Friday, July 28, 2017

Book Review: Jack Glass: The Story of a Murderer

Adam Roberts
2012
Awards: Campbell
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –

MINOR SPOILER ALERT

Adam Roberts says in his acknowledgements that in Jack Glass he was trying to blend Golden Age science fiction (the era of Campbell, Asimov, and Heinlein when space-exploration sci-fi first began to capture a larger audience) with Golden Age detective fiction (the era of the classic Miss-Marple-type misdirection whodunit).

He has done an able job of it. His novel is a series of relatively fast-moving brain-teasers, and the puzzling circumstances surrounding each of the murders are clever and creative. He has also created a credible science fiction environment in which humanity has colonized several planets, moons, and asteroids. And, for the most part, the storytelling keeps you turning the pages.

Roberts breaks the story up into three parts, each one centered on a different murder, with each murder involving the notorious, elusive criminal Jack Glass in some way. The first part of the book is definitely the most gripping (and also the most gory).

In the universe of Jack Glass, our solar system is run by a set of hereditary oligarchs, the Ulanovs, who rule with a firm hand. In their criminal justice system, if you commit any crime short of than murder, your penalty is to be taken out to the asteroid belt and sealed into a hollowed-out asteroid with an air scrubber, a drill, and some food spores. They come back to get you in eleven years and if you survive until then, you’re free. If you don’t, well—you don’t.

In the first part of the book, Jack Glass, the notorious, legless criminal who, some say, has killed thousands (or possibly millions) of people, is captured for a lesser crime and thrown into an asteroid with six other convicts. The story follows them as they scrabble for life during the first couple years of their term, drilling for ice, growing food, and establishing a somewhat tenuous and ruthless hierarchy.

It is a horrific situation, especially for Jack, as one of the lower men on the totem pole. He’s clearly the smartest of the prisoners, and he has flashes of anger when the others behave idiotically and cruelly towards him and each other. But, for the most part, he is able to hold himself in, maintaining incredible control, realizing his life depends on patience.

The story gets progressively harder to take emotionally, even as the men are able to achieve some stability in their physical comfort. But, finally, Jack is able to escape in a brilliant (if gruesome, twisted, and murder-filled) getaway.

Many years then pass between Jack’s asteroid escape and the second part of the book, which is the weakest section of the novel.

In the Ulanov’s solar system, many specialized functions are done by noble houses of elites bred specifically for their jobs: transport, commerce, science, and so on. The Ulanovs need these noble houses, but are also wary of them, since they are all potential rivals for power.

The story slows to a crawl as we follow 16-year-old Diana, one of the daughters and heirs of the one of these houses: Clan Argent, the Transport House. Diana has been bred for creative problem-solving, so when one of her servants is murdered while she’s vacationing on Earth, the police defer to her to solve the murder. But she is a typical bratty, privileged 16-year-old—breathless, impatient, haughty, inconsiderate, self-centered, and full of aristocratic prejudice and cruelty. It’s difficult to find the motivation to keep reading through most of part two when Diana is the one you have to follow.

If you keep plugging, the story finally does start to pick up a bit when someone bombs the compound where Diana is staying and she has to flee. Diana and her servant Sapho are bundled into a shuttlecraft and rescued—by none other than the notorious, unassuming criminal Jack Glass.

Diana doesn’t realize it, but rumors have been swirling around the solar system that her clan has the secret to faster-than-light propulsion. The three escapees theorize that the other clans—or possibly the Ulanovs themselves—are trying to kidnap her in an attempt to get the FTL technology.

During their escape, cut off from her ever-present technology, realizing people are trying to kill her and that she has no more control over her surroundings, Diana finally starts to grow up. She feels ashamed of how she acted, and starts to take more responsibility for herself and others. This starts to make it a lot easier to read again, and somewhat more appealing again as a story…

…Just in time for part three of the novel (the second-best part), which lopes along relatively easily (albeit not as excitingly as part one) to the end of the book. This part starts with Jack, Diana, and Sapho caught up in the circumstances of yet another murder: this time, the murder of celebrated police detective Bar-le-Duc.

The third part starts with Jack, Diana, and Sapho fleeing from Earth to Jack’s secret bubble house in the “Sump,” the haphazard settlements beyond the moon where the poor subsist on spore-based food and recycled air. The Sump is also a hive of rebellion against the Ulanovs, which is why Jack has his house there; it is at this point that we discover that he is actually a highly principled anti-imperial activist who cares deeply about the entire human race.

And, it turns out, his rescue of Diana was not a coincidence at all. Jack knows that the physics of any FTL drive—including the one that Diana’s house theoretically has—by definition put it at risk of being made into an enormous bomb that could wipe out the solar system and thus the whole human race. Jack is willing to protect Diana with his life to prevent anyone from getting hold of it.

Thus they plan to hide in Jack’s house to prevent anyone from getting at Diana. Celebrated police detective Bar-le-Duc catches up with them, but, before he can bring them in, he is shot from inside the house, but by no one who was in the house at the time. And it is all caught on video by a robot.

They are thus faced with yet another mystery to solve, in a race against time before they are caught by authorities and accused of Bar-le-Duc’s murder. And, while they’re at it, they have to figure out who is behind Diana’s attempted assassination/kidnaping, if the FTL device really exists, and if they can prevent it from ever being used.

All three murders are “locked-room” mysteries, and all three are pretty clever. On the whole, Jack Glass is a good blend of classic sci-fi and detective fiction, as the author intended. Jack is charismatic and a good character to follow; a touch sinister but with strong, valiant political ideals. (Although, as I say, Diana leaves something to be desired.) The plot does step along apace, for the most part. (Although, as I say, the first section is definitely the most riveting and might have made for an excellent novella all by itself.) And one fun thing is that Roberts certainly is not hesitant about describing gore in incredibly creative ways—particularly the behavior of blood in zero gee (or in one gee, from the point of view of someone who has lived their whole life in space, which is a mind-warping way to look at it).

Friday, June 30, 2017

Book Review: The Sign of the Unicorn

Roger Zelazny
1975
Rating: ★ ★ – – –

The Sign of the Unicorn is the third book in Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber series. It doesn’t actually further the plot of the Chronicles much, except (a) to reveal that there is definitely a conspiracy within the family to kill our hero Corwin, and (b) to give us a little more information about the maze-like Pattern which seems to be the source of power for the royal family of Amber.

And while it does include Zelazny’s trademark unique and dazzling surrealistic imagery, it is the most disjointed of the books in this series so far, with the story line jumping from character to character and from land to land somewhat at random. A little too randomly even for this Zelazny fan, anyway. I need a bit more of a string to follow.

At the end of the previous book, The Guns of Avalon, Corwin’s brother Eric died waging a valiant battle to save Amber from an attack by the evil forces of the Courts of Chaos. As he died, he gave the magical Jewel of Judgment that he was wearing to Corwin, essentially deeming him the next King of Amber.

Unicorn picks up soon after Guns left off, with Corwin having had possession of the throne of Amber for just about a week. His reign hasn’t started out well. It turns out that during the events that took place back in book one, his brother Caine was murdered by spur-handed, heavy-jawed beast-men in the shadowlands outside of Amber, and someone has arranged the evidence to make it look like Corwin did it.

Corwin then remembers that his other brother Random was being chased by these same spur-handed beast-men when he arrived begging for help at their sister Flora’s door. So, to try to follow this lead to find Caine’s murderer, and thereby exonerate himself, Corwin makes Random tell him the complete story of how he came to be chased by the beast-men in the first place, which was:

Yet another brother, Brand, was trapped in a surreal land of stormy, shifting rocks, where dying creatures floated up into the sky. While trying to rescue Brand, Random fought a really cool clear-bodied snake beast and was eventually able to kill it, but then was pursued by its spur-handed beast-men masters.

The beast men pursued Random all the way through one of Zelazny’s trademark psychedelic scenery-shifting hellrides to a bus stop restroom in California. Along the way, he lost all his trumps, so he wasn’t able to use them to jump to another location or even to call for assistance. He finally made his way to Flora’s house in Westchester, where he was able to escape, thanks to Flora’s and Corwin’s help.

Corwin adds what Random has told him to the other things he knows about: the disappearance of their father, the king; the appearance of the black road; all the beast men and strange creatures traveling along it to attack Amber; and the revelation that Dara is some kind of evil queen from the Courts of Chaos. It all points to there being some kind of conspiracy by the Courts of Chaos to take the throne of Amber and/or destroy it.

To try to get a better handle on it all, Corwin decides to walk the Pattern again, this time to awaken the Jewel of Judgment, which supposedly has unbelievable untapped powers that nobody knows how to unlock. He does this and then decides to go see Flora, intending to browbeat her into revealing who asked her to be his overseer on Earth.

His now (suspiciously) faithful brother Gérard goes with him. On their journey, Corwin and Gérard get lost on the slopes of Mount Kolvin and see a unicorn, which Zelazny is somehow able to make seem awesome without being hokey. The unicorn leads them through distorted cubist scenery to the Grove of the Unicorns, which contains an alternate version of the Pattern. Gérard hypothesizes that this may be the real Pattern, and the one in Amber only a shadow.

After this discovery, Corwin goes back to Amber and starts to gather up his remaining brothers and sisters to try to hash out exactly what is going on. Together, they use the trumps to find Brand, who is locked in some kind of prison, but while they are rescuing Brand, one of them stabs Corwin. The scene is so scattered and disjointed that no one manages to see a thing, including Corwin himself.

At this point Brand wakes up and tells us and Corwin a bunch of important backstory, including that two separate cabals (Eric/Julian/Caine and Brand/Fiona/Bleys) both had plans to depose their father and take the throne. Both of the cabals have been thwarted, whether by each other or the attack of the Courts of Chaos.

Corwin is then attacked yet again while in Amber, but the Jewel of Judgment lets him escape to his house in upstate New York. After all this craziness, Corwin understandably decides to go to the ghostlike, floating, moonlit land of Tir Na Nog to heal his wounds.

Again, this book feels disorganized. It reads more like a free-associational, surreal piece of art, rather than a part of a larger linear plot. I’ll grant that this kind of writing can be fun to read, and certainly many of the individual scenes and conversations in Unicorn are creative and colorful and often funny. Especially when Zelazny juxtaposes modern technology like intravenous feeding with the fantasy sword-and-sorcery world of Amber. But, as a whole, the book isn’t all that rewarding if you are looking instead for more furthering of Corwin’s story line, or more answers about the forces arrayed against him.

I will say, however, that Unicorn is an extremely helpful book for those who weren’t paying complete attention to the twists and turns of the first two books, because it is filled with a huge amount of rehashing and backfilling of what has already happened up to now. It also includes a very detailed explanation of the line of succession to the throne of Amber, which Corwin relates to help Ganelon, but which is helpful for us, too. 

Friday, June 2, 2017

Book Review: The Guns of Avalon

Roger Zelazny
1972
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – – 

The Guns of Avalon is the second of ten books in Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber fantasy series. This book feels less organized and is less satisfying than the first one; the plot is more herky-jerky. But Zelazny continues to keep his writing trippy and intense with hypnotically surreal imagery. And his main character’s dry, incongruously modern attitude keeps it from getting too drearily romantic.

The Guns of Avalon picks up right where the first book, Nine Princes in Amber, left off, which is when our plucky hero, prince Corwin, has just escaped from a deep, dark, disgusting dungeon. He had been thrown into the dungeon by his brother, Eric, in retaliation for challenging Eric’s claim to the crown of Amber. Eric had also burnt out Corwin’s eyes, which was painful and inconvenient, to say the least. 

Fortunately, Corwin’s powers of regeneration allowed him to regrow his eyes while he was in prison. And, while incarcerated, he also happened to run into Dworkin—the artist who had created the magical tarot cards that enable the princes and princesses of Amber to communicate with and teleport to each other—and convinced him to use his magical drawing powers to transport Corwin out of prison to a shadowland called Cabra.

Cabra is peaceful and far, far away from Amber, and is therefore the perfect place to recuperate after you’ve spent four years in a dungeon regrowing your eyes. After a time, though, Corwin feels like he is rested enough, and it is time for him to resume his pursuit of the throne. He heads towards Avalon, one of the many shadowlands he has lived in before (and one of many of the Chronicles’ overt nods to Arthurian legend), where he hopes to raise an army. On the way, he runs into Sir Lancelot du Lac, severely wounded from an attack. He carries Lancelot to the closest fort, the Keep of Ganelon, for medical care. 

At the Keep, he rekindles his friendship with Ganelon, whom he was kind of a jerk to many years before, but who doesn’t harbor a grudge (and who will turn out to become a steadfast friend and companion). Ganelon tells Corwin about a mysterious Circle of blackness that started somewhere in the hinterlands but is expanding steadily towards Avalon and Amber, and which spews death and horrifying monsters. Corwin, Ganelon, and Lancelot stage a brief effort to attack the Circle; they aren’t able to drive it back, but they do find out that the Circle and the evil beasts within it come from the Courts of Chaos, a sort of rival evil counterpart to Amber.

Corwin and Ganelon then continue on to Avalon, whereupon Corwin runs into another one of his brothers, Benedict, who is raising an army to fight the Circle. Corwin also meets a woman named Dara who claims to be Benedict’s great-granddaughter, and he develops kind of a crush on her. Thinking she is family, he teaches her about the trumps, and about shadow worlds and how to model them. He also tells her about the “pattern”—a maze-like construction in the palace that only descendants of the royal family of Amber can walk, and which grants them certain powers when they do. (This will prove to be a big mistake.)

Anyway, continuing Corwin’s anti-Eric vendetta: gunpowder will not burn in Amber, making normal firearms useless there. But Corwin has secretly discovered that jeweler’s rouge, which is neutral everywhere else, behaves like gunpowder in Amber. So he and Ganelon set off on a series of journeys to a past version of southwest Africa to get a whole lot of diamonds, then to World-War-I-era Antwerp to sell the diamonds and buy the rouge, and then to Switzerland to buy weapons with which to fire the rouge. He also raises a new army of hairy, fanged, clawed men from reliable shadowlands to wield those weapons.

The whole venture is head-spinning and feels a little too haphazard as they jump randomly from place to place and time to time. But, fortunately, each journey is a trademark surrealistic Zelazny hellride across shadowlands with features like lemon-yellow skies and striped, feathered houses and red-and-black striped horses.

They come back to Avalon only to discover that Benedict is pissed off at Corwin for raising an Army against Eric. Benedict pursues them as they ride at breakneck speed to Amber, the whole time running parallel to a black road, an arm of the evil Circle, that now stretches all the way to Amber. Benedict catches up with them close to Amber, and Corwin defeats him in a truly excellent swordfight on the black road.

At this point Corwin gets a tarot card message from Eric to please delay his attack, because the forces from the evil Circle have finally reached Amber and all hands are needed to defend it. As if, thinks Corwin! He rides to Amber with his forces and discovers Amber being beset by manticores and wyverns and razor-billed birds. His brothers Eric, Julian, and Caine are all fighting—and losing. Corwin feels a twinge of remorse at the carnage, and decides to use his forces to defend Amber after all, using up all his jeweler’s rouge fighting off the evil monsters.

Anti-climactically, Eric ends up getting mortally wounded in the battle. Before he dies, he gives Corwin their father’s Jewel of Judgement, symbolically granting the throne to Corwin. (The Jewel allows the wearer to control the weather, and possibly has other powers that have not yet been revealed.)

After all of this, Dara reappears; she has been tailing Corwin. And it turns out she is not Benedict’s great-granddaughter after all! She is an evil wraith from the cursed Circle and she was only following him to find the way to Amber! She races into the palace and walks the pattern, whereupon she turns into a terrifyingly evil hellbeast, threatens to destroy Amber, and then disappears. 

All in all, The Guns of Avalon feels less like a novel unto itself, and more of a bridge from one book to another. Its plot is less coherent and more like a series of randomly connected incidents than the books that precede or follow it. And the battle to defend Amber and the way Corwin takes the kingship from Eric are both oddly unsatisfying after all the buildup to them. 

But the visual intensity of Zelazny’s writing still makes it worthwhile. In this book, also, we get to hear fun snippets of Corwin’s adventures on our own Earth, which is one of his particular favorites of the shadow worlds—one where he has befriended several Earthly celebrities and lived for hundreds of years (including a few years in a prosaic two-bedroom house with attached garage in upstate New York). 

And Zelazny always keeps it funnier than the usual medieval romantic fantasy with Corwin’s wry breaks into modern thought. At one point, for example, Corwin is starting to feel like maybe neither he nor any of his siblings are really fit to take their father’s throne, and he thinks to himself, “I would have liked to blame Dad for this inadequacy, but unfortunately I had known Freud too long not to feel self-conscious about it.” When his brother Benedict is pursuing them across the plains on the way to Amber, driving his horse like crazy, Corwin describes him as “moving like something in the Kentucky Derby.” And when Corwin finally gets to Amber and sees his brothers defending their homeland from demonic creatures, he says, “The invaders were strong, numerous. I had no idea as to what Eric might have in reserve. At that moment, it was impossible for me to gauge whether war bonds for Amber would be a good investment.” 

The book is also relatively short, and it certainly keeps you going enough to get through it to book three, The Sign of the Unicorn, where we hope to at last see Corwin take the throne of Amber. But, of course, for Corwin, nothing will be easy.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Book Review: Little Brother

Cory Doctorow
2008
Awards: Campbell
Nominations: Nebula, Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –

MINOR SPOILER ALERT

Little Brother is a story about hackers. But it is not a cyberpunk novel. It is about innocent humans targeted by a repressive police state, fighting for their civil rights, their freedom, and sometimes their lives.

Yes, the main character, Marcus Yallow, has a wry, cocky, hacker-appropriate attitude. And, yes, he does lots of hacking, in which he uses real hacker techniques to burrow into the tightest security systems, and the techniques don’t come off as cheesy as they so often do in works of fiction. But Marcus’ unwarranted arrest, and the way U.S. government officers treat him while he is in their custody, and the way he is mercilessly hounded even after he is set “free,” are far from the world of cocky hacking, and very scary.

Marcus is a seventeen-year-old high school student living in San Francisco. He is irreverent and smart, mainly using his hacking skills for fun.

One day, Marcus and his friends cut class, as they often do, to join a live-action adventure game. Unfortunately, they happen to be out on the street with no legitimate excuse and a bunch of suspect-looking technology when terrorists attack the city. The group of friends are swept up in the Homeland Security crackdown that follows and are thrown into a secret prison, given no food or bathroom, hog-tied with zip cuffs, and interrogated with all the force the DHS has to muster.

When Marcus at first refuses to unlock his phone they accuse him of being a terrorist, torture him, and then leave him soaking in his own urine for hours. Eventually, he cracks—as the vast majority of us would—and agrees to give them all his passwords if they will just let him go home. They let him go, but they stay on his tail, threatening to bring him in again for good if he strays off the path of correct behavior.

Their degrading, dehumanizing treatment terrorizes and cows Marcus, and that fear stays with him. But gradually his fighting spirit comes back, too. His outrage grows as the security crackdown gets harsher and DHS surveillance gets more widespread and insidious. And, as time passes, one of his friends still is not released by DHS, and may be, for all he knows, dead.

Marcus decides he has to bring down the people who tortured him and his friends. He discovers that DHS has (clumsily) bugged his laptop, so he hacks his internet-enabled Xbox and turns it into a secure communication device, and spreads the Xbox crack code to his friends, eventually turning the Bay Area into a network of under-20-something hackers and gamers called “the Xnet” that are ready to help tear down the repressive regime with him: a scattered, disorganized, and passionate virtual army.

When the police and DHS become aware of the Xnet, they use it as an excuse to increase their strategy of harassment and surveillance. They send spy vans and helicopters roaming throughout the city, looking for Xbox signals; they track every person’s movements around the city through the RFID chips in their Muni and toll passes; and they install facial recognition cameras everywhere. Whenever someone is determined to have an “unusual” pattern of movement, they are questioned and intimidated.

In spite of all of this, the vast majority of the adult population are okay with having every one of their movementsonline and offtracked, recorded, and analyzed by authorities. This is one of the most frustrating and realistic parts of the book. Yes, it is inconvenient and can be annoying, they say, but it is all to keep us safe. If you aren’t doing anything wrong, you shouldn’t have anything to worry about.

And the mainstream media does nothing to change that opinion, reporting on everything with a security bias—so, for example, a concert where a bunch of kids are beaten and gassed by police is reported as a “riot” started by the concert-goers. Even Marcus’ parents are convinced that these measures are there for a good reason, even as kids (and, increasingly, sympathetic adults) get pepper-sprayed, arrested, and subjected to “questioning” (a.k.a. torture, including waterboarding).

Ironically, the actual terrorists continue to escape justice, while more and more innocent people are bullied and jailed. Thousands of people are swept up in this security farce as DHS tactics grow more intense. And Marcus and his legions of Xnetters engage in steadily more confrontational hacks and actions—with varying amounts of success—until Marcus is finally face to face with his torturers once again.

Technically, Little Brother has a happy ending. But it also makes it clear that any victory for justice is always a temporary one, and that the defense of civil rights is a constant fight. The authoritarian forces that would ask us to give up our liberty in the name of security are always there, waiting for the least crack in our will to creep back in. Marcus and the hackers and the lawyers and the teachers and the reporters must remain ever vigilant to make sure it never happens again.

Part of the reason this book works so well is that Marcus’s hacker techniques are all completely authentic. The social engineering methods to discover passwords; the conduct of ultra-secure conversations by tunneling through DNS; the “borrowing” of RFID chip signatures from innocent bystanders nearby—all of those are real. And even though these techniques can be complicated, Doctorow explains them clearly and understandably without being superior or silly. He’s clearly someone who knows what he’s talking about (a fact backed up by the fact that he has hackers and security experts writing his afterwords).

Doctorow and his afterword writers also explain why hacking is necessary, and actively encourage his readers to think about how to hack things. For one thing, it’s fun. For another, it’s educational; you learn how things work. And for another, when you publicly expose security flaws, you make people have to tighten up their security, making security stronger. There’s no way to make systems as secure as they can be without testing their limits.

The other, more important reason that Little Brother is powerful (and anxiety-producing) is because it is set in a surveillance state that is very much real life. Doctorow wrote this book at the end of George W. Bush’s presidency, when that administration was actively demolishing civil rights in the name of protecting us from terrorists, and doing it with the unquestioning support of most of the populace and mainstream media. It was very relevant then, and is, unfortunately, even more relevant now.

It’s a dangerous book, too, because Doctorow calls into question all the things we have had to adjust to following the formation of the DHS: increased x-ray screenings, ID checks, taking your shoes off at the airport. All of which, he says, are actually pointless in actually preventing anything from happening. These tactics are less about actually catching criminals and more about keeping a population intimidated and fearful so that they can be more easily manipulated.

The main question this book raises is, I think, one of the most important of our time: when you are faced with an unjust, militaristic, authoritarian regime, how do you respond? Do you keep your head down, trying to keep yourself and your family safe, and hope it gets better on its own? Or do you fight back, risking your liberty and possibly your life?

It’s critical to think about this now that the U.S. is faced with the most schizophrenic, authoritarian regime I’ve seen in my lifetime. I know what I’d like to think I would do. But I don’t honestly know how far I’d be willing to go if my life was at stake.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Book Review: Nine Princes in Amber

Roger Zelazny
1970
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –

Nine Princes in Amber is the first of ten books in Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber series. I knew I was going to have to read the sixth book in the series (Trumps of Doom), because it won the Locus award for best fantasy novel. But I love Zelazny, so I rationalized that I needed to read the whole series to properly appreciate Trumps of Doom in context.

When I first read Zelazny’s books, I had no idea that there was a science fiction subgenre called New Wave, and that he belonged to it; I just knew that I loved what he was doing. Wikipedia describes New Wave sci-fi this way:
“The New Wave is a movement in science fiction produced in the 1960s and 1970s and characterized by a high degree of experimentation, both in form and in content, a "literary" or artistic sensibility, and a focus on "soft" as opposed to hard science. New Wave writers often saw themselves as part of the modernist tradition and sometimes mocked the traditions of pulp science fiction, which some of them regarded as stodgy, adolescent and poorly written.”
Zelazny is, without a doubt, one of the best of the New Wave writers. In Nine Princes in Amber, as with the rest of his work, his writing is both literary and artistic; his settings and characters are unique, creative, weird, beautiful, funny, and sometimes ominous and unnerving. There is a certain amount of surrealism in his imagery, which makes it occasionally seem to come totally out of left field, or like the expression of his unconscious.

But, in keeping with his New Wave sensibilities, he never lets anything get too detached from reality. At some point, when things seem to be getting too dreamy, he will stick in a sarcastic, modern, self-referential remark that lets you know that he is perfectly aware that he’s writing from the real world, in the twentieth century. He will be coasting along describing a fantastical scene with transparent people living in a glass city, or a landscape of purple skies and blowing blue grasses, or an attack by a fleet of manticores, and in the middle of it he’ll have his main character drop a term like “chutzpah” or a snappy comment about Freudian mommy complexes that whips you back to reality. It’s completely refreshing.

Nine Princes in Amber starts out with a Bourne-Identity-like amnesia device. The main character wakes up in a hospital room, clearly recovering from a serious accident but with no memory of who he is and an instinctive feeling that something is wrong. He senses that somebody is conspiring to keep him drugged and in the hospital. So he breaks out and follows a series of whisper-thin clues to the mansion of one of the people who was keeping him locked up, which turns out to be his sister Flora. She is shocked that he was able to break out of the hospital, but she lets him stay with her.

At Flora’s house, he quickly puts together some key pieces of information about himself, including that his name is Corwin; that he is one of 23 original children of Oberon, the missing king of a land called Amber, a fantastical realm in another dimension; that he has superhuman strength, can regrow body parts, and has lived for hundreds of years; and that he and his surviving 16 siblings are all vying with each other for their father’s throne. His brothers and sisters have a twisted and changeable set of alliances and enemies—and some of them would kill him instantly if they knew where he was.

Poking around in Flora’s desk, Corwin also finds a pack of tarot cards, and remembers that these cards allow the brothers and sisters not only to communicate with each other, but also to transport themselves to different places. (This will come in very handy later on.)

The truly mind-twisting thing about the whole novel is that Amber is the only real location in the universe. All other places—including our own Earth—are “shadow” places “shaped” mentally by the princes and princesses of Amber for their own enjoyment or refuge. Corwin admittedly likes some of these shadow worlds very much, and has spent a lot of time in them, hanging out in the Middle Ages or World War II or the French Revolution with Napoleon and Einstein and other of our Earthly celebrities—but none of them are real.

To briefly summarize the rest of what happens: Corwin’s brother Random shows up at the door, pursued by a horde of terrifying wraiths from some other dimension, and Flora and Corwin protect him. Corwin admits his amnesia to Flora and Random, and convinces them to help him. The three of them use their innate dimensional-space-shaping abilities to travel through a series of surrealistic lands to Rebma, the underwater mirror world to Amber, where the queen of Rebma helps restore Corwin’s memory (and sweetens the experience by sleeping with him).

At this point, Corwin fully remembers his desire for his father’s crown. He rejoins his (currently) most trusted brother, Bleys. The two of them put together an army of oddly-shaped and furry, clawed humanoid fighters from other dimensions, and they all march on Amber to try to prevent their brother Eric from crowning himself king.

It doesn’t go well. Their army of 150,000 is whittled away to zero by Eric’s forces combined with the forces of other brothers Julian and Caine; Bleys falls off a mountainside into an abyss, presumably to his death; and Eric burns out Corwin’s eyes and throws him into jail. When his eyes are burnt out, Corwin curses Eric, which will turn out to have pretty nasty implications in the later books.

After four miserable years (during which his eyes re-grow), Corwin is eventually able to escape through magic and trickery. He flees far from Amber to regroup and fight another day.

And that other day, and the fight, are taken up in the second book: The Guns of Avalon.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Favorite Ongoing Space Missions (March 2017)

You would not believe what we Earthlings have going on out there in space right now. It makes my head spin. I decided to list some of my favorites—if nothing else, to help myself keep track of them all.


SOL 1598 MR+ML (Seán Doran)
Favorite Ongoing Space Mission #1: Mars
Opportunity, Spirit, and Curiosity Rovers

NASA has three rovers active on Mars right now. The Opportunity Rover landed in 2004 and was only expected to operate for 90 days, but is still exploring and sending back pictures today, more than twelve years later. Its partner, Spirit, is also still running, but is stuck in sand and has been unable to move for over a decade. The Curiosity Rover landed in 2012 and is currently searching for organic material.

Two digital artists—Kevin Gill and Seán Doran—have been using data from these and other Mars missions to create beautiful images of what Mars’ terrain looks like from the air and from the ground. Gill’s Flickr gallery is here and Doran’s gallery is here.


Hexagonal clouds on
Saturn's north pole (NASA)
Favorite Ongoing Space Mission #2: Saturn
Cassini Spacecraft and Huygens Probe

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft was launched in 1997. It passed Venus and Jupiter before arriving at Saturn and inserting itself into orbit around the planet in 2004. So far it has discovered at least two new rings and two new moons, as well as odd solid bodies in the rings that may be more satellites. It has also taken innumerable pictures of Saturn’s strange storms and distinctive hexagonal north pole cloud patterns.

One of the first things Cassini did upon arrival at Saturn was to deploy a probe, Huygens, which landed on Saturn’s moon Titan; this was the most distant landing ever by an Earth spacecraft on another world. Huygens took pictures the entire time, and NASA put these pictures together into a video, which is great; you can even see the shadow of the probe’s parachute sailing by after it lands on the surface. Because we already knew that Titan had lakes of methane on its surface, Huygens was built to float, but it landed on dry land and survived to take pictures for 72 hours

While Huygens was landing on Titan, Cassini itself was investigating another moon, Enceladus. It saw icy jets and geysers ejecting particles at high speed, leading scientists to discover that not only does Enceladus have an atmosphere, but it also has a liquid ocean under its surface ice—an ocean that could, conceivably, be capable of supporting life.

Cassini will keep studying Saturn until later this year, at which point it will be directed to plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere and destroy itself.


Jupiter's south pole (NASA/
JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/John Landino)
Favorite Ongoing Space Mission #3: Jupiter
Juno Orbiter

NASA’s Juno orbiter arrived at Jupiter in 2016 and settled itself into a large, long orbit around the planet. It is a polar orbit, which means that instead of orbiting in parallel with all of the planets revolving around the sun, it is orbiting across the solar plane, at right angles to it.

This enables the spacecraft to spend as little time in Jupiter’s destructive radiation fields as long as possible. On each orbit, it takes about 2 hours for the craft to go from the north pole to the south pole, and it travels less than 3,000 miles above the planet's clouds. It will be making a total of 37 orbits over 20 months before it suffers irretrievable damage to its instruments from Jupiter's radiation. After its 37th orbit, Juno will perform a controlled deorbit and plunge into Jupiter's atmosphere, where it will disintegrate.

NASA created a good (if somewhat overdramatic) explanatory documentary on the Juno mission.


Where is OSIRIS-REx now? (NASA)
Favorite Ongoing Space Mission(s) #4: Asteroids
OSIRIS-REx Sample Retrieval Mission, Dawn Mission, Hayabusa 2 Spacecraft

Perhaps the most stunning of the various asteroid projects going on right now is NASA’s OSIRIS-REx sample retrieval mission. OSIRIS-REx is currently en route to the Bennu Earth-Trojan asteroid and will arrive there in August 2018. It will retrieve samples from the asteroid and return them to Earth in 2023, becoming the first US spacecraft to return samples from an asteroid. As it travels, it has been sending back pictures of other planets and moons in our solar system, including some of Earth and our moon together which make me oddly sentimental.

Occator Crater on Ceres (NASA/
JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)
NASA’s Dawn mission studied the asteroid Vesta in 2011-2012 and then moved to Ceres. It discovered evidence for organic compounds on Ceres, and further evidence that those compounds have been modified in a "warm water-rich environment." These compounds (and water) are a necessary (but not sufficient) component of organic life.

The Hayabusa 2 spacecraft, built by the Japanese space agency (JAXA), is currently en route to the Ryugu asteroid and should arrive in July 2018.

And, finally, NASA is gearing up to launch a mission called “Lucy” in 2021, which will explore other Earth-Trojan asteroids.

Note: The term "Trojan asteroid" used to only refer to asteroids orbiting the sun in step with Jupiter, but now refers to a stable asteroid orbiting the sun in step with any planet. Thus an “Earth-Trojan asteroid” is an asteroid that is locked in orbit with Earth.


Pluto's Wright Mons
(
NASA/JHUIAPL/SwRI)
Favorite Ongoing Space Mission #5: Kuiper Belt
New Horizons Spacecraft

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft sailed past Charon and Pluto in 2015, taking pictures the whole time. It is the first spacecraft to study Pluto up close, and will now be studying the rest of the Kuiper Belt. It is the fastest artificially-accelerated object ever, and will be the fifth probe to leave the solar system. NASA put together a video of what a virtual “landing” on Pluto would look like, based on pictures from New Horizons, here.


Favorite Ongoing Space Mission #6: Venus
Akatsuki Orbiter

JAXA’s Akatsuki orbiter is currently orbiting Venus. It arrived in 2010 and, after some hitches, was able to be inserted into Venusian orbit in 2015. It is currently engaged in a 2-year period of science operations which will end in 2018. This is Japan’s first successful mission to explore another planet, and we wait with baited breath to see what they find out.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Friday, January 13, 2017

Book Review: Childhood’s End

Arthur C. Clarke
1953
Nominations: Retro Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ – – –

SPOILER ALERT

I just finished Childhood’s End, and I have to say I am really disappointed.

I am a Clarke fan. I really liked the Rama series, and Fountains of Paradise, and 2001 (the movie). I am in awe of how he seemed to be able to see decades into the technological future. But this book—which, to be fair, is one of his earlier novels—just seemed like a halfhearted warm-up for his later work.

Childhood’s End does contain several pieces of futuristic technology which stand up extremely well even now, more than fifty years later. But the story has very little in the way of character likeability, or suspense, or excitement. The plot meanders and drags badly. And, in many places, it also is a pretty embarrassing display of Clarke’s sexism—which is easier to ignore when the story is good.

The book starts out well, with a scene straight out of Independence Day (although it would be more accurate to say that Independence Day starts out with a scene straight out of this book). Sometime in the mid-twentieth century, on the eve of the launch of one of Earth’s first satellites, a fleet of enormous alien ships arrives at our planet. The ships position themselves in the sky over every major city in the world. The chief alien—Supervisor Karellen—broadcasts one speech, in English, over all of Earth’s radio frequencies, announcing that national governments are now irrelevant, and that the aliens will be enforcing peaceful and beneficial conditions around the world, whether the humans like it or not.                                                      

For five years the ships just hover and the aliens never show themselves, but they are able to enforce the kinds of behavior they want through drones and rays and other sophisticated pieces of technology. They are able, for example, to prevent us from killing each other en masse by destroying any missiles that we fire at each other.

The only contact the humans have with the aliens (whom the humans have begun calling the Overlords) is through the Secretary General of the United Nations, Rikki Stormgren. Stormgren is periodically brought up into the ship hovering over New York, where he converses with Overlord Supervisor Karellen through a one-way mirror.

Even though the aliens are supposedly benevolent and are theoretically helping humanity by preventing them from doing stupid things to each other, the humans, of course, rankle at being controlled. Some countries try to attack the ships with nuclear bombs, but the bombs just evaporate on the ships’ surfaces. There is a little bit of a minor kerfuffle when Stormgren is kidnapped by a fringe resistance group in an attempt to get the aliens to show themselves, but Karellen is able to bust Stormgren out relatively easily.

Finally, fifty years later, the aliens decide humanity is used to their presence enough to actually reveal themselves. And it’s a good thing the aliens waited, because they are terrifying: twice our size and shaped exactly like devils, complete with horns and bat wings.

By now, though, most humans don’t care. They have been lulled into a dead stupor caused by the complete elimination of any challenge in the form of war, disease, poverty, famine, or crime. This stupor, unfortunately for us (and, as it turns out, purposefully on the part of the aliens) extends to any expression of human creativity. There is hardly any more real effort to engage in art or music or writing, and there is no more serious pursuit of science. The aliens particularly discourage any kind of investigation into alien technology, or the aliens’ origins, or any kind of space travel or astrophysics.

One human, Jan Rodricks, clinging to a shred of scientific curiosity, stows away on one of the alien ships returning to the Overlords’ home world. The aliens discover him mid-flight, but let him continue his journey.

Another group of people tries to fight the boredom by founding an island colony of the last people left who are interested in art and science, but it doesn’t really amount to much. They mainly pursue dilettante interests and hold boring parties where they have interminably immature and gossipy conversations.

Eventually, after much screwing around, the Overlords reveal their ultimate purpose, which is to prepare the current generation of children to be turned into little conduits, mindless accessories to a universal Overmind. The children eventually stop talking to their parents and start spending all their time in little meditative comas. This leads, inevitably, to the end of the human race.

The book’s ending is told from Jan Rodrick’s point of view as he returns home. Because of the relativistic time distortion from near-light-speed space travel, he returns home after all of the people that he knew are long dead, and all that is left are the weird Overmind children. And as soon as he get there, they begin casting all water and life forms out into space, in preparation for joining the Overmind. In a psychedelic scene that seems like a less powerful, less coherent rehearsal for the ending of 2001, Rodrick describes the destruction of Earth and his unification with the cosmos with sweeping galactic scope.

As I said, one thing that Clarke does still have going for him in this book is his technological prescience. In one otherwise tedious party scene, for example, the host pretends to answer the door for his guests using a realistic holographic projection tool similar to those now used in Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion.

Clarke also invents a nascent form of virtual reality as an entertainment tool for his artist colony. He (adorably) describes it as an outgrowth of the “art of the cartoon film:”

    “First sound, then color, then stereoscopy, then Cinerama, had made the old ‘moving pictures’ more and more like reality itself. Where was the end of the story? Surely, the final stage would be reached when the audience forgot it was an audience, and became part of the action. To achieve this would involve stimulation of all the senses...When the goal was achieved, there would be an enormous enrichment of human experience. A man could become—for a while, at least—any other person, and could take part in any conceivable adventure, real or imaginary…and when the ‘program’ was over, he would have acquired a memory as vivid as any experience in his actual life—indeed, indistinguishable from reality itself.”
However, none of this makes up for the plodding, slow-paced story, which consists mostly of conversations between his characters. Isaac Asimov could pull off this type of narrative because the ideas his characters talk about are interesting and exciting in themselves. But Clarke's characters' ideas are not; the conversations are mostly sophomoric and do nothing to further the action (such action as there is).

It also does not make up for the seedy sexism. This ranges from relatively minor incidents, such as how the women in the artist colony are somewhat condescendingly described as all taking up knitting together and knitting sweaters for all their menfolk, to more egregious ones like the conscious resignation of wives to the “fundamentally polygamous” nature of men and the resulting public series of mistresses their husbands must have.

Forty-six years later, Greg Bear wrote a book called Darwin’s Radio, which also had a plot which included the near-instant change of humanity from one species to another within one generation. Bear’s new species also included a new breed of highly empathic, emotionally interconnected children. But Bear’s novel is much better at what it does, with a comparatively interesting plot and without the 1950s era baggage.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Book Review: Islands in the Net

Bruce Sterling
1988
Awards: Campbell
Nominations: Hugo, Locus

Rating: ★ – – – –

Some cyberpunk novels have riveting, twisty-turny plots that hold your interest throughout the course of the book. Some have complex, interesting characters that are fascinating to follow (whether they are likeable or not). Some have future tech that is both original and well-founded, so that even if you can’t exactly follow its specifics, you can get the gist of it enough to understand its purpose and to realize how imaginative the author has been in creating it.

This is not one of any of these kinds of novels.

In Islands in the Net, Laura and David Webster, a married couple, run a lodge in Galveston, Texas on the Caribbean coast. They both work for Rizome, one of the small number of enormous international corporations that essentially run the world in this year of 2023.

Rizome has chosen the Websters’ lodge as the site for a secret gathering of data pirates, who are from data havens in Grenada, Luxembourg, and Singapore. The data havens are deeply distrustful of each other, but they are all being blackmailed by the same person or organization and want to work together to figure out who it is. For some reason they have chosen Rizome to act as mediator, even though they resent Rizome and everything it stands for.

One night, one of the Grenadian conference participants is shot dead by an aerial drone. The shadowy Free Army of Counter Terrorism (F.A.C.T.) takes credit for the assassination, saying it is part of their effort to eliminate all drug runners and data pirates.

Laura, who witnessed the shooting, is called to Grenada to testify and to prove Rizome didn’t send the drone. This begins a mostly pointless whirlwind series of adventures for her in which she travels from exotic location to exotic location across the globe, and in each place she is the center point of some kind of attack or incident that starts a bloody country-wide riot or revolution from which she (sometimes with her husband and baby) has to escape. There are also numerous chances for men to ogle her breasts.

First she goes to Grenada, where the residents bridle at all governments and corporations curtailing their freedom. They believe everything should be legal and free to all, including data, pot, and food, the last of which is grown in vast quantities on huge offshore tanker ships. After giving her testimony to the board of the Grenadian data haven, her house and all of the floating food factories are bombed by Singapore.
   
Laura, David, and their baby are rescued from the Grenadian carnage by representatives of Kymera, a Singaporean bank. David and the baby are flown home, while Laura is flown to Kymera’s headquarters in Singapore to tell them what she knows about Grenada. But while she is there, the Singaporean Prime Minister is drugged by terrorists (maybe from Grenada; maybe from F.A.C.T.) and made to babble Grenadian libertarian rhetoric on national television, causing a countrywide riot. Laura huddles on the roof of a Rizome building with some co-workers until she is rescued by what is supposedly the Viennese world police, but turns out to be, in fact, F.A.C.T.; they think she knows they have an atomic bomb, so they take her to their headquarters in Mali and throw her in prison for more than a year.

Laura escapes from the prison when it is attacked by a band of rogue Tuareg rebels, led by an American journalist who has gone native. The Tuaregs drive her across the desert to their camp, where she sleeps with the journalist (who has been ogling her). He then films her talking about all her adventures and exposing all the secrets she has learned about Grenada, Singapore, the Viennese world police, and F.A.C.T., and broadcasts it across the world. All the bad banks and pirate consortia then collapse and the world is made safe again for democracy.

The main problem with this book is that it is just plain tedious. I can overlook a whole lot of awkwardness, offensiveness, and silliness if the plot is enjoyable. But in Islands in the Net, the conversations are insipid, the characters are neither interesting nor likeable, the plot is plodding, motives are unclear, mob scenes and battles are strangely boring, and suspense is nonexistent.

Laura also has an inconsistent personality: she is sometimes demure and deferential, sometimes professional and commanding, sometimes spouting an angry stream of obscenities with little warning.

Some sections occasionally held my attention, such as portions of Laura’s time in the Mali prison and her escape in the Tuareg trucks. But most of the time I would read for a few minutes and then find myself staring off into space, not caring about what was happening. About two-thirds of the way through the book I started skipping sentences, and then whole paragraphs.
   
There are other reasons this book was disappointing, however. One is the absence of truly innovative future technology, even by 1988 standards. The spyware that Laura and David are given by Rizome when they go to Grenada and Singapore is clunky: obvious earpieces and large, dark video-equipped sunglasses that they have to wear even at night and indoors. They both wear big “watchphones” that don’t seem to do much more than tell the time and remind them of appointments. And most of the video equipment—whether for entertaining, gaming, or communicating—is based on the VCR.

Laura’s politics are also internally inconsistent and at times hypocritical. She is a firm believer in the ideals of Rizome, her employer, which is supposedly a completely democratic, egalitarian, non-hierarchical corporation. (There are no bosses or underlings; everyone is called an “associate.”) And yet neither Laura nor Rizome can tolerate a third world country running free food farms to feed its people. She is also appalled by the Tuaregs, who are fighting for their independence and sometimes have to resort to semi-terrorist tactics because they have no other avenues left. And she is stridently opposed to data havens and data pirates, never seeing that they may be offering truly equalizing power to everyday people in a world of corporate tyranny and censorship.
   
And she and David themselves actively maintain a hierarchical mini-economy with the staff of Hispanic servants working at their lodge. Although Laura says that they are all equals, it is very clear who are the bosses and who are the servants—especially when she and her husband go gallivanting off overseas whenever they want to, and the kitchen and cleaning staff have to be available to maintain the lodge and watch the baby and prepare food for guests at a moment’s notice.

And, last but not least, this book handles the intimate relationships and sexuality of its female main character so very badly. Almost all of the males that Laura encounters—Grenadians, Singaporeans, Malian jailers, and Tuareg rebels alike—are introduced to us by whether they look at her body or not, and how. And Laura actually feels more comfortable with them when they are ogling. She consciously becomes more relaxed with her Grenadian guide, for example, when he stops looking at her without interest and begins looking at her “as a man looks at a woman.”
   
Laura’s relationship with her husband is also a bit problematic. When she remembers wistfully the early days of sex with David, she describes them fondly as “scary,” “out of control,” “not entirely pleasurable,” and “too close to pain, too strange.” And when the two of them fight about whether or not she should go to Singapore, she is strident and self-assured, confident in her reasons about why she should go. But after she wins the argument, she apologizes and tries to make him feel better by explaining that she was being so strident because she was “on the rag.”

There are few books I have been happier to have in my rear view mirror.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Educational Snippits from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five


On Americans and The Poor (page 164)

While the British colonel set Lazzaro’s broken arm and mixed plaster for the cast, the German major translated out loud passages from Howard W. Campbell, Jr.’s monograph. Campbell had been a fairly well-known playwright at one time. His opening line was this one:

America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves. To quote the American humorist Kim Hubbard, “It ain’t no disgrace to be poor, but it might as well be.” It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by the American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters. The meanest eating or drinking establishment, owned by a man who is himself poor, is very likely to have a sign on its wall asking this cruel question: “If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?” There will also be an American flag no larger than a child’s hand—glued to a lollipop stick and flying from the cash register.
                                                                                   
On Christian Gospel (page 138)

Rosewater was on the next bed, reading, and Billy drew him into the conversation, asked him what he was reading this time.

So Rosewater told him. It was The Gospel from Outer Space, by Kilgore Trout. It was about a visitor from outer space, shaped very much like a Tralfamadorian, by the way. The visitor from outer space made a serious study of Christianity, to learn, if he could, why Christians found it so easy to be cruel. He concluded that at least part of the trouble was slipshod storytelling in the New Testament. He supposed that the intent of the Gospels was to teach people, among other things, to be merciful, even to the lowest of the low.

But the Gospels actually taught this:
                                                                            
Before you kill somebody, make absolutely sure he isn’t well connected. So it goes.

A Fourth-Dimensional Tralfamadorian Explains to His Peers What Time Looks Like to a Three-Dimensional Human Using a Two-Dimensional Analogy (pp. 146-147)

The guide invited the crowd to imagine that they were looking across a desert at a mountain range on a day that was twinkling bright and clear. They could look at a peak or a bird or a cloud, at a stone right in front of them, or even down into a canyon behind them. But among them was this poor Earthling, and his head was encased in a steel sphere which he could never take off. There was only one eyehole through which he could look, and welded to that eyehole were six feet of pipe.

This was only the beginning of Billy’s miseries in the metaphor. He was also strapped to a steel lattice which was bolted to a flatcar on rails, and there was no way he could turn his head or touch the pipe. The far end of the pipe rested on a bi-pod which was also bolted to the flatcar. All Billy could see was the little dot at the end of the pipe. He didn’t know he was on a flatcar, didn’t even know there was anything peculiar about his situation.

The flatcar sometimes crept, sometimes went extremely fast, often stopped—went uphill, downhill, around curves, along straightaways. Whatever poor Billy saw through the pipe, he had no choice but to say to himself, “That’s life.”