science fiction

Kim Stanley Robinson: Science-Fiction and Science

A few weeks ago, I saw a Tweet asking users to submit questions they'd like to ask Kim Stanley Robinson in an upcoming interview. He's one of my favorite authors (he wrote the Mars trilogy, one of my favorite series of books), and he always has a lot of intelligent things to say about the future of humanity and the role science will play. It's a great interview, and I've embedded it below. My question, "On which planet, asteroid or community from your novels would you most want to live?" is near the end. I don't know if it's a good thing or a bad thing that Kim Stanley Robinson's first reaction to the question is "Oh, my lord..." The rest of his answer actually surprised me, but I'll let you listen for yourself (around the 33min mark in the video).

You can also check out the interview on the Mendel's Pod website. Thanks to Theral Timpson for using my question!

The Top Ten Science-Fiction Books

Depending how long you've read this blog, known me, or followed me on Twitter, you might have an idea of how much of a sci-fi fan I am. After having read quite a few 'Top Ten Science-Fiction Books,"lists (here, and here for starters), I felt like none of them were quite spot-on and reflected my own interests. Sure, there is some overlap (it seems like almost everyone agrees on a few of the top ones), bu there are also some I haven't read or did read and hated.

So what does it take for a book to make my list? It has to have an epic story, great characters, cool technology and that certain sort of otherworldly weirdness you only get with good sci-fi - the kind that gives you chills and means you can't really explain the story to your friend, they just have to read it, you know?

A lot of the books on my list aren't just books, either - they're series. I'm including these examples because I feel that these need to be read in their entirety to full appreciate their stories. Science-fiction world building doesn't always happen over a few dozen pages.

And without further ado, my list:

1.) The Mars Trilogy - Kim Stanley Robinson

I think I first read this trilogy when I was about 13 years old, and it made me fall in love with the potential for science. The quick plotline is that in the mid 21st century, humans have been able to colonize Mars. The books follow the human drama, politics, relationships and science of some of the original colonists over the span of a few hundred years. Take out the science-fiction setting, and you've still got a great story of politics and drama. The space-age setting, so close to where we are now, adds a sense of optimism to the books and just makes them that much more interesting. I also don't think that you should consider yourself having finished reading the series unless you've also tacked on The Martians, Icehenge, Galileo's Drams and The Memory of Whiteness to the original Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars trilogy (I still cry  every time I finish reading Blue Mars). While they aren't officially once series, they feel like they're part of the same story, taking place thousands of years apart.

2.) House of Suns- Alastair Reynolds

Most of Alastair Reynolds' books are hard to read: the characters are unlikeable. They're frequently in pain. Something terrible has happened to them, and they know something else will soon happen to them. This book is no different, but at least the two main characters have each other. Campion and Purslane are two "shatterlings" who travel the universe, having new experiences, and meeting up with their fellow shatterlings about every 200,000 years to exchange memories. The pair fall in love (a shatterling taboo) and to atone for this they try and bring  Hesperus, a beautiful golden robot who is one of the machine people, to their next meet-up. Not everything goes as planned, and the book throws out some big ideas on a massive, cosmic scale. It's a beautiful story, and I know I'm not the only one that loved it.

3.) Ilium and Olympos - Dan Simmons

While it seems that most lists of the top science-fiction books include one of Dan Simmons' books, more often than not they include Hyperion or Songs of Kali rather than this pair. I think that part of the reason is because this two-part series is just so hard to explain. The basic plot is that the Greek and Trojan armies are re-enacting the Trojan War according to the Illiad. The big thing is that the gods themselves are real here, but rather than supernatural beings, just post-humans powered by advanced nanotechnology. You're never sure what time period this takes place in, or where, but other characters include literature-loving robots that were once sent to explore the solar system, a mysterious Odysseus, naively innocent, yet technologically advanced, future humans, and Caliban. Yes, Caliban, from Shakespeare's The Tempest. Read this pair of books if you have an interest in Greek mythology and classic literature.

4.) Ender's Game (The Ender Quintet) - Orson Scott Card

Ender's Game is the story of one Ender Wiggin, a young boy who is recruited at an early age for 'battle school' in orbit around Earth to learn about space strategy so that Earth can defend itself from the alien 'buggers.' It is definitely a great book of a boy growing up (I think "coming of age tale" is the proper term), but also mixes a sub plot of geopolitics (previously discussed on BlogCampaigning in the post "Peter and Valentine were the original bloggers") and the morality of destroying an alien race.  One of the classics, for sure, and also one of the only books on this series that is part of a larger series, but of which I'm not recommending the rest of the series. Pick this book up for the educator or young adult in your life.

5.) Neuromancer- William Gibson

I bet that a majority of the people reading this blog have read and been influenced by Gibson's Neuromancer - I mean, come on: he's the guy credited with inventing the word 'cyberspace.' I first read it when I was in university, and pretty much couldn't put it down. Despite the fact that it is nearly 30 years old, it still reads like it was written yesterday (though the absence of mobile phones is a bit of a problem) and is a great look at what our future could still become. I see the influences of this book in all sorts of sci-fi and popular culture (The Matrix and Ghost in the Shell, for starters). Follow it up with Count zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive, the other two books in Gibson's 'Sprawl Trilogy.' I also think it is probably for the best that no one has been able to get a Neuromancer movie off the ground (try New Rose Hotel with Christopher Walken and Willem Dafoe if you're jonesing for some Gibson on the big screen. Johnny Mnemonic is also based on one of Gibson's short stories).

6.) Starship Troopers - Robert Heinlein

As is normally the case, the book is way better than the movie. In this case, they are also totally different. The book Starship Troopers is more about responsibility and what that means to be a man. The gist of the book is that a young Johnny Rico  leaves home after graduation to join the mobile infantry, gets shipped off to boot camp, survives it and grows into his role as the leader of his own squadron of troops.

7.) The Demolished Man - Alfred Bester

According to Wikipedia, The Demolished Man was first published in 1952-53. The story is about an incredibly wealthy and successful businessman, Ben Reich, on a future Earth where telepaths take high-paying roles as consultants and lawyers. Reich's one-minded passion to commit the perfect crime fuels the book, and the book's frantic pace makes it hard to put down and makes it feel like it was written decades after books written by Bester's contemporaries. This is the type of old-school sci-fi that influenced the cyberpunkers of the 80s.

8.) The Han Solo Adventures - Brian Daley

When I first read this book, I was super into Star Wars. It was probably in the mid '90s, pre- remastered remake buzz. I didn't know much about sci-fi beyond the original trilogy of movies and a few comics. This series of books cemented Han Solo as one of my favourite pop culture heroes, and also taught me that science fiction could be way weirder and way better than the original Star Wars universe.

9.) The Culture Series -  Iain Banks

As with some of the others on this list, I didn't think it was fair to pick just one book from Banks' culture series. To fully understand that incredible world of star-faring humans, you have to read the whole series. None of the books are connected enough that you have to read them in a particular order, but reading them all will give you much better idea of the world Banks has constructed. The basic premise is that race of pan-humans has reached almost technological perfection. Rather than subliming into the ether to become something like gods as other races do when they reach a similar level of technology, The Culture spends their time on massive spaceships or orbitals pursuing a hedonistic lifestyle. These orbitals and ships are sentient, as are drones, constant companions to the characters in the books. The action takes places on the fringes of The Culture, with newcomers or outsiders to the society being the main characters. On a side note, Banks' non-sci fi  book The Business is also a pretty good read. For a bit of a background on The Culture, read this post on io9. I also recommend 'A Few Notes On The Culture' by Iain Banks himself.

10.) Anathem- Neal Stephenson

This is definitely another one of those books that falls in the "I can't explain it, you just have to read it" category. The first section of the book tells the story of a planet where the keepers of knowledge and science live spartan, cloistered lives like I imagine the monks of today might, while the rest of their society lives freely and worships a variety of gods and religions. Read the book to see what happens next, and be prepared for a lot of thinking.

Have you read any of these? What are your favourite Science-Fiction books?

Life Imitates Art Imitating Life (Our Android Entertainers)

Sometime last week I read a news story announcing that "Japan's latest rockstar is a 3D hologram." The star is actually a software package that a company put together that is capable of mimicking a human voice (based on a sample from a voice over artist) and creating songs. As a devoted sci-fi fan, I wasn't surprised by this. It was more like the feeling you get after a medium-length car trip: "Oh, we're here?" you might say as you put down the magazine and tell whoever it is that drove that it seems like you made good time.

In the 1994 animation movie Macross Plus, one of the main 'characters' is an Artificial Intelligence named Sharon Apple.  She sells out stadiums, and appears to be the biggest star in the world.

Similarly, in William Gibson's 1995 book Idoru one of the main characters 'marries' Rei Toei, another performer who is nothing more than an Artificial Intelligence.

I haven't seen the movie S1M0NE, but apparently it has a similar plot line with the added perk of Al Pacino.

How much of our entertainment of the future will be entirely artificial? Its one thing to create robots that can sing like humans, and insert digital characters into movies, but will a computer ever be able to create an actual story?

Image of Sharon Apple above via this site.

Peter and Valentine Were The Original Bloggers

Note: this post has some spoilers about Ender's Game, so if you haven't read it yet, don't read this post. Just go out and buy it and read it, because it's amazing. But don't take my word for it;  I mean, the 1986 Hugo Award and 1984 Nebula Award are hard to argue with. It's not even that long of a book. You can probably finish it in a lazy summer afternoon at the cottage, if you put down your iPhone for long enough. You can buy it on Amazon right now for, like, seven bucks.

This weekend, I finished re-reading Ender's Game for the first time since I originally read it ten years ago and was blown away by how well the author, Orson Scott Card, predicted the future from the early 80s.

I say the early 80s, but it could have been earlier. Card's first version was published as a story in a science fiction magazine in 1977. He later fleshed this out to a full-fledged novel in 1985 (according to the copyright information in my copy of the book), and made some more minor changes in 1991.

And when I'm talking about how Card predicted the future, I'm not talking about Ender's Desk (which is described exactly like an iPad) or even the Ansible, a device capable of near-instantaneous communication over vast distances (not that far off, really). I'm talking about how he predicted the rise of blogging and the influence social media can have over culture and politics.

While most of the plot of the book follows young Ender Wiggin, youngest of three children, as he goes to Battle School at the age of six to learn how to be the commander of a fleet to fight invading aliens, a sub-plot involves how his sociopathic, but brilliant, brother Peter, and more empathetic, but equally brilliant, sister Valentine, are left home on earth.

Under the leadership of Peter, the two of them start contributing to "forums" on the "nets" using pseudonyms, or characters:

"They began composing debates for their characters. Valentine would prepare an opening statement, and Peter would invent a throwaway name to answer her. His answer would be intelligent, and the debate would be lively, lots of clever invective and good political rhetoric. Valentine had a knack for alliteration that made her phrases memorable. Then they would enter the debate into the network, separated by a reasonable amount of time, as if they were actually making them up on the spot. Sometimes a few other netters would interpose comments, but Peter and Val would usually ignore them or change their own comments only slightly to accommodate what had been said."

The next paragraph describes how Peter tracked how their work was being read and shared, and reads almost like a description of media monitoring in 2010.

As the two keep writing, their influence grows, their articles get syndicated, and they begin to get involved in serious policy discussions. Since its all online, no one knows that it is actually just two genius children.

Implausible? Yes. Impossible? No.

While I doubt that our global politics are being played like a game of chess by a couple of kids, I think Orson Scott Card's prediction of the way an ordinary citizen can get involved via the internet and become a serious, real-world influence is a great bit of future-casting.

Reasons like that are why I love reading science-fiction, be it old-school Heinlein and Asimov, 80s cyberpunk, or the post-human stuff that's all the rage these days. Science fiction is a framework for thinking about what could happen; it's a way of looking forward to finding out who is going to be right.

Have you read Ender's Game? Were Peter and Valentine the original bloggers?

A Few Quick Book Reviews

dsc01404 (Note: I originally wrote this post back in March, while I was on vacation, but forgot about it in my drafts and just got around to finishing it now.)

One of the things I like most about vacations is that there is plenty of time to get away from the computer and just sit down and read a few books. In the spirit of Darren Barefoot's Capsule Movie Reviews, I'm giving you a few quick reviews of some books that I've recently read.

Charles Stross — Halting State

One of the reasons I like science fiction so much is because of the prescient way it has of looking at the future. Although Halting State was written in 2007, the main plot involving the theft of some virtual goods in exchange for real world cash is remarkably similar to the recent events that transpired around thousands being stolen from EVE Online. Halting State earns a 7/10 from me. It loses one point on my scale because the Scottish accents of the main characters were written phonetically, and that always frustrates me.

Allen Steele — Coyote

This book was actually terrible for a number of reasons. For one, I had a hard time believing that anyone could plan a colonization expedition so poorly, both in terms of equipment and personnel. I know that it is fiction, and that a perfectly planned mission wouldn't have had the same sense of drama, but you would think that the author would at least ensure his colonists remembered to bring proper shelter on their mission.

For the most part, I found that that this book was trying to be a tale of exploring a new world and founding a new socio-political system, but it came across as entirely too Yankee-centric and derivative of the far-superior Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson. I'm rating this one 3/10.

Neal Stephenson — Anathem

Neal Stephenson is a master storyteller and his latest novel, Anathem, is further proof of this. Without revealing too much (just read it!), the book is about a world with a society of monks who live in seclusion from the rest of society and technology in order not to be influenced by what they call the "saecular" world. Like all of his books, it goes a lot deeper than this, and I really don't want to say more for fear of spoiling a beautifully written story. 9/10

Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner —  Freakonomics

This is one of those books that I always felt I should read, so when I found a copy I gave it a shot. I was sorely disappointed, and although I realize that they did some interesting studies and that it was well written, it didn't really teach me anything except that "there is a hidden side of everything". 5/10

Iain M. Banks — Matter and Look To Windward

I'm throwing these books into a double review, because they are both part of Ian M. Banks's series of books set in the "Culture" universe. The Culture is a galactic race of post-humans that live for hundreds of years, live in an utopian society essentially free from worry, and travel the stars in enormous ships or orbital colonies housing hundreds of billions of people. The main characters are the sentient minds of the ships in which the humans live just as often as they are humans, but this isn't one of those "robots are taking over" stories. Rather, the action takes place on the edges of the Culture society where they interact with (and try to direct the development of) societies and alien races less evolved. Despite the enormous scope of these settings, Banks focuses on a few characters. The books are filled with big, huge ideas as well as human-scale drama, and make for a great read. The entire series of Culture books by Banks gets a solid 8/10 from me.

Yeah, I read a lot of sci-fi. Any other good book recommendations for me? Summer is the time to get some reading in.