class.  After taking exclusivity and ultra-consumption and pampering to the max for a few generations, Solaria has ended up with a society where everyone lives alone in vast mansions with armies of robots to tend to their every whim.  The physical presence of another human is unsettling and embarrassing at best and horrible/worse than death in other circumstances.

In seeing some of the absurdities present in Solarian society, Baley recognizes the weaknesses of his own Earth society and resolves to try to break the stagnation.  Thus represents the human drive and willpower which eventually leads to further out stars and Empire.

“The Atrocity Archives” by Charles Stross

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Premise: during World War II, secret research into occult science proceeded much along the lines of atomic bomb or cryptography research.  Alan Turing “cracked the code” that permitted interaction with beings in parallel universes – demons and Lovecraftian horrors, pretty much.  Some of these beings are very interested in humans (for not-so-nice reasons) and certain demonological tricks can quickly go south, even in the hands of trained scientists.  So, the research has been kept a strict secret protected by an MI5-like entity called The Laundry; anyone in the public who happens to stumble upon the (horrific) truth is forcibly drafted into Laundry service.

1st story: Well, the Nazis also were researching such things, and some remnant actually escaped to one of these other universes.  A massive energy-guzzling entity in that universe kind of fouled up their plans though and is now trying to break through to our tasty, energy-rich universe…

2nd story: There’s some secret hijacking of closed circuit TV systems which melds in some medusa-like qualities, turning cameras into deadly weapons.

Kind of some crazy stuff, but entertaining enough for a cross-country flight!

In the afterword, Stross mentioned an early reviewer asking if he had ever read “Declare” by Tim Powers.  Stross hadn’t.  I have; and there are some surface similarities — Cold War spy stuff tangled up with Lovecraftian horrors and the like — but I don’t think too similar beyond premise.  Reminded me of when I read “Declare” (years before this blog started) and also the reason I read it – because one of another Tim Powers book, “The Anubis Gates” which I still think is one of my most favorite stories of all time.  Just wanted to mention that!