Octavia Butler wrote these three books I read in a one volume collection called Lilith’s Brood. They’re sort of generational novels about humans who’ve been rescued by aliens after we destroyed most life on Earth.
In Dawn we follow Lilith as she’s awoken by the aliens on their ship and taught about what’s happened and what the aliens want them to do. See, the aliens want to incorporate humans into their genome (they’re biological collectors) and they want to put the humans back on Earth in a few carefully chosen areas so they can make them into something else. They’re totally fascinated by cancer, which allows the aliens to do all sorts of cool new things. Also the aliens have three genders including one that basically is there to manipulate DNA. The aliens want the humans to cooperate with them and choose Lilith to be their intermediary. By the end of the book she’s got the remaining humans ready to be rereleased on Earth, though she’s hated as a species traitor.
Adulthood Rites is about Lilith’s son and how he tries to get the rebel humans on Earth to accept their alien patrons. The humans who hybridize with aliens get to be practically immortal and have alien hybrid babies, while the ones who resist have all been sterilized and will grow sick and die. It’s kind of brutal. By the end of this book most of the resisters are sent to Mars where they can have children without interference from the aliens.
Then in Imago the protagonist is the first of the intermediary gender alien human hybrids that’s ever been born to a human mother who happens to be Lilith (families by this point usually have two human and two alien parents). This person is hated and feared and is desperate to find humans it can have sex with. By the end it does.
What I loved about the books was that they didn’t take the perspective of the human resisters. It’s always about the people who are adapting and accommodating themselves to the aliens, which is very interesting and different.
These books are weird because they’re pretty much all about the drive to procreate. Once the aliens get involved, people find the touch of their human lovers gross if they don’t have an alien with them. It was all very interesting but I didn’t quite get why everyone within minutes is pairing off and trying to repopulate the planet. It’s like there aren’t any other concerns that anyone has in these books beyond their bodily security and fucking. To me that’s weird, but that’s why I read science fiction.
What I love about reading Greg Egan books is reading about creatures that are psychologically very recognizable but physically alien. In other books this comes through reading about robots and software, but The Clockwork Rocket is about a species of blobby aliens living in a universe where different colours of light have different speeds.
On their world there are male and female aliens that I picture as macroscopic amoeba type things. Reproduction means the female splits into four children (two males and two females who are brought up as “co”s brother-sisters but also as future mates), whom the father then raises. Yalda is a female who doesn’t have a co. She grows up on a farm and moves to a city and becomes a scientist and eventually leads an expedition away from their world to try and save it from an impending disaster (by using the weird properties of the speed of light in their universe).
There are digressions exploring the nature of light and toroidal universes in this book. Some people might not like them. I did. I also loved the political explorations of birth-control in a species where having children necessarily means the death of the mother. It’s very much an ideas book, and there are sequels, which I’ll definitely read eventually.
Permutation City is a Greg Egan book about people creating copies of themselves to run in virtual worlds. The in real life part of it is partially set in Sydney right near where I live, which is kind of neat. Because it’s a Greg Egan book, there’s lot’s of talking about ideas of how we are what we think we are. This one’s got a little less oomph to it, but I expect that’s just because it’s from 1994.
One of the ideas he explores is about being able to edit your own personality completely as a digital entity. One of the (digital) characters has it set up so he pours himself drinks to change his mood. A whole liquor cabinet full of Optimism, Calm Acceptance, Driven to Succeed, which felt more natural to him than sitting at a mixing board style console to tweak his personality.
I love thinking about that whole digital consciousness stuff. Even if it’s infeasible in real life. In this book he talks about the different paths taken in virtual biology. Some people generate a bunch of ad-hoc processes to make you feel like you’re there, but another character is working in a virtual world with completely different laws of physics. She’s got a project trying to prove whether or not natural selection is possible in that universe with much less complex rules.
There’s lots of neat stuff here. Not my favourite Greg Egan, but still, damned good book.
Maelstrom is Peter Watts’ sequel to Starfish. I thought it was better. I thought it was pretty fucking excellent in fact, (though Blindsight is still better).
All day today I’ve been absorbing the Twitterfeeds about the Fukushima nuclear crisis. One of the characters in Maelstrom, Desjardins, is a person who deals with those kinds of crises, by using statistics and analysis in the name of the greater good to determine when to quarantine something and say “this is beyond saving.” Desjardins’ is chemically wired up to be really good at pattern-analysis and is also unable to be corrupt in his decisions, through manipulations of the chemical components of guilt. One of the things I fucking love about Peter Watts books is waiting for the References section at the end to see how much of the science is true, how much might be true and how much is “Well it’s kind of like this but cranked up to 11.”
Two of the rifters (undersea adapted cyborgs) return from Starfish and there’s an apocalypse coming to the planet. One of the rifters is the harbinger for it. The awesome thing about Watts’ writing is that the whole situation is so bleak, everything is looked at so clinically (guilt is just chemicals, humans evolved to be able to handle quite a lot of sexual trauma, intelligence doesn’t mean a goddamned thing) you’re actually rooting for apocalypse. It’s amazing how well it works.
Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels are the kinds of books that make me want to be very elsewhere, living in a post-scarcity economy with control over your biology and the ability to live for hundreds of years and be eccentrically apart from society for decades if you want. I got Excession in Portland for a dollar and it was much more than worth that, just for the ability to have conversations about switching genders and carrying children simultaneously and letting the kid gestate for 40 years with no ill effect. And to have incredible intellects machinating about wars and science and the power to do whatever the hell you want.
This isn’t much of a review. I’m sorry. I just love this kind of book. It’s aspirational and the kind of thing I’m never going to see outside of a science fiction novel. The possibilities out here in reality feel so limited some days. Sigh.