Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One is an sf novel that was just released to a lot of hype (in my part of the internet at least). I got the Kindle edition because paper books in Australia are crazy expensive. It was a fine book, but I wonder if it panders just a bit too much to its target audience.
The story is set three decades into the Great Recession (you know, the one we’re living through the beginning of right now). A company designed an excellent immersive reality software environment in 2012 called the OASIS. It’s released for free (monetized through in-universe transportation costs, not through ads) and becomes a really excellent way for people to escape from the crushingly shitty existence of non-uber-wealthy life. (There are two-year waitlists for jobs at McDonalds in this Recession.)
Five years before the story begins the creator of OASIS died, and in his will, the company and all his wealth go to whoever could find the three keys hidden in OASIS. He was worth megabillions so this is a big deal. But unlike most corporate sweepstakes kinds of things this one was actually difficult and when the story begins for real most people have given up on the idea of winning those billions. Except for our protagonist, Parzival, a dirt-poor kid from the States, who’s part of the gunter (egg-hunter) subculture.
So the story is a classic quest novel, with all the stuff happening in OASIS, and dealing with the real world when he has to. What Cline’s done though is have Halliday (the dead billionaire who made the puzzle) obsessed with the 1980s. Knowing 1980s pop culture as well as Halliday is the key way to solve the puzzles. And while it’s kind of a clever way to include Star Wars (and Ferris Bueller and Dungeons and Dragons and Firefly and Back to the Future and all the other 80s stuff people like myself grew up on) references, it kind of lost its appeal a ways in. I think it was the reference to Cory Doctorow and Wil Wheaton being elected the presidents of OASIS year after year. It felt a little too much like fanservice to let me take the story seriously (or something).
As far as quest stories go, it’s good. Well structured, with clear bad guys who want to win the quest so they have control of the OASIS and can monetize it with ads and subscription fees and will kill (and more importantly cheat at the game) to get their way. I’d have no problem recommending it to YA readers or adults looking for something light. But it’s not “the best SF novel I’ve read in a decade” (as Mark Faruenfelder called it). There’s too much fanservice and not enough oomph (or beauty) to it in my opinion.
David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is probably the book I’d heard his name connected to first, years ago. I remember shelving it as a page and remembering people saying it was one of those literary novels that was also science fiction but got to be in the literary fiction ghetto because of his previous work. And I remembered something about a note having to go into editions of the book saying “part one is supposed to end in the middle of a sentence. Don’t worry guys.” And that’s what I knew going in.
I feel like I should read something non-science fiction soon because it seems I’ve been on a bit of a tear here. Too bad though, because In the Garden of Iden is a Kage Baker book about immortality, time travel and the idiot romanticism of being young.
So the protagonist of the story is Mendoza, a young girl who’s rescued from the hands of the Inquisition back in the 16th century and is turned into an immortal genius botanist working for an ominous megacorporation from the 24th century called Doctor Zeus (which I alternated between pronouncing like Seuss and Zaius; I don’t know which is correct) to preserve things that history records as having gone extinct but will be found in weird isolated niches all over the planet. That’s the setup.
Mendoza’s in 16th century England posing as the 19 year old daughter of a Spanish doctor (which is convenient because she is 19 – the workers for the company don’t travel through time any differently than the rest of us, at least not in this book), trying to preserve these extinct plants with awesome medicinal properties no one’s noticed yet and she falls in love and there are complications.
There’s a lot of neat tech and anachronism in the book but my favourite part is how appropriate the ending is.
So yes, very cool book. Timetravel, immortality, romance and religion. What more do you need?
After an 8am class on instruction in which we started to learn about treating lessons as products to be designed, I attended a colloquium by Michael Twidale about Computational Literacy & Metacognition (here are my rough notes).
It was a pretty excellent talk about the way we teach people how to do computery things. What I liked best about it was that Dr. Twidale was coming at this from what he called an Engineering point of view as opposed to a Science point of view. The idea that rapid prototyping in research might be more useful than studying precisely how things work at a point in time is something I’m very sympathetic to. I especially loved how he discussed the unintended effects of different technologies that go beyond what their designers had in mind, such as Twitter revolutions and large touch-screens enhancing learnability and interaction because of their poor usability for one person. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the famous William Gibson line from Burning Chrome “…but the street finds its own uses for things.”
I’m not gonna lie to you Marge; it took me a long time to get through Mary Shelley’s The Last Man. It was eventually interesting in what it did, but was remarkably tedious in getting there.
The book, written in 1826, was set in the end of the twenty-first century, but as far as fiction about the future goes, it’s pretty unimaginative. Everything is exactly like the early 19th century except England is considering becoming a republic, and there is an airship. The wars between the Turks and Greeks are fought with cavalry charges and there are loads of peasants who know their place and yeah. It would be difficult to get to that future from our present, but it was kind of fun to speculate about as a distraction during the first half of the book (which needs distraction). The frame I put into it is that the reason everything feels like 1830 in the year 2070 is because of some sort of unmentioned apocalypse which happened in the 2010s and been forgotten by the time the novel begins.
In that first half of the book we follow our protagonist and his boon companions through political intrigues about who shall become the lord protector of England and who shall engage in stupid idiot romance plot shenanigans to cause drama. I hated the first half of the book so much. A big plot point is that one character does something that could be taken the wrong way but because he keeps secrets it looks worse and then no one will talk about anything and then he goes off to war to die because his wife didn’t trust him enough when he was being an asshole. It was the kind of scenario that requires one sentence of communication to resolve but everyone is too puppeted by the author to say it. Terrible shit. Though this was the Romantic period so what did I think was going to happen?
Anyway. Halfway through the book the world is struck by a deadly plague and then it turns into a kind of slow post-apocalyptic story that I could get behind. People just die and die and die. You get inured to it. The plague comes from Asia and wipes out the entire human race in something like 8 years (and 200 pages). There’s lots of whining and moping about it (granted, everyone is dying so it’s a bit justified) and heroism and terrible religious groups sprouting up and general awfulness. It’s all a bit melodramatic, but what can you do?
It takes till the last 15 pages or so before the narrator actually is the last man on earth, so if you’re looking for a 19th century I Am Legend, this isn’t it. But if you read it as a cyclical story of the death of a world and arising of another it’s kind of neat. The ending is pretty optimistic for the entire human race but one being dead.
Saci Lloyd’s book The Carbon Diaries 2015 was a good, near-future not-very-sf tale. It’s set in 2015 and the UK has begun carbon rationing in an effort to drop emissions by 60%. This changes everyone’s lives. No more air travel, no more mangoes, no more heat.
The main character is a 16 year old named Laura. She’s the bass player in a punk band and is in love with the boy next door. Her father goes survivalist, her mother pretends nothing is wrong and her sister who’s had her gap year cancelled gets the whole house into trouble.
It’s presented as a diary which kind of tones down the plottish elements. The weather is a huge part of the book, and everything everyone does is in reaction to the environment. It really is a book about people having to reshape their lives. And it’s grim.
The parents kind of behave exaggeratedly and unlike real people, but the book is in the YA category so bizarre parents make sense.
In all, a good book that I’ll be recommending to our Teen Book Club this week.
Jaron Lanier is a nerd. A computer nerd and a music nerd. He was one of the people who were working on the internet back in the early days (not the real early military days, but the beginning of the Silicon Valley uprising and the dawn of personal computing). So when he writes a book complaining about the way technology and the internet has developed it has a bit more credibility than someone who has trouble with sending an email. That’s what You Are Not A Gadget is about.
There are a couple of things he takes aim at. One is the idea of lock-in. The way programming works is that small programs are easy and can work in ideal ways. As you start making a program do more complicated stuff, you have more complicated code. To make anything work you have to build on top of what has gone before, which is why software is buggy. It’s all the complicated interactions with the way things are already done.
The problem is when we don’t see this lock-in as the result of choices made by people and don’t recognize that things could be done differently. But doing things differently requires tearing everything down again and remaking it. If you want electronic music that is less about discrete notes like a piano and more like a violin, you can’t do that using the programming we have today, because the choice was made that MIDI would act like a keyboard. (I don’t know enough about digital music to know how using recording samples works in this context.) If you want your digital sound to sound like a violin you have to make the file go against how it was designed. You are adapting to the technology rather than having the technology work for you.
He also talks about the file metaphor, which is so ingrained into how we think of information because of our computers. We don’t think of clusters or smears of information; we think of discrete chunks that can be manipulated. When we summarize ourselves down into these clumps of interests and employers for the vast database that is Facebook, he argues that we are diminishing ourselves as humans, making ourselves more like the computers so that we can pretend they’re getting smarter.
The other big thing he gets mad at is the idea of crowdsourcing. Wikipedia and Linux are fine for what they do, but he argues that the whole design by hivemind will never create anything really wonderful. It’s good at refining, but not at helping us live up to our potential as innovators. Back in the day the pioneers of the internet wanted to see what awesome new art could be created with all these connections. A dodgy encyclopedia and a refined version of UNIX were not the pinnacles of their dreams. The things that change our lives aren’t designed by the hivemind. He laments the passing of the old idiosyncratic days of the web, where things were ugly, but you had the chance of finding something new. Nowadays when you’re doing casual research how often do you just grab whatever that first wikipedia result is? The future looks more and more like a “one book library” and it doesn’t need to be.
There are also bits about cephalopods, our nostalgic music culture and the economic crisis (the book was released in 2010, so it’s timely enough). It was a great read, and will be good contrarian fuel for discussions about the future of technology.
Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies is one of these books I’d been sort of meaning to read for years, but it took getting it as an Xmas present to actually kick-start the process.
The book basically looks at why societies developed the way they did, why Europeans were the ones who went off colonizing and killing people all over the world instead of the Inca or Aborigines or whoever. Reading the book made me never ever want to play one of those Sid Meier games (like Civilization) ever again just because of the simplifications inherent in that kind of “progress” oriented game. If I were more industrious I’d beak the computer game through a GGS lens. It’d be a good way of going through the major points he’s trying to get across.
The basic idea is that environmental and ecological determinants are the root causes for most of the way human history has played out (in the broad scale). It’s a thought provoking read. I would have liked more China-centric information because it’s the history I’m most familiar with, but he doesn’t do a lot with China until the language section. And there’s some good stuff in the epilogue which I would like to discuss with Chinese people to see if it’s just a clever-looking idea from the outside or if it might carry some self-reflexive water too.
My biggest complaint was something endemic to this kind of material analysis; there’s no room for people being good. As in not going and killing a whole bunch of folk because widescale murder isn’t a good moral choice. The only reason people don’t go in and assimilate/enslave/murder societies in this book (exaggeration ahead) is because of malaria. If it weren’t for malaria killing off potential invaders we’d be all monocultured up. No one would ever decide to leave people alone just for the hell of it. In the 2003 epilogue he talks about applying this book to business culture and how efficiency is the ultimate goal and it made me nauseous. I get that this is part of the “ultimate” instead of “proximate” causes he’s trying to get down to and that this is the base of science and stuff, but the future of this way of thinking is the basis for all that dystopian SF in the world. Or maybe that’s just me.
Charles Stross’ Singularity Sky touches on a bunch of things I’m interested in that are probably more fantasy than science but fuck it I like em. There’s FTL communication, wildly diverging technologies and technologically powered anarchism. The pain in the ass about reading this particular book (about a technologically advanced pseudoculture meeting up with/declaring war on a culture more like something you’d see in Star Wars) is how close some of the ideas/plot-points were to 3dWorlder. So I need to work on my characters, making them more than playing pieces so the plot is less important that it’s got similar elements.
Yes this is less a review than a lamentation that my book needs a lot more work. That’s the sort of mood I am in.
I know some people who are scared of the future. Really. Not just in a “We’re living in the end times and Jesus isn’t going to take me ’cause I’m not good enough” kind of way either. People to whom a story like Your Outboard Brain Knows All is deeply terrifying. I don’t think I’m one of them.