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Is there a tendency among us humans to always think that our own time is the endpoint of history? An assumption that things are basically going to continue the way they are now, only maybe a bit more polished. Science fiction can bring back perspective, and make us see that perhaps our piece of human history is just one small part.
The future as history that has not yet taken place is something Kim Stanley Robinson does very well. After a few books set mostly on Earth it's a joy to follow Kim Stanley Robinson to planets, moons and asteroids. He returns to the Solar system 300 years in the future, in a novel that deserves reading more than once. The year 2312 is pivotal for the future of Earth and of the balkanized diaspora of humanity.
On Mercury, Swan Er Hong is grieving her grandmother Alex when something terrible happens to her home city of Terminator. Alex was involved in some secret plans, and following them will bring Swan to Earth, to Venus, to Mars and to the moons of Saturn.
Swan Er Hong is one of the most interesting protagonists for a long time. She is fascinationg: moody and impulsive, with low self esteem, but paradoxically easy to like. She is very intense, dives into everything with a lot of energy. She also grapples with her shortcomings when it comes to people skills.
Swan embodies many questions about identity and continuity. She seems to be uncomfortable with herself, and has made an unusual amount of modifications to her body and brain. Does that make her posthuman, or just more human?
Of course, in this future almost everyone makes alterations to their bodies. If nothing else, in order to live longer. The longevity theme is continued from the Mars books, and has social consequences. And humanity is differentiating in their different worlds, dividing into various groups. Our old, worn and troubled Earth holds a special place, and is necessary for all of humanity in many ways. At the same time, it's full of seemingly unsolvable social and environmental problems.
2312 is a book that contains so much of everything we have come to expect of this author. There is texture to the environment, a sense of place and of personalities. There are grand stories of a changing humanity, medium scale stories of terrorism and emerging AI, and small stories of love and friendship. And there is the love of reality, the grounding in science. The only thing I find less prominent in 2312 than I have come to expect is the partying: the scenes where people just have fun. They exist, but are perhaps less exuberant.
The descriptions and infodumps are handled in a clever way, mostly by putting them in the form of short "Extracts" and "Lists" between the chapters. Some of these read like poetry. In this way a lot of facts can be included, without bogging down the story and without ever getting close to "as you know, Bob, ..."
Kim Stanley Robinson examines some of the well worn science fiction tropes with a critical eye, and brings them to new life. Not much here feels taken from a standard inventory of science fiction ingredients, even it actually is. At the same time, you can feel the awareness of the science fiction tradition, old and new. There are lots of small nods and references, like calling one of the historical periods between our time and 2312 the Accelerando, or describing space as fugilin black (that has to be a reference to Gene Wolfe, who else ever uses that word?), or mentioning the Dhalgren sun. But of course Stan Robinson is just as aware of the rest of our culture, with references to other kinds of literature, and art, and music.
The soundtrack to this novel is Beethoven, by the way.
Imagine a world where you can travel from sun to sun in wooden ships, without worrying about space suits since all of space is filled with air. Imagine a world without planets, with spinning town wheels to emulate gravity to keep humans – descended from us planet dwellers – healthy in a free fall environment. Then imagine that all kinds of technology that we have invented in roughly the latest 100 years (and kinds not invented yet) are disabled: no electricity, no electronics, no advanced nanotech or biotech.
You get a wonderfully strange environment. This is the setting of the Virga series by Karl Schroeder. Virga is a huge bubble world, filled with air and isolated from the surrounding universe. Many of the inhabitants are unaware of the nature of Virga and the existence of an outside. Here you get far future adventure with steampunk level technology.
This is a major worldbuilding exercise. Take a look at the beautiful cover images to tickle your sense of wonder a little bit. (There is going to be a graphic novel of the first Virga book, Sun of Suns. I wonder what that will look like!)
Worlds with some of these features have been created by others in science fiction. There are perhaps never any really new ideas. One recent example is Terminal World by Alastair Reynolds (which I haven't read). In his story more advanced technologies can only function in the higher levels of a towerlike world. The Virga series develops these ideas with causes and consequences in an interesting way, perhaps deeper than anything before.
Ashes of Candesce concludes the Virga series, consisting of five books. According to Karl Schroeder himself, the books are written to stand alone as much as possible. The first three are tied together in one story arc: Sun of Suns, Queen of Candesce (these first two are also collected in one volume as Cities of the Air ) and Pirate Sun. Here the focus is on life, struggles, intrigues and battles within Virga. The final two books, The Sunless Countries and Ashes of Candesce open up to the outside, which is dominated by something called Artificial Nature. Virga is threatened, and the stakes are high: it's about the continued existence of humans, and perhaps of any embodied intelligence at all.
Full disclosure: I haven't read all of the Virga books, so my description relies partly on back cover descriptions, reviews and the author's website. Now, I'm sure I will have to get hold of the first three books. The setting fascinates me, and I want to inhabit Virga a little bit longer. Still, I can testify that it's possible to follow the story without starting from the beginning of the series.
One of the intriguing things about Virga concerns how and why someone would want to construct a place like this. The mechanism suppressing advanced technologies is contained in Candesce, the central "sun" of Virga. The control of Candesce is the ultimate prize of Virga. Of course there are obvious drawbacks with not being able to use all known technology. No unchallenged romantic low-tech bliss. People die, when they really would not have to. So there must be an important advantage, but what? Why did someone invent something like Candesce? Exploring this, and the struggle between various groups, the story also touches interesting questions like the relationship between mind and body.
My favourite character in this book is Keir, who starts out as a mystery even to himself. He knows that he is losing memories and knowledge, but he doesn't know why. In the end his secrets turn out to be very important for the solution of the conflict. He comes from a world outside Virga, and through his eyes the good and the bad aspects of life in Virga stand out in sharp relief. It's also touching to follow Keir as he loses the function of his neural implant system, the scry, which has always provided him with augmented reality information and extended memory functions.
This is an example of one of my favourite things in science fiction: how it can make the familiar strange and wonderful. Like biological memory, and how to use it. It's not necessarily optimal, but it is something that I use all the time never reflecting over the special experience. This gave me little kicks of sense of wonder for a couple of days, and at the same time made me a bit frustrated with the shortcomings of my own powers of recollection. But of course, we all use extended memory: writing, photography, sound recordings and so on. Which we also tend to take for granted.
Karl Schroeder is definitely an author to watch. I might even take a look at his earlier works, things he wrote before Virga.
No this is not one of those mashups, like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. This is an original story, but with the setting, story-line and style heavily inspired by the works of Jane Austen. Except it's set in an alternate Regency period where magic is an art generally practiced by educated women.
There are similarities between reading very old novels and reading fantasy. A novel written 200 years ago is set in a very different world from the one we see around us. Reading Jane Austen can be a bit like reading fantasy, just because I have to imagine a world which is strange to me. Historical fiction is perhaps even more fantasy-like, since it's written with a contemporary reader in mind, who needs to be gently introduced to unfamiliar surroundings.
So writing fantasy as if it were a novel from an older time is not a big step (and I don't think Mary Robinette Kowal is the first to try). Still, there are many ways it could possibly go wrong. One challenge is to make it all seem natural, to make the magic an integrated part of the story and not just an exotic element for decoration. In Shades of Milk and Honey this works very well.
Another challenge, which Kowal knows how to handle, is the cultural difference between us and our ancestors. Historical fiction sometimes suffers from the problem of a protagonist who seems to be a time traveler from the age when the story was written. This happens in fantasy, too: characters have a mindset which doesn't seem natural in the world where they are supposed to have grown up.
This is obviously a story from a world where the only important thing for a young woman is to get married. The protagonist, Jane Ellsworth, is already an old maid and convinced that she is not beautiful enough and will never marry. Being talented in music and glamour does not matter. She hopes to be the governess of her sister's children, and that's all. The lives of the Ellsworth girls seem limited from my point of view, and the possibilities few.
I braced myself for having the illusion shattered and modern sensibilities to break through, but somehow this never happened. Mary Robinette Kowal brings the story to a conclusion that can satisfy also a reader in the year 2012, while still staying within the rules she has set for her story. Magically, it works.
Sadly, I haven't read enough Jane Austen to be a good judge of how close Kowal stays to the original source of inspiration. According to a blurb on the cover also someone from the Jane Austen Centre thinks that it "could easily fit into Austen's canon, except of course for the inclusion of magic".
It's no spoiler to tell you Jane Ellsworth, of course, gets a man in the end (but I'm leaving it to you to find out who it is).
The sequel, Glamour in Glass will be out this spring. I imagine that it will have a different feeling, since Jane is already married. It's about what happens after, and it's not so obvious what direction this story will take. I think I'll want to read it just to find out what kind of opportunities there will be for a woman like her, in her age and world.
You might like this book if you enjoy:
Keep reading if you would like to know my thoughts on Final Days in a context of hard science fiction.
The last third or so of Final Days was a fun read, but for a hundred pages in the middle I kept reading mostly for the grazing cars. Cool gadgets help a lot when I fail to feel really involved in the plot.
As the title reveals, it's a story about the end of a world. A mysterious alien artefact is lost, and those who know about it have reasons to believe that it's going to destroy all life on Earth. At the same time, there are political tensions over the access to the wormhole technology that allows transfer to the space colonies in other star systems. The array of wormhole gates is located on the moon, and controlled by the very powerful organisation Array Security and Immigration (ASI), based in the Western Coalition. Saul Dumont is an ASI agent who gets involved in it all, partly as a consequence of his failures.
I found Saul a somewhat colourless character, despite his mild drug addiction and his personal problems. He thinks he is investigating the sabotage of the gate to the Galileo colony, where his wife and daughter live. For ten years, no-one has been able to travel between Earth and Galileo, and Saul is eager to find out who is responsible for separating him from his family. What his superiors really want to get is details about the imminent destruction and its cause, and therefore Saul finds himself at the centre of the events threatening billions of people. There is a lot of action and violence, but I didn't really care about Saul himself.
He gets more interesting in the second half of the book, when he interacts with people in situations not always involving a lot of running and fighting, and reveals more complex feelings. And he gets to ride a Saturn rocket, which is actually kind of cool in a future where very few actually travel through space.
That detail with the Saturn rocket struck a chord in me, which made me a bit worried. There is a strong streak of nostalgia in some flavours of hard science fiction, with authors who clearly seem to think that the future was better in the past. I'm talking about the kind of technology romanticism that seems uncomfortable with the developments in society and comes together with a certain political conservatism. Like Michael Flynn in Firestar. He describes a return to space coupled with a kind of soft revolution that transforms our whole culture, art and literature and everything, to something easier and more understandable. The effect is to make him look like he skipped a couple of decades and just cannot comprehend the world he lives in. I'm not sure I want to be like that. Still, I can't help being charmed by the old fashioned rocket. It makes a wonderful contrast between the easy everyday travel between celestial bodies in the portrayed future, and the much more heroic (i.e. uncomfortable) journeys of the early space pioneers.
Also, Gary Gibson avoids getting overtly nostalgic about the Right Stuff, and never gets ideologically annoying. (There are actually interesting post-colonial issues in this future, where the wormhole technology gives the Western Coalition control over the colonies, while the Pan-Asian Congress demands equal control and their own gates. I like it when Earth is described as a whole, multi-faceted planet.)
Still, Final Days is definitelyhard SF. The story is much more about the physics of wormhole gates and the technology of the future, and about time travel paradoxes and free will and the destiny of humanity, than about a few specific characters. Perhaps the most memorable person in the story is the elderly Amy, who together with her husband runs the space tourism company owning the Saturn replica rocket. That Amy makes a reference to a "cold equation" tells us that Gary Gibson very much knows that he's a part of the conversation in hard science fiction. ("The Cold Equations" is a much debated short story by Tom Godwin, first published in 1954.) The story is also full of action and suspense. Will mankind survive? And at the end, I actually cannot be sure that Saul did the right thing. It's an interesting situation. I must say that I also enjoyed the attempt at exposing the inherent problems with wormhole travel. This is a very commonly used trope in science fiction. One example is how Peter F. Hamilton uses wormholes to connect the planets in his Commonwealth universe, another is the "farcasters" in Hyperion by Dan Simmons that allow the river Tethys to cross several planets. Still, the fact that this kind of faster-than-light travel allows for certain kinds of time travel and all sorts of paradoxes is usually just forgotten. In Final Days the gates are even called CTCs, for "closed timelike curves", a term referring to the description of a phenomenon like a wormhole within the theory of relativity. Don't worry about the details, Gary Gibson is not weighing down the story with lengthy explanations, but it's still an important plot point. (There's the conversation again. Science fiction collectively exploring common tropes.)
I also found it sort of refreshing to read about a future with recognisable humans and technology in the year 2235. The augmented reality of Final Days is not very far from what we can do now, with a smart phone, but much more integrated with daily life. Most people wear contact lenses containing their personal data ("ubiquitous profile", including money) and communications device. They also display the desired amount of information and helpful instructions in the wearer's field of view.
It's not our immediate future, but still a world just a step beyond ours. No backups of your personality, no quasi-magical nanobot utility fogs, no emerging intelligences on the internet, no singularity. I guess I sometimes get a bit tired of those things, and like variation.
As I mentioned in the beginning, the grazing cars was another piece of future technology that I found fascinating. Kind of cute, but a bit incongruous with the rest of the worldbuilding. It actually doesn't seem to be a very good idea.
A second hire car was parked near Jeff's own, where it shuffled closer to the verge and began tearing up the same patch of grass, sucking the biomass deep into its guts prior to converting it to ethanol.
Can you imagine hauling around large amounts of concentrated biomass for the cars to eat -- instead of just bringing the ethanol from a centralised distillery? And how do you deal with the waste? You know what a street looks like where horses are used.
Still, if it hadn't been for the cars I might have stopped reading before getting to the good parts. That's hard SF for you.
It's gift-giving season again. The time of year when you want to buy really good things to people you love, and you realize again that you don't really understand their taste in books.
People tend to enjoy different aspects of literature. They talk about things like whether the emphasis is on plot or on character development or on ideas. Some read only stories with supernatural elements of some kind, others hate and avoid everything like that. Sometimes I try to understand what makes someone like a book and I just cannot understand it. You know what I'm talking about. I've been thinking about this a lot; in the end I usually end up making Christmas presents of books I would like to read myself, or just give something mundane like socks.
As a reviewer I cannot give you socks. I'm supposed to tell you, many of you complete strangers (and I don't know the size of your feet anyway), if you would like to read this book or not -- a book that I wasn't able to really enjoy myself.
There are people who love Louis McMaster Bujold and her Miles Vorkosigan books, and I suspect that it's the same kind of readers who like Catherine Asaro. This is just a guess, because I haven't actually read anything by Bujold (yet) for exactly the same reasons that I haven't read Asaro until now: there is nothing in the description of these books that tickles my imagination, the promise of romance puts me off since I'm rarely interested in love stories per se, and it seems complicated to start reading an author who writes so many books set in the same universe and connected into some larger narrative.
The saga of the Skolian empire is not really a series, but a number of books set in a common future history. There was actually no problem to start with the latest book, and follow the story. Of course there were some massive infodumps in the early part of the book to bring the readers into the larger story and explain who everyone is and wants. This definitely slows down the reading, but I never had any problems following the story or even understanding what kind of relationship all of the characters have to each other.
At the beginning of Carnelians we are thrown into a situation of precarious peace between interstellar empires. The situation gets more tense when the brother of the Skolian leader, who is also a rock singer, apparently transmits a very angry song called "Carnelians Finale" (which for political reasons has been forbidden) to the whole universe. This book is actually sort of a sequel to one called Diamond Star, where this rock singer prince, Del, is the protagonist. A fun detail is that Catherine Asaro actually collaborated with a band (Point Valid) to create a sound track for the book, where also "Carnelians Finale" is included.
When this song has been released through the information networks (the "Kyle mesh"), and some assassination attempts have been thwarted, the leaders have to somehow avoid a devastating war. Do you enjoy books with complicated intrigues and political maneuvering? People talk a lot, trying to convince each other to do things, sometimes for other reasons than they state openly. There is power struggle, and everyone is trying to guess the other important people's hidden motives. I tend to be bored by this kind of plot, and it's no more entertaining this time. There aren't even any interesting ideological points to ponder, just one civilization which is much more decadent and cruel and one which consists of telepaths ("psions").
Asaro's books are sometimes described as a mix of hard SF and romance. There is a indeed love story in Carnelians, involving the runaway girl Aliana who also was only character I found interesting. Hard SF, on the other hand, is not how I would describe this work. Of course there are all kinds of advanced technology (nanorobots, semi-sentient neurological implants, smart furniture, rotating space habitats, and so on) but scientific extrapolation is not the point, it's just for local colour.
So you see that this space opera is much more about the opera than about space. Especially since space is not really a factor in the story. Faster than light travel seems to be commonplace, and I actually get no real feeling of physical separation between the star systems. The inhabited universe is also interconnected by the Kyle mesh, a kind of internet with instant communication enabled by telepaths (I think, I actually didn't really understand this).
The part I liked the best is actually the (still kind of cheesy and predictable) subplot about Aliana, the sullen girl on the run from an abusive stepfather who meets a slave boy who has been thrown out with the houshold trash. I guess I find it easier to relate to the street perspective than to what goes on in the court of the emperor.
So, is Carnelians better than a random pair of socks?
If you are like me, this might not be the book for you. If you are mostly interested in relationships and political plots with a bit of adventure thrown in, then maybe this is nice Christmas reading. I can't tell you how it compares to Asaro's earlier work, but the themes are what I expected.
If you have read a lot by Catherine Asaro, let me know what you liked! Maybe I can become a better judge of books I don't like myself.
Marya Morevna, when you longed to see the world naked and watched for what was hidded behind everyday things, did you know where it would lead you? When you saw the three birds turning into men, did you recognize the structure of your tale? When you learned the date of your death, did it change your way of life?
They say there are only twelve plots, or seven, or three. These contain all stories there are to tell. Perhaps it is true that the human brain has a tendency to find certain patterns, to patch together precisely these stories from the jumble of events, meetings, and random catastrophes and triumphs that life brings. Maybe, but it does not reduce the value of telling the stories, and retelling them again.
In Deathless Catherynne M. Valente lets the Russian folk tale of Marya Morevna play out in parallel with some important decades in the history of St. Petersburg-Petrograd-Leningrad, with revolution and war. We know what will happen, we know at least the outlines of this story -- even if we this time also get to see the house imps joining the Party and forming committees. Most readers will also recognize the structure of the fairy tale, and we understand that certain things have to be. Even if we are not familiar with all the creatures of Russian folk lore, we understand what they mean. There is an inevitability to it all, that partly feels horrible and claustrophobic, partly comforting and secure.
Knowing how it ends rarely makes a story less interesting, often more so. In a fairy tale, we expect certain turns and we know at least roughly where it will lead. Variations of folk tales is nearly a genre in itself, maybe partly because the well known is a secure framework for telling important stories. Also because if the reader can be expected to know the story, she will understand which points are new, or emphasized by the author.
Marya Morevna comes to the Country of Life, becomes the warrior queen, confronts Baba Yaga, travels to the Country of Death. Everything is expected, and everything is new and surprising. The writing is beautiful. The triangle of Marya, Koschei and Ivan becomes a dark comment on love and matrimony: who is to rule? The world we know fades out of focus and back again. The tragedies of Leningrad in the war gets entangled with the struggle against the boundaries of free will.
Life is like that. Life is not like that.
Through most of The Restoration Game you can safely allow yourself to believe that you are reading a kind of contemporary spy thriller, although kind of light on the action and violence and heavy on the personal history of the geek girl protagonist Lucy.
Lucy works for the small computer game company Digital Damage, located in Edinburgh. The company gets drawn into complicated international conspiracies through Lucys mother, Amanda, who used to be a CIA "asset". Lucy becomes an important person for the big game of power and economic control because of her knowledge of the language and national myth of the small (fictive) Georgian province of Krassnia, where she grew up.
Ken MacLeod here continues his exploration of ideologies and economy post communism, a theme that you can recognise from earlier books. The intrigues around Krassnia are interesting on their own, and a reminder that there is a world geographically really close to us which we in our corner of Europe tend to know little about. Most of the story takes place in 2008, but the focus on Krassnia and the lack of any hints of terrorist scare gives it a subtle alternate history feeling. The war between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia actually took place in our reality, so in any case it's very close to the reality we know.
Lucy is talked into making a Krassnian version of a Digital Damage game, which then plays a role in the political plots. The topic of using online games as a means for organising protests is already science fictional (in the spirit of that William Gibson quote: "The future is already here â€” it's just not very evenly distributed"), but in this book it's also a tool for the hunt after a secret hidden in the Krassnian mountains.
Still, as I mentioned, there is not much to remind the reader that this is SF. As if compensating for the lack of gosh wow SF elements through the early parts of the book Ken MacLeod is flirting a bit with the science fiction fans and computer geeks among the readers. Lucy is both. The number of people in Sweden who recognize the atmosphere among SF fans meeting in a pub might be few, but I guess there are many Ken MacLeod readers who will smile at a UNIX/eunuchs misunderstanding. I'm easily charmed by injokes like these, which might pass by unnoticed by readers who don't share the frames of reference.
Someone who does not feel included by these things might still appreciate that Ken MacLeod makes Lucy a really cool person. She is very far from the "kick-ass" heroines we have often seen way too much of. She is interested in many things, but she doesn't know any martial arts. Her life is full of work and flat mates and cat and new boyfriend and preparations for the wedding of a close friend a normal person, who just happens to get involved in crazy big things.
At the centre of the things that happen around Lucy is the "secret of the Vrai". This is the MacGuffin as they say in the world of cinema, the object that drives the plot. Something ancient hidden on a mountain, surrounded by rumors and guarded with firearms and superstition. This secret fails to catch my interest for a long time, hidden behind the political machinations and the things Lucy discovers about her own background. Suddenly, at the very end, this changes.
It's wonderful when an author manages to play with your assumptions and turn them on their heads. This is a really old trick, and in some kinds of science fiction nearly compulsory, but often enough it still works. After turning the last page there is no doubt that this story was pure science fiction all along.
I'm not going to say more than this, and telling you that there are surprises is already a bit of a spoiler. Although it's now scientifically proven that knowing a lot about the plot doesn't spoil the experience, I prefer not giving away too much.
If you read the book, find me and we will talk about the ending and some philosophical implications. That could be fun.
This is a book about the technologies that will shape our lives in various ways in the near future and in the coming 100 years. It's all extrapolated from the current front line of technology and from new knowledge that is anticipated to be exploited soon. Michio Kaku is a physicist who has made a name as a popularizer of science, through his books and as host of various TV shows. Physics of the Future is based on interviews with scientists and people who are involved in developing and trying out the discussed technologies.
The title is a bit misleading – it's clearly chosen because the book is in some ways a sequel to Kaku's Physics of the Impossible, which discusses seemingly impossible things people do in fiction and what it would take to make some of them possible. Physics of the Future is not about what we will learn in physics in the future. Not even only about how physics will be applied in the future. It's about computers, robots, medicine, economics, energy and, yes, about space travel. Every chapter is divided into three parts: the current state of the art, what we might be able to do around mid century, and visions for the "far future" in about 100 years.
Many of the ideas are discussed in the light of two principles: Moore's law and "the caveman principle". Moore's law states roughly that computers double in capacity every two years. At some point in the not so far future Moore's law will break down because it meets the physical limits of how small we can make our integrated circuits. The caveman principle is just that people are basically the same as in the stone age. Our preferences and needs are rooted in that human nature, and this will shape how we implement our technologies and shape our future.
Of course things will not play out exactly the way described in the book, and this is discussed in the introduction. The book is about what we might do, based on what we know now, and this is the available information that we need to work with when imagining the future. A reader of popular science magazines might already be familiar with most of the things and ideas discussed here (I found this especially true for the chapter about space travel), but here a lot is collected in the same place in a nice package where you can start to appreciate how various advances can work together. Someone who is new to all of this might find the book fairly dense, but still readable.
Michio Kaku is clearly enthusiastic over the subject, and very optimistic. It's a mostly bright future he describes, where we use our collected wits and deal constructively with the problems caused by global warming and the end of oil. I actually feel that the positive picture he paints sometimes borders on the naive, when he glosses over the ethical problems with some of the inventions he describes. Yes, there are problems with creating entities with minds and make them serve us. And what responsibilities do we have to our "designer babies"? (As a friend of mine stated it: how fun is it 30 years later, when your genes are really out of fashion?) I understand that these discussions may be beside the point and that Kaku doesn't want to fill the book with them, but I miss acknowledgments that ethics can be relevant and important in shaping the future.
Some comments about economics, history and other relevant subjects far from physics also seem a bit oversimplified. I'm sure that Michio Kaku has done his research and that he has fact checked everything against experts, but being one myself I know that physicists are not necessarily experts of everything, and I reserve the right to be a bit skeptical about his historical analyses. Nevertheless I enjoy the enthusiasm and the optimism, because it makes it easy and entertaining to read the book. I put many question marks in the margins of the discussions about for example how exactly Europe came to be more successful than China and the Ottoman empire, but that doesn't spoil the rest of the book.
Perhaps the least successful chapter is the last one, "A day in the life in 2100", which is intended to illustrate what life might be like when we have access to all of the things described in the preceding chapters. It reads like science fiction from the 1930's, only with updated gadgets, and leaves me feeling unsatisfied when I put the book down. Michio Kaku is a good writer of popular science, but not as talented at fiction, and for this story did not add anything of value.
I have read enough good SF to have little patience with bad SF. This brings me to my real problem with reading this book, which is not a failure of the book but rather of me as a reader. My reading mind is shaped by decades on a high-SF-diet. The thing that keeps nagging me through the book is that the author seems to be completely unaware of science fiction literature after about 1982 or so. I know, it's very unfair to judge a book because it fails to do something the author didn't intend at all in the first place. (Actually, I hate it when people do that. I stopped reading reviews on online bookstores because of that.) I just cannot help it.
You see, I keep thinking of the perfect examples of how everything mentioned in this book is discussed in science fiction, new and old. If you talk about super intelligent mice I want to mention Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. If you talk about recreating Neanderthals I want to mention Neverness by David Zindell. If you talk about regrowing lost limbs I think of Have Space Suit, Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein. If you talk about augmented reality (digital information superimposed on your senses) I think of The Golden Age by John C. Wright and The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi. If you talk about extended life spans I want to mention the treatment of that in the Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson. When it comes to nanotechnology, why not mention The Dervish House by Ian McDonald, which I recently reviewed here.
This list just goes on forever.
Michio Kaku instead takes most of his examples from ancient mythology and talks about "the power of gods". The rest of his illustrating examples come from Star Trek and SF blockbusters, which he seems to like but not take very seriously. That is fair enough but leaves me feeling a bit frustrated. I think I personally would have preferred to read a book about technologies in fairly current science fiction literature with discussions of if and when these might be available in reality, and the science behind. The book I wish I had is an updated version of the classic The Science in Science Fiction, edited by Peter Nicholls. It was published in 1983 and is still readable, but it's too old to contain cyberpunk, new space opera, and a lot of cool scientific ideas which have been commonplace in SF recently – such as many of the things discussed in Physics of the Future. I wish someone would write an updated version of The Science in Science Fiction. I actually wish that I could write it myself (something that I could not do alone, that's for sure).
It's not Michio Kaku's fault that I feel frustrated by this. Physics of the Future is entertaining and I think the author succeeds with what he has set out to do: discussing future technologies. Thinking about it, I wonder if it would not also be a nice source of inspiration for SF writers.
(By the way: yes, it bothers me that my quick list of science fiction examples contains no works by women. That is something worth discussing.)
This is so brilliant. Beautiful. At the moment I think this is the novel I'm going to recommend everyone to read for a long time to come.
As I have probably said before, it's a little bit risky to review a book before I have really digested it. I never know when I turn the last page what I will think of it in a week or a month. Still, I have now waited way too long to read this book, considering that I wanted to review it before the coming weekend.
Perhaps I'm just dazzled at the moment, but one thing that is safe to say is that I'm going to remember the wonderful opening scene. Some books have a catchy first sentence ("It was the day my grandmother exploded." The Crow Road, Iain Banks. Or, by now well worn cliché: "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel." That's Neuromancer by William Gibson, in case that you don't recognise it.), but The Dervish House has a little movie in the beginning. We follow a stork, riding the rising air above Istanbul, The Queen of Cities, which is just waking up for another day of unusually hot weather in the year 2027. For half a page I am the stork, I can see it all! It's like a spell, pulling me into the book to keep me locked in between the covers for at least a couple of hours straight. It fits my way of reading perfectly: visual, sensual.
I have read things by Ian McDonald before, but I cannot remember being captivated this way. Brasyl was good in many ways, but did not resonate well with me at all. (Too much quantum physics, perhaps – I cannot make myself believe in magical quantum computers.)
The story in The Dervish House is very fast paced, very compact – it all takes place within five days – and very clear, but has room for a lot of science fictional ideas. It is centered around the people living in the old house of the title, which used to be a place where dervishes gathered but is converted to affordable housing. When a suicide bomber blows her head off on a tram passing by the area, some of the people of this dervish house are pulled into a plot which is much bigger than it first seems. Their paths cross the paths of their neighbours, and we get to know them all a little. I especially like the nine year old boy, who plays detective with the help of his bit-bot robot toy.
These people are very different, and show us very different aspects of Istanbul.
One of the central ideas is the use of nanotechnology in the form of some kind of nanorobots to temporarily or permanently rewire the nervous system. You can snort some nano to help you stay focussed on a task, or induce a certain state of mind. There are more experimental versions, that can do more specific things to your brain also. Istanbul is a centre of nanotechnology in this future, and there are ideas for applications that could change the world in ways that for most would be drastic and unexpected.
Another theme is economics, and we are shown the stark difference between the game with large sums of virtual money and the science of describing the behaviour of people. I recall that Paul Krugman – Nobel price, remember? – is supposed to have said that he went into economics because it was the closest he could come to psychohistory, as in the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov. Kim Stanley Robinson said in his speech at the Worldcon last year that "economics is a pseudoscience; the astrology of our time". Perhaps it is, but some economists also seem to be very aware of the advances in psychology, and perhaps this field also is becoming a part of a general wave of discovery of what is to be human. Time will tell, and in the meantime we play with ideas and visions.
The central theme of Ian McDonalds writing has to be that not only Europe and America are important in the future. More and more of the rest of the world makes itself noticed, and some people feel threatened when they notice that our part of the world is not the only place that matters. It hurts when you notice that you have been holding a privilege which depends on keeping other people out. Ian McDonald has recently shown us futures in India, Brazil and now Turkey, and I think it helps people lift their eyes a bit and see parts of the world they barely knew were there. Who needs other planets when we have so much to learn about our own?
In The Dervish House we get a very broad picture of Istanbul, and also a glimpse of the rest of Turkey. It's in the near future, and there is no glossing over the tension between ethnic groups. So we get to see some really ugly prejudice and discrimination (and worse) against kurds, but also the problems facing Greeks, Armenians, and other minorities. The Russians just seem to float on top of everything (but they are always just outside the frame of the picture in this novel). But there is more to the city than that: history, art, trade, food, and gas pipelines. Even science fiction. In passing, the only science fiction author of Turkey is mentioned, but not by name – I suspect this is a real person. (Burak Eldem? My best guess.) Perhaps there are also ancient hidden secrets, secrets that can only be uncovered by luck, dedication, and the eye of a trader in antiquities.
"All Istanbul is celebrating," one of the characters reflects at the end of the book. "And Istanbul is mourning, and Istanbul is dreading and Istanbul is hoping. Istanbul is everything."
Now, time to get ready to meet Ian McDonald himself, among other authors. Eurocon is this weekend (June 17-19), in Stockholm. Elizabeth Bear will be there! Charles Stross will be there! Hannu Rajaniemi will be there! Amanda Downum will be there! And many more.
And so will I, non-author as I am, and perhaps you too. Let's find each other and talk about books.
New and important things usually start at the edges, the borders, the intersections and interfaces. It's not through some central committee that revolutionary ideas are spawned, it's not in the limelight of the famous stages new musical expressions are tried. Things start in the gutters, in hidden corners, through the clashes between old and new, near and far.
That is the attraction of places like Bordertown.
Welcome to Bordertown is my first encounter with Bordertown. I was initally attracted by the lineup of really interesting author names in this anthology (Charles de Lint, Catherynne Valente, Nalo Hopkinson, Emma Bull, Cory Doctorow, Neil Gaiman...), but then the setting also resonates with my imagination.
Bordertown is a place right on the border between our world and The Realm, or Faerie if you like. This is a place where elves can enter into our world, and where magic works -- sort of, sometimes. The elves are not those of fairytales for little children, but more similar to those unpredictable beings of folklore. Except in Bordertown they play rock music. They don't appreciate being called elves or fairies, but call themselves Truebloods ("which, I've got to admit, sounds a bit too white supremacist for my taste" says Joey in Charles de Lint's story).
Bordertown is also a place for the odd, the strange, and those who don't really belong anywhere: typically runaway kids. You can get there if your intention is right and if you work on it, but it's not easy. Actually, noone has been able to find the way for thirteen years when it suddenly reappears. In Bordertown only thirteen days has passed. In this newly rediscovered Bordertown, the thirteen stories, seven poems and one graphic story of this book take place.
Bordertown is a shared world, where people write their stories in the same setting. It was created in the 1980's, when urban fantasy was just being invented, and is talked about as very influential on a lot of authors. There are four earlier anthologies and three novels in this world, but the thirteen years of isolation corresponds to a time where no new Bordertown stories have been published.
Being new to the setting is no problem. Welcome to Bordertown starts with two introduction texts and a short guide text of Bordertown basics, giving you most of the background you might want. There is only one story ("We Do Not Come In Peace" by Christopher Barzak) where I feel that perhaps a little more background would have been good to understand the significance of what's going on. Perhaps I just need to reread the story.
In the beginning, through the first couple of stories, I get a feeling of Bordertown as an eternal rock festival and art happening. After finishing the book I have a thorough sense of the backside of it also. Bordertown might be wonderful, but it's also shabby and dangerous.
There are gangs. There is drug trade. And there is the notorious unpredictability of magic and technology (the shifts in the magic are described as juju weather in the Nalo Hopkinson story). Noone said it was comfortable in Bordertown. You might live in a squat with only sometimes electricity and cold water, and perhaps you live just day to day for long periods. On the other hand there is music and art and all sorts of creative things going on all around.
"Bordertown is shabbier than I expected, run-down and wearing at the edges, but it's also got that makeshift cool that you'll always find in a certain part of any city. The place where the oddball stores, restaurants and clubs are all just a little hipper." ("A Tangle of Green Men" by Charles de Lint)
Here is also all of the complexity and ambiguity of life: who is good and who is evil? Who might help you, and who will make things worse? At least three of the stories in this book are centered around people who are in Bordertown with the special intention to help others, those unfortunate that get themselves too deeply into trouble.
As a whole, this is a strong collection. There are no stories that feel boring or pointless, and only three that I'm likely to forget soon. I'm going to tell you that the contribution by Neil Gaiman is a two page poem, but that Charles de Lint has written a long story. Those who buy the book for just one name might get more or less for their money -- but they will probably like much of the rest of the anthology as well.
Stories on a border push at boundaries. "Shannon's Law" by Cory Doctorow, for example, is what happens when a science fictional mind collides with the impenetrable border to a country which seems to obey different laws of nature than the World we know. Can you peer through the veil, send information through to learn more about the Perilous Realm? "Our Stars, Our Selves" by Tim Pratt features an astronomer who (much to her own frustration) turns into an astrologer because of the strange features of the night sky visible in the Nevernever surrounding Bordertown. Nalo Hopkinson's story "Ours is the Prettiest" hints at different lands beyond The Realm, with other even stranger magic and beings. "A Tangle of Green Men" by Charles de Lint looks also in the other direction, and explores (among other things) what kind of subculture might arise in our World if it were in contact with Faerie.
Since Bordertown was invented before urban fantasy was an established as a subgenre, it was well established before it was taken over by vampires and werewolves and teenage love. The story "Crossings" by Janni Lee Simner is a revenge on the vampire romance story. It's also a devastating take on what happens when young dreamers collide with harsh reality. A vampire is a monster, and true love might not be what you think.
There is also a strong theme of finding community or a place to belong, which is especially explicit in "Welcome to Bordertown" by Ellen Kushner and Terri Windling and "A Voice Like a Hole" by Catherynne M. Valente.
These are just a few examples of the stories, I'm not going to talk in detail about them individually because I think you should discover them for yourself. One message I see throughout the book is that you cannot hide in stories to get away from the difficult things in life, but you can use the stories to be able to face your problems.
It didn't really occur to me until I put the book down that this is intended as young adult fiction -- or intended to be marketable as YA. I felt a bit stupid, since Terri Windlings introduction says so explicitly. Anyway, it just confirms what many have been saying: that a lot of interesting genre stuff nowadays is happening in YA. Also, in youth almost everyone passes through a period of feeling odd and uncomfortable, not really belonging. The search for somewhere to feel at home is really universal, and one of the things that give stories with young protagonists an appeal for many readers.
Perhaps also this experience is the point where those of us who are relatively privileged in this world can connect with people who are really standing on the outside for specific reasons. The general Bordertown feeling is that a wide variety of outcasts and lost people are visible and may belong. The stories deal with various backgrounds and experiences: skin colours, social backgrounds, sexualities, physical abilities. They are not glossing over the problems of getting along, so of course there is a lot of tension. Still, noone is expecting people to be all similar in Bordertown and all of the variety is there in plain view. I think that is very hopeful, because learning to live together starts with seeing eachother instead of hiding in our isolated corners.
Given this diversity, and the fairly distinct flavours of the different stories, I start to wonder about the dynamics of a shared world. How do you go about making it feel like one and the same place? I wonder how you tend a shared world, and how you create a book like this. The authors have to get a fairly strict framework to work within. I'm curious, I'll have to find something to read about that.
The stories are clearly arranged to be read in the order they stand. They cleverly plant details or people that you encounter again in a later story by another author, or a poem might echo as lyrics of a busker's song. I like the effect.
Still, in the end I wonder about the overall feeling I get, that the book gets darker and my view of Bordertown bleaker as I come closer to the end. In my mind it becomes less of a place of creative magic, and more of a glorified shanty town with a few shining points of hope. Was this really the intention? The introductin gave me the impression that Bordertown was intended as a place you would want to find, not a place to be afraid of.
The danger of reviewing a book directly after reading it is that I haven't yet digested the impressions. I'm not sure which view of Bordertown will remain in my mind, but I'm fairly sure that I will revisit this town some day. There are stories in this anthology that I will remember and very possibly want to reread.