Fair Warning: Next week I have some political and social foaming at the mouth to do over current events and modern society, but that can wait. The weather recently has been too nice for my hot-collar wardrobe. The swelter is supposed to return next week; the forecast is for serious ranting with scattered raving.
For the weekend, for Science Fiction Saturday in particular, for all my disdain of movie and TV science fiction (especially TV SF, most of which does nothing for me), literary science fiction is very alive and quite well!
Recently I’ve been enjoying three authors in particular…
Neal Stephenson and I go back a ways. His 1992 novel, Snow Crash, blew me away with its clever, and seemingly very possible, even likely, inventions. Among them, a wonderful visualization of a virtual internet.
And the whole idea of a “snow crash” still makes me grin after 24 years. As unique SF ideas go, for me it’s kinda up there with a ringworld or a positronic brain. (Granted, those have a lot more text associated with them, but just as ideas go, a “snow crash” is unique and very clever!)
Since then I’ve read Zodiac (which is about eco-terrorism), The Diamond Age (which is about nano-technology), and Cryptonomicon (which is about cryptography). I’ve got Anathem cued up, but most recently I read Seveneves.
As far as I’m concerned, Stephenson just gets better over time. His early work, to my eye, seems to lack satisfying endings. The novels often just reach a point where they stop. (First time I read Snow Crash, I actually wondered if there was a missing final chapter.)
Seveneves grabbed me from the very first sentence: “The moon blew up unexpectedly and without warning.” That’s a hell of an opening!
And it’s an opening that quickly leads to the realization (by the characters) that all life on Earth is doomed. The pieces of the moon will enter the atmosphere as meteors. So many of them as to turn the sky to fire and cook the planet (not to mention all the damage caused when they hit).
The first part of the novel, more than half, describes what we do to — hopefully — allow some tiny fragment of humanity to survive. It isn’t until the final chapter of that part we learn what the title means. And I gotta say, as far as the human race surviving, things really come down to the wire!
The latter part of the story takes place 5,000 years later.
And that’s all I’m going to tell you, except for this: The novel is clearly the origin story for a pretty amazing setup of a universe for storytelling. Suffice to say we’re talking seriously post-human! Extreme genetic manipulation is a part of this reality.
Stephenson’s work is sometimes a bit reminiscent of cyberpunk SF author William Gibson in how technology and humanity are fused. Snow Crash and The Diamond Age, particularly, read as cyberpunk novels. In Seveneves, the genetic manipulation and techno-human fusion reflect that sensibility.
But overall, Seveneves reads more as a space adventure novel, especially the first part (much of which takes place on or near the ISS). The second part is more space empire combined with elements that would spoil it if I mentioned them.
Worth mention is Stephenson’s (now rather dated) non-fiction novella-length essay, In the Beginning Was the Command Line. There is a chapter in it that compares the product cultures of Microsoft Windows (a station wagon), the Apple Macintosh (a European luxury car), Linux (a free tank), and BeOS (a batmobile). It cracks me up even after many, many readings.
Hannu Rajaniemi is a young Finnish author who writes a very interesting blend of hard science fiction fantasy. Yeah, I know, it sounds weird, but it works. His work reads like hard cyberpunk, but he allows himself a lot of latitude on the technology. The result is a kind of poetic, metaphorical cyberpunk that’s really tasty to read.
It’s rich and textured. I find I have to go back and re-read parts until I find what he’s telling me. It’s not fiction for lazy readers, you have to read between the lines, you have to connect the dots for yourself.
I love that sort of thing! It’s a huge part of why I read science fiction. A hallmark of good science fiction is that it doesn’t lead you by the nose and tell you everything up front. A common SF technique is keeping you guessing and wondering until you have enough pieces to build a picture.
A friend loaned me a collection of Rajaniemi’s short stories. At first reading they were hard to absorb and, in some nagging way, hard to like (are they hard SF? or fantasy?). But the more I thought about them, the more I liked them. In discussing them with the friend who’d loaned me the book, I found myself talking about them enthusiastically!
That was enough for me to buy his novel, The Quantum Thief, which is part one of a trilogy (and yet a reasonably conclusive tale on its own although it leaves some threads hanging). I really liked it, so I bought the other two.
Many of Rajaniemi’s short stories seem to take place in the same extremely post-human distant future universe as the Thief trilogy (the Jean le Flambeur series). Minds exist in virtual realities as easily as in physical ones, and “portals” that convert people back and forth are common. Engineering in this future is sub-atomic and quantum. Nano-tech is common.
Notably absent, however, is artificial intelligence. Existing human minds can be cloned (or stolen), and any number of copies can exist. All “intelligent” machines are run by human minds, called gogols, that have been altered to focus on their task. And all such, known collectively as the Quiet, are mute.
It’s interesting that Rajaniemi thinks we’ll solve quantum and nano, but not AI. (As any reader of this blog should know, me too!)
Which brings us to Greg Egan. Who does believe in that kind of AI. (Although I’ve begun to wonder if his books don’t actually reveal how preposterous the idea is.) In Egan’s books, the human (or alien) mind is no more mysterious than the code for a video game.
Don’t get me wrong, Egan is one of my favorite authors! His stuff is pure hard science fiction. In fact, to be honest, he’s really a geek’s author. I suspect that if you don’t love the science he presents, you won’t get much from his books.
For instance, Incandescence explores how a race that lives inside a large asteroid (which is in orbit around a black hole) discover general relativity in a way completely different from how Albert Einstein did. It’s also a wonderful treatise on certain aspects of orbital dynamics.
So Egan is that kind of writer. And I love it! (I’ve posted about Egan before, see SF: Distress by Greg Egan.)
Both Permutation City and Diaspora explore a related idea about exactly what reality is and what it means to exist.
In Diaspora, on a planet around the star Vega, we find huge ocean lifeforms we name Wang’s Carpets. It turns out these lifeforms, while not intelligent themselves, are living biological computers. (This is not the main point of the book, but just one aspect.)
The software these computers have evolved to run implements a virtual reality complete with “living” beings that inhabit it. One species of which (“squids”) turns out to be intelligent.
However these creatures have no way of knowing they exist in this virtual reality. The physical world is completely outside their reality.
Which of course begs the question, what if that was true of us? Permutation City explores an aspect of this.
Imagine transferring to and existing in a virtual reality. If your avatar there is switched off — effectively, it dies. Imagine it’s also possible to visit a virtual reality and those existing there. Upon switch off, you wake up in your physical body.
But what if the first situation (you die) appears like the second one? You wake up in the “real” world? But what if that “real” world is actually a new (natural) virtual reality with an invented backstory supporting the second scenario, that you were visiting?
In other words, you start in reality ‘A’ and transfer to VR-#1. You die there, but there exists some alternate reality (a natural VR, reality ‘B’) that includes the timeline of you visiting VR-#1 and then waking up (in reality ‘B’).
The main character in Permutation City believes this has happened to him, not once, but over twenty times!
Egan’s books often have “scope blow up” at the end. The story becomes extremely large, often including infinite multiple universes or some such. Both these do exactly that, but while that usually bothers me when an author does that, Egan somehow manages to keep it just on the right side.
And on that note, I think it’s time to get back to reading!
Stay literate, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.