Gurgeh is a master board game player. (In the post-singularity Culture, why not?) He’s a little disenchanted with life – the games are interesting, but what’s the real point of it all? “This is not a heroic age. The individual is obsolete. That’s why life is so comfortable for us all. We don’t matter, so we’re safe. No one person can have any real effect anymore.”
Then he takes an opportunity to assist Special Circumstances, the division of Contact (which handles external relations with other galactic powers) which deals with sticky situations. His job is to go to Azad, where the Culture is almost unknown, and to enroll in the game tournament there.
The Empire of Azad is not quite as advanced as the Culture, and retains almost medieval social structures. Rather than being tied together by something like a religion, the thing that provides common glue for the Empire is the game, also called Azad. It’s a massive, multi-stage game, with room-sized boards, which takes several days to complete. A huge tournament is held every “Great Year” (10 years or so?), the winner of which is crowned Emperor. Those who do well in the game are made high level government officials.
Gurgeh is super-focused and (surprise!) does rather well at the tournament. As an outsider, he attracts considerable attention and plots against him. But he just really cares about the game. Then he finds out more about the atrocities the Empire is involved with, and becomes somewhat conflicted with his love of the game, and his moral outrage.
Cool world building; kind of disappointed at the ending – the mad Emperor basically is a sore loser and overturns the Monopoly board in a fit of rage. Gurgeh is left to reflect on it all, kind of in an attitude of “but I just wanted to play a game, not get caught up in all these politics!”
Just like in the first book, AI/robots/drones play a large role, and once again save the day. Maybe Gurgeh is right – humans are something of an afterthought in the Culture.
This is the first full length novel I’ve read as an eBook. Yes, I’m behind the times. I just enjoy having a real book more. But I tried out Libby, the new Overdrive app. Works pretty well – check out books from the library (*very* long hold times though) and simple eReader in the same app.
As for the book, it was pretty good – action packed and an interesting-enough universe. It’s the first book in the Culture series, which has been on my list for quite a while. I finally decided to bite when I found out recently that SpaceX names its recovery ships after AI ships from the series, eg. “Of Course I Still Love You” and “Just Read the Instructions.” I’d heard this first book is not quite up to the standards of the rest, but it was not too bad, so I’m looking forward to more.
Horza is a Changer, a humanoid who can change appearance at will (takes a few days though), and thus perfect as a spy. (Actually it is explained his race was created to be weapons in some long distant war…) He’s working for the Idirans, a giant, long-lived, insectoid race determined to spread their religion through the galaxy. They are fighting the Culture, a post-scarcity human/AI utopia. Horza is ideologically against the Culture since he sees it as giving up humanity’s role in the universe to machines.
Anyway, the main goal is to retrieve a Culture Mind (super AI which usually serves as the heart of a massive ship) which is hiding in a long-dead world which is kind of a nature reserve/monument preserved by the god-like Dra’Azon. Most of the book revolves around Horza actually getting there. Once there, a kind of comedy of errors or tragedy ensues, as his main antagonists are a group of Idirans already on scene, but unaware the Horza is really on their side. Pretty much everyone dies at the end – sad commentary on war, I believe.
Ironically for Horza being so anti-machine, he is saved by an intelligent drone multiple times in the final few scenes.
I thought the scene on the Eater’s Island was most memorable for its sheer horror – a grossly obese “prophet” presiding over a small group of starving followers. He ritualistically eats them, or at least any dissenters, and then provides his excrement to his followers for their own food. Yuck. It’s capped off with a really funny few pages when Horza is trying to escape the island on a Culture, AI-controlled shuttle: he pretends there’s a fire and tricks the AI into revealing where its brain is located (so he can destroy it).
Memorable quote, re: evolution via DNA mutations: “All progress is a function of getting things wrong.”
The Radch are a ginormous space empire, which until recently expanded rapidly via a large fleet of powerful warships manned by armies. Each ship is actually an artificial intelligence, and many of the armies are actually “ancillaries.” When a new planet is conquered by the Radch, resistance is quickly nullified and any opponents are brutally exterminated, reeducated via sophisticated brainwashing, or sent to be stored until needed as new Radch soldiers. Entire armies of these soldiers, called ancillaries, are controlled by a single ship AI.
“Justice of Toren” was a ship, but because of plot reasons the physical ship was destroyed and all that remains is a single ancillary, AKA Breq AKA One Esk. She* tries to unravel exactly what happened to cause her destruction, and the results lead her to a confrontation with Anaander Mianaai (love the name!), Lord of the Radch. It’s such a busy job that many years ago, Mianaai split her conciousness into several bodies (somewhat reminiscent of House of Suns); by now there are thousands of them and they’ve lived for thousands of years. Well, turns out that Mianaai is something of a split personality – factions have broken out among her parts…
* Interesting use of “she” throughout the book. The narrator, the ancillary, is more or less Radch, and they apparently don’t have any set notion of gender; everyone is a “she”. Pretty sure that Breq’s compadre, Seivarden, is a male, but actually not sure about Breq “herself.” I guess Ann Leckie is trying to make us more sensitive to current gender fluidity issues, or at least capitalize on them??
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.
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.
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.
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 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).
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.”
<WARNING: spoilers ahead>
Starts out great. This is a summary of the first 50 pages:
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.
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.”
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).
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.