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!
“The Islanders” purports to be a gazetteer describing several islands in the Dream Archipelago, which spans the world’s central ocean separating large northern and southern continents. The nations of the north are constantly at war, but they duke it out in the south for reasons not totally explained. Maybe they don’t want to mess up their home turf, or maybe the home turf is sufficiently well protected that it is easier to score military points far away on the other side of the world? In any case, the islands have a long tradition of neutrality in spite of the constant military maneuverings taking place throughout their straits and seas. Not exactly sure how the islands maintain that in the face of gigantic military powers, but that’s not really the point of the book.
Anyway, it’s kind of a book of short stories, with each story being about or taking place on one island or another. Each island is unique and a little bit fascinating in its own way. There are certain main characters that weave in and out of the stories, and some stories touch on the same events but from a different point of view. The main thread is the mystery surrounding the murder of a mime, on stage, by a falling piece of thick glass. A simpleton ne’er-do-well is executed for the crime but some other entries reveal his innocence and finger someone else as the main culprit.
The book is touted as having an “unreliable narrator” which is true. . . The foreword is by one Chaster Kammeston. (btw, I loved the names in the book… kind of European, but really un-placeable in our world. A good way to show that this world is kind of, but not quite like our own.) He supposedly has never left his home island, but then there are other references where he assuredly did leave it. There’s other stuff too; I kind of took the whole book as something that was supposed to have been written by Kammeston.
There’s lots of just weird stuff going on, but it is kind of fun to see connections and try to figure it out… unfortunately, there are many, many loose threads by the time you reach the end of the book. The “main” murder mystery is pretty well tied up, but there are other “big” stories embedded in here that we just get glimpses of — such as the secret drone base island; the island with the fear-inducing, ancient towers which drive a man crazy; the island depopulated due to super deadly thryme insects which threaten to spread uncontrollably to other islands.
My main explanation for what’s going on is tied up in the “temporal vortices.” These physical phenomena somehow distort things and make navigation, flight, and accurate mapping very difficult. One of the stories briefly mentions an island at the center of one such vortex. The fishermen find that upon circumnavigation of the island, things are strangely different, like the shape of the shoreline is changed, or a mountain that was once in the east is now in the west. I can’t remember if it is mentioned whether going back around the island in reverse “fixes” things, or just makes it different again. In any case, I took this to mean that the vortices facilitate seamless travel between parallel universes – when one travels amongst the islands, one is really traveling between different realities, each with slight oddities compared to a familiar reference frame. The main murder mystery is the primary plotline of the book in “our” universe; the other interesting threads not resolved are bits of the main plotline in some other universes.
That’s my take anyway.
I thought this chart of connections between the stories put together by Adrian Hon, as well as his summary of the key stories, did a very good job at pulling everything together in an understandable way (such as it is).
Miriam was found as a baby next to her murdered mother. She knew nothing of her birth family until much later. Turns out she is from, and can travel back and forth to, a parallel universe. The geography is the same and the history has some vague similarities, but it is much different. The alternate world is stuck in the middle ages. The Clan, a mob-style organization, controls import/export between the worlds — there are only a select few in the Family who possess the genetic trait that allows world-walking. They are fabulously wealthy by selling our technology on the medieval side, and smuggling drugs on our side. There are some very complicated politics going on that I (and Miriam too!) don’t fully grasp; unfortunately for Miriam the likely outcome is a violent end since several factions want her out of the picture, as she had been for 30+ years. She is the heir to a major line of the Family. Also we discover there is a THIRD world that nobody knows about; they have been sending assassins after Miriam too. It’s almost comical that there are so many people gunning for her that we can’t tell who is behind what scheme.
This is definitely the start of a trilogy (or more); many strings are started and none wound up in the end. Miriam needs to evade assassination and figure out what’s going on; also she is determined to bootstrap the medieval economy of the other world by finding some more legitimate way for the Clan to use their powers for good and still come out on top.
Kind of a cool scenario. I wish I could world-walk. But not if people would kill me because of it, I guess.
The volume “Collected Fictions” contains pretty much all of Borges’ short stories, but I just read the 15 or so stories that make up 1944’s “Ficciones.” I’d heard a lot about Borges and how influential he was for many authors, particularly sci-fi (and I see why now). Also heard that “Ficciones” contains his best work, so I wanted to read at least that. I liked about half the stories I read – some cool ideas – but the rest were hard to understand or kind of boring. Both reactions are probably due to my lack of knowledge of Borges’ contemporary Argentine authors or some other culture gap.
So anyway, Borges was kind of a disappointment to me after looking forward to reading him for a while. But like I said there were some of the stories I liked.
- Lottery in Babylon – a normal lottery, over time and subtlety, by degrees, expands to a system where positively everything is determined by chance.
- A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain – reviews the books of a fictional author. One book starts with the final chapter. The following three chapters could each precede the first chapter – different ways the first chapter could have come about. The final nine chapters each present possible predecessors to chapters 2 – 4. So in the end there are nine different stories (of nine different genres) which all end in exactly the same way. Kind of a reverse many-worlds situation – convergence rather than divergence.
- Library of Babel – a (seemingly) infinite library contains all possibly permutations of characters to make every possible book. Librarians living (stuck?) in the library wander and wonder about the meaning. (As many others have pointed out, the library is not infinite, just very very big. I thought it would be fun to show off my combinatorial chops and calculate the number of books and rooms in the library. I’m not the first – the wikipedia article has a synopsis and someone even wrote a book about it! Anyway…. there are 20 shelves per room, 32 books per shelf. Each book has 410 pages, each page has 40 lines, and each line has 80 symbols. There are 25 possible symbols (including punctuation and space). Therefore there are 410*40*80 = 1,312,000 symbols per book. All possible permutations of those 25 symbols are contained in the books in the library. So there are 25^1,312,000 books and 25^1,312,000 / 20*32 rooms in the library.)
- The Garden of Forking Paths – contains a story within a story. Outer story: a (Chinese, working for the Germans) spy in WWII Britain is on the verge of getting caught and has to somehow warn his handler what town on the continent should be bombed to take out a major British artillery offensive before it happens. Inner story: the spy visits a Sinologist named Albert who tells him about a literary work written by the spy’s ancestor. The work is basically the many worlds theory. (Again!)
- The Secret Miracle – might be my favorite Borges story. A Jewish playwright is arrested by the Germans in WWII. He is sentenced to die by firing squad. In the days before his sentence is executed, his over-arching anguish is not that he is to die, but that his greatest work will remain unfinished. He pleads with God for one more year to complete it. The day of the execution comes, and the soldiers fire. But he doesn’t die – in fact nothing happens, everything is still. Time has stopped – but the playwright’s mind has not. He deconstructs and recomposes his play repeatedly, entirely in his mind. Finally, one year later, he is finished and rejoices in his masterpiece. Suddenly time restarts, the bullets rush to his chest, and he dies. But he is satisfied and happy.
I kind of wondered if the title “Fictions” is not just a descriptor indicating that the volume contains fictional stories, but maybe an allusion to the content of many of those stories. A lot of the stories deal with branching choices, “what-ifs,” or the idea of parallel universes …. Aren’t all fictional stories parallel universes?
Another audio book listened to during the commute. Kudos to Stephen Briggs for a spot-on narration. Reminded me of the work of another Brit, Jim Dale’s narration of the Harry Potter series – distinct voices for each characters, etc. But I digress.
“Nation” is not set in Pratchett’s Discworld, but like those novels it also contains a very high witty humor density. In “Nation” though, along with the enjoyable story which contains plenty of laughter-inducing moments, there is a treatment of weighty philosophical matters. More on those in a bit.
The story takes place in the past of a world quite similar to our own. The boy Mau is the sole survivor of a tsunami that wipes out his whole island’s tribe (the Nation). The girl Daphne (Real given name: ‘Ermintrude.’ You would prefer Daphne as well, wouldn’t you?) is from Victorian Britain, daughter of minor royalty, and the sole survivor on the island of a ship wrecked by the same giant wave. Mau and Daphne learn to work together for survival, first for themselves and later for other islanders who soon find their way to the Nation.
Now the philosophy stuff. Really this is the point of the book, methinks. Both Mau and Daphne, thrust into an unfamiliar situation, come into conflict with what they have been told to think their entire lives. Mau wonders why the Nation’s traditions of the grandfathers and religion of the gods are what they are. Daphne questions the justice behind the imperial attitude of her own nation, as well as why the manners and etiquette of the Victorian era really matter. They both have to think for themselves, relying on the scientific method and simple pragmatism rather than (apparently) meaningless traditions. The lesson here is to not blindly accept anything; questioning “why?” is nearly always a good idea.
A concept used in “Nation” that seems to be rather popular in sci-fi-ish literature of late (although I wouldn’t call “Nation” sci-fi) is the many worlds or parallel universe theory. In a nutshell, the many worlds theory says that whenever there is a choice, made by man or nature, all possible alternatives actually happen, although each in a separate, newly branched, parallel universe. (Interesting: Mau, able to sometimes see the “silver thread leading to the future” and possibly affecting the outcome of things, seemed a little like Fraa Jadd from Anathem.)
I just think this is too funny to skip mentioning: The Southern Pelagic Ocean, where the Nation resides, is based on the South Pacific. Islands in the Pelagic are often named after the day on which they were discovered by Western explorers, however unlike the custom in our world of sticking to major holidays, eg Easter Island and Christmas Island, the Pelagic boasts the Mothering Sunday (UK’s Mother’s Day, more or less) Islands and the Bank Holiday Monday Islands. Ha!
(Listened to on CD while commuting.)
Somewhere in a parallel universe is a world similar to Earth called Arbre. Many thousands of years ago on Arbre, the “Terrible Events” (nuclear war, etc.) prompted a backlash against the those perceived as being responsible for such destruction. Scientists and scholars were segregated into “concents” cut off from the rest of society and only allowed out to mingle once every year, decade, century, or millenium, depending on the Order. The concents are kind of like monasteries, but exist for scientific rather than religious purposes. The “Avout” (members of concents) use virtually no technology (part of the deal after the Terrible Events) so their theoretical work can’t easily endanger the world again. (This scenario kind of reminds you of “A Canticle for Leibowitz” in a way, no?) The story of Anathem is about a young Avout named Erasmus.
Erasmus’s mentor, the astronomer Orolo, discovers a strange object in the sky. After a loooong time, we (the readers) finally figure out it’s an alien ship. After a much loooonger time, we figure out that they’re not really aliens; they are people from parallel universes (one of which is our own, although that is kind of a tangential, amusing point in the story). There’s fear and confusion between the Arbreans and the Geometers (the “aliens”) that almost leads to mutual destruction. But Erasmus and company save the day. Oh and there’s a millenarian named Jadd who can travel between parallel universes somehow. Kind of cool because he can choose how the future unfolds in a particular “narrative” by (ultimately) picking which random quantum states come about. Yeah, a little hard to grasp. Lots of discussion in this book on what it means to have parallel universes, and what it means to have them interact.
I did like the book. I really liked the early part, when Erasmus was traveling around the world following after Orolo and nobody knew quite what the “aliens” were all about yet…lots of adventure and mystery. The ending was good but not great; I guess I kind of feel that the whole Jadd-altering-parallel-universe-narratives thing was kind of a cop-out ending.
One big, big plot hole that I thought was unforgivable: How in the world did Orolo get to Eckba???
Sort of a yawner….usually I like Asimov…really like the Foundation series. In this book, aliens in a parallel universe develop an “Electron Pump.” By way of exchanging matter between their universe and ours, both sides are able to gain energy as the matter reacts to the new fundamental physical laws of the universe it has just entered. Humanity rejoices at free, clean energy. However, some scientists soon raise a voice of warning… they discover that the fundamental laws of our universe and the parallel universe are approaching equilibrium – kind of like when a hot object comes into contact with a cold one: the hot one gets colder, the cold one gets hotter. Anyway, the consequence is that the strong electromagnetic force in our universe will change such that the Sun will explode. Oh noes! Humanity at large ignores and shuns the scientists who bring this up – they like their free energy, and the scientific community as a whole doesn’t want to disappoint them. The smart scientists who understand what is going on are disbelieved and shunned. Eventually, however, they save the day by figuring out how to open a channel from yet a third universe, which has the opposite set of laws from the first parallel universe. By setting up a pump into this universe as well, the net effect on our universe is constancy and no exploding Sun. Yay!
The bizarre middle part of the book is probably why it won a few sci-fi awards back in 1972 when it was published. It’s a pretty involved description of the first parallel universe which starts the whole electron pump thing. In this universe, the rational, emotional, and parental components of a single individual person are split into three separate entities. Wouldn’t that make for a fun sitcom!
I read that Asimov got the idea from this book when another Sci-fi author mentioned “Plutonium-186” in a conversation. Asimov, the trained physicist, thought, “That isotope can’t exist!” and then proceeded to imagine what physical laws would have to change for it to be able to exist. Yeah, Asimov was a smart guy.