Science Fiction

Upcoming SF

Because my book queue is not long enough*, it seems some of my favorite SF authors are releasing new novels in 2011. Yay**. Here are the three most exciting ones, in order of anticipated publication:

  • Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi – It’s actually been a few years since Scalzi wrote a full SF novel (and that book, Zoe’s Tale, was a sorta rehash of an earlier book), so I’m greatly looking forward to this. I have not read any of the original Fuzzy series by H. Beam Piper, but apparently this novel is Scalzi’s attempt at rebooting or reimagining the series. At some point, I considered going back to read the originals, but I’m confident that Scalzi’s novel will be good as a standalone story, and I’ve really enjoyed all his SF novels. This one is set to be released on May 10, so I’ll probably be picking it up soon…
  • Readme by Neal Stephenson – This should be unsurprising to readers of this blog, as this has long been an anticipated novel here at Kaedrin, even back when it was known as Reamde (still no explanation of that – I don’t really buy that it was a typo…) Details about the novel are still scarce (not even a cover yet, and the publication date seems to have moved back a week), but seeing as though Stephenson is my favorite author and all, I don’t really need much to get in line for this one. Currently set to be released on September 20th, I’m very much looking forward to this one.
  • The Children of the Sky by Vernor Vinge – The long-anticipated third novel in Vinge’s loosely connected Zones of Thought series. I really loved the first two books in the series (A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky) and both of them have won major SF awards like the Hugo and Nebula. As such, expectations are high. Again, I’ve been avoiding details about the plot here, but my assumption is that it will only have a passing reference to the previous two novels (both of which only share one character and take place thousands of years apart). This one is set for October 11, so it looks like I’ll have a busy fall, once again.

That covers the major releases that I’m looking forward to. There are, of course, some other books coming out that I might be interested in, but for now, I think the queue is full enough!

Also, just a quick administrative note, I’ll be traveling this week, so probably no entry on Wednesday. I shall return next Sunday. Have a good week!

* Sarcasm!

** Not sarcasm!

SF Book Review, Part 6

It’s been a while since I followed up on my book queues (and some of the books on here weren’t even on the queue, they just jumped to the top of the queue – which is probably why the queue is so long).

  • Doomsday Book by Connie Willis – This is one of a notable few SF novels to have won both the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novel (technically this book tied with another Kaedrin favorite, Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep, for the Hugo). Indeed, Willis has apparently written a few other novels in the same universe, and they seem to have racked up the awards as well. This particular installment is about time-traveling historians. Young Kivrin is travelling back to the 14th century to observe daily life. Her mentor and father-figure, Dunworthy, is against the trip from the start, as it’s a dangerous era and the further back in time you travel, the less precise the technology becomes. The novel proceeds on two main timelines – One at a futuristic Oxford University, the other at a small 14th century town. This is clearly not a predictive novel – the future Oxford is quite absurd at times (in particular, the lack of communication infrastructure is ridiculous – they don’t even have much in the way of telephones, let alone cell phones or the internets). I don’t know enough about history to say whether or not the 14th century bits are more realistic, but they seem more appropriate. Of course, it doesn’t really matter. The story is effective on its own merits, and it operates according to its own internal logic, which is quite sound. One thing I found refreshing for a time-travel story is that there is no real consideration or recursive examination of paradoxes and the like. There are some off-hand references to the fact that the time travel mechanism won’t let you change the past, but there isn’t much in the way of circular causality events or anything resembling that sort of time-travel pyrotechnics that you see so frequently. Indeed, Kivrin might as well have been traveling to a dangerous alien planet. That being said, the historical section plays out in an interesting fashion. I won’t get into too much detail here, but I will say that diseases are involved (in both timelines) and that Willis is brutally unforgiving. Her style is prosaic, more like classical hard SF, which kinda gave me a false sense of security. But Willis managed to pull the rug out from underneath me – several times. It might not seem like it at the beginning of the novel, but this isn’t a book for the faint of heart. That being said, there is a hint of redemption and hope at the very end of the novel. I enjoyed this and may someday get around to the others in the series, but I’m not exactly in a hurry to do so.
  • The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth – Widely considered to be the best SF novel produced by the Futurians – a group of SF fans who eventually turned into editors and authors themselves, often focusing less on hard science and more on sociology and politics. This book is basically a satirical look at advertising and consumerism, and as such, it’s actually still pretty relevant today (even if the specifics of technology are a bit odd at this point). The story follows an advertising copywriter, Mitch Courtenay, who gets ahold of a big new account (Venus!), and all the inter-office intrigue that he has to deal with. It goes some cliched places, but this book probably helped shape some cliches in itself. Stylistically, there’s nothing special going on here, though the pages seem to turn themselves pretty quickly. It’s a short book and a very easy, fun read.
  • Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold – Bujold is one of the authors that seemed to pick up the pieces after the whole Cyberpunk thing happened, returning SF to its Cambellian origins. This is a pretty straightforward space opera, though a very well executed one that I probably enjoyed more than any of the other books in this post. The story concerns a Betan scientist named Cordelia and her encounter with Lord Vorkosigan, of the Barrayarans. At first, they are enemies, but they quickly develop into more. And of course, they are surrounded by war and conflict between their two peoples, and during the course of the story, we’re treated to all sorts of deceptions and treachery. This probably makes it sound trashy, and maybe it is, but it’s still great fun. This book is apparently part of a large, wide-ranging series of books. Opinions differ as to which way to read them – in order of publication, or in order of internal chronology. Either way, Shards of Honor is the start of the series (i.e. it’s the first published and the first in the chronology). I’ve already purchased the next two internal chronology books though, and am greatly looking forward to reading them.
  • Time’s Eye – A Christmas gift from my brother, and apparently also the first in a series of novels, this particular book starts out with a premise similar to Clarke’s 2001. One day, a bunch of Spherical objects (i.e. objects similar in concept to the Monolith) appear on the planet, and suddenly, the planet is a jumble of times. It seems that each region of the planet (the size of the regions appear to be small, though no definites are given) has been replaced with an earlier version of itself, sometimes stretching back millions of years. As such, most of the planet is now devoid of humanity. This story concerns itself with 5 main groups of people. Two are modern (a 3-person UN Peacekeeping team and a 3-person crew of Astronauts who were orbiting the planet at the time of the event), one relatively contemporary contingent (a British regiment, circa late 19th century, stationed in India), and two ancient powers (Alexander the Great’s Macedonian army, and Ghengis Khan’s Mongolian hoards). If you like the concept of modern folks mixing with historical folks (i.e. what would happen if modern astronauts met up with some Mongolians? And so on…), this would be a lot of fun, and I managed to have a pretty good time with it. Ultimately, there isn’t much in the way of answers here, and I’ve read enough Arthur C. Clarke series to know that it probably won’t be completely satisfying by the end of the series, but it was an enjoyable enough read, and there is an internal struggle between the Macedonians and the Mongols that is pretty compelling. It just doesn’t seem that interested in resolving the various mysteries it set up. Perhaps the future books will delve into that a bit, but I have to admit that I’m unlikely to pursue this any further.
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray – I’ve always known that Oscar Wilde was famous for his wit, but I do believe this is the first thing of his that I’ve read (I suppose he’s more notable as a playwright, and you can see that sort of talent in this novel), and I was surprised at the density of witty remarks within the book. It seems like you can’t go a page without getting some wondrous monologue, usually spoken by Lord Henry (a quasi-villain? The book certainly doesn’t have a traditional conflict). You also get a long series of fantastic one-liners, such as “Nowadays people know the price of everything, and the value of nothing.” and “Dorian is far to wise not to do foolish things now and then,” and “There is a luxury in self-reproach. When we blame ourselves we feel that no one else has a right to blame us.” and “Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul.” Much of this is oxymoronic or nonsensical in nature, but oddly compelling nonetheless. The story is a bit on the thin side, and is really just an excuse for Wilde to run, well, wild, with his witty imagination. I suppose you could say that this isn’t science fiction – it’s pretty firmly in the realm of fantasy – but I’ll make an exception here. It’s not a particularly heartwarming tale, but there’s a lot of thematic depth and as I’ve already mentioned, lots of witty repartee that keeps the pages turning. I wouldn’t call it a favorite, but I’m really glad I read it.

And there you have it! Coming up in the queue are some more Bujold novels, perhaps some Timothy Zahn, and even though it’s probably not SF, some Thomas Pynchon for good measure. I may also need to do a Non-Fiction book review soon, as I’ve been reading a lot of that lately too…

More SF Pet Peeves

Sunday’s post on the Unquestioned Assumptions of SF was a little strange as the post I was referencing was really more about pet peeves than unquestioned assumptions, so I figured that I should rename this post to add my own pet peeves to Matt Johnsons’s list. So without further ado:

  • Aliens That Aren’t Really Alien: Most alien species you see in SF are basically humans with weird ears or bumps on their forehead. In other words, they’re just humans with superficial differences. Sure many of them will have strange customs or psychological ticks, but most of the time, such differences aren’t even as severe as cultural differences here on earth. The most egregious violator of this is Star Trek. Klingons, Vulcans, Romulans… they’re all just humans with various traits magnified (impatient aggression, steadfast logic, and passionate cunning, respectively). One notable exception in the world of film is Alien (though sequels tend to diminish the more alien qualities). In the world of literature, the big exception is Vernor Vinge’s Zones of Thought books, A Fire Upon The Deep (reviewed on this blog a while back) and A Deepness in the Sky (which I also wrote about once). Fire‘s wolflike aliens, in particular, were great examples of what is possible, but rarely even attempted in SF. Regardless, examples of human-like alien races far outweigh the truly alien aliens in SF, and that’s always bothered me. To be sure, this does present something of a challenge to authors, as it requires them to think in ways unaccustomed to humans.
  • Monolithic Planet Ecologies: Star Wars is particularly bad in this respect – the ice moon of Hoth, the desert planet of Tatooine, the forest moon Endor, etc… The thought of an entire planet with only one type of climate almost boggles the mind. I’m sure there are some planets like this, but if Star Wars was any indication, every planet has one and only one dominant climate. Sometimes this sort of conceit can be used to good effect, as in Ursula K. Le Guin’s excellent The Left Hand of Darkness, but it’s still a pet peeve of mine.
  • Language: Rarely is language used as anything more than simple flavor in a story with alien species. Most of the time there is some sort of unexplained technology, typically called the “Universal Translator” or something, that will automatically translate alien languages. Rarely does the translation aspect receive any scrutiny. At best, we get some sort of throwaway reference to the universal translator, then the story moves on to other things. If you think of the way all the various human languages interact with one another and the inadequacies of translations, it seems really unlikely that alien species would even come close to being easily understood. For instance, human translators working to convert a text from one human language to another aren’t working in a vacuum – they bring their own cultural and historical context into the picture when translating that text. Take a Greek word like pathos; there isn’t really a single English word that corresponds with what Pathos represents. You rarely get that sort of depth in SF. One notable exception to this is Mary Doria Russell’s exceptional novel, The Sparrow. The novel has many themes, but the way it uses language to precipitate a tragic outcome is unsurpassed. Interestingly, Neal Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash has a more thorough exploration of the nature of language than most stories with alien species (and Snow Crash doesn’t even feature any aliens!)
  • Artificial Gravity: Another concept often relegated to a throwaway reference, there exists a lot of potential here that goes untapped. It’s not so much that it’s impossible to control gravity as that if we had that ability, the applications would extend far beyond being able to stand on the floor of a spaceship. Implications for weaponry are enormous, and energy manipulation in general seems ripe for this sort of technology. But no, we’ll just use it to simulate earth level gravity, thanks. I guess tractor beams could be explained in such a way, and a lot of SF does at least attempt to account for this by explaining that the spaceship is spinning in such a way as to simulate earth gravity, but it’s still a bothersome trope.

I think that’s all for now. I was going to write one for manned interstellar travel, but that topic is just too large (for example, it encompasses FTL travel, which is, in itself, a rather large subject) for a quick paragraph (Nevertheless, the way interstellar travel is depicted in SF is often tiresome and thoroughly unrealistic – one notable exception, Greg Egan’s Diaspora). One interesting thing about writing this post that I didn’t really expect were the number of exceptions to each of the above pet peeves. It turns out that there are a lot of books that really do address these issues (perhaps another reason why the phrase “Unquestioned Assumptions” is not appropriate for this discussion).

Unquestioned Assumptions

Matthew Johnson lists out several Unquestioned Assumptions of Science Fiction. It’s an interesting list, though it suffers from the same problems all lists suffer from: I don’t agree with some of them, and I think there are some rather notable omissions. So let’s get started:

  • Bionics: Johnson is basically saying that we have seen no evidence that a superhuman bionic man/woman could be created. He mentions the increasingly sophisticated use of prosthetics, but is correct in noting that there are weak spots in that chain, and thus someone with a bionic arm won’t really be guaranteed any advantage unless they become one of them full-replacement cyborgs from Ghost in the Shell. I’ll admit that SF has probably gotten a lot of this wrong, but there’s much more to bionics than just superhuman beings. In a more general sense, bionics is about applying natural biological systems and methods to the engineering of electronic or mechanical technology. And in general, this is something we’ve already done a lot of (for instance, velcro and lots of flight related innovations derived from birds). Even in terms of medicine, stuff like cochlear implants are rapidly approaching the point where the deaf can hear better than unmodified humans (there are, of course, other drawbacks to this). I know nanotechnology is used as a form of magic in some movies, but there is a ton of potential there. And something like a Respirocyte could theoretically result in “superhuman” powers simply by increasing the amount of oxygen stored in red blood cells. So no, I don’t see the bionic man or woman anytime soon, but I don’t think it’s an unreasonable topic for SF.
  • Uploading, or cloning for that matter: Johnson notes that this isn’t impossible, just that they’re also not “any kind of ticket to immortality for the simple reason that neither an uploaded version of your mind nor a clone with all your memories is you: they are both copies of you”. This is an excellent point, and I do believe he’s very right. While I’m willing to go along with the ride in a book like John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, I seriously doubt the subjective experience would be anything like what Scalzi describes (he handwaves the whole thing by explaining that consciousness is transferred, so it’s like a cut-and-paste, as oposed to a copy-and-paste – there’s nothing left in the old body. I can see how that sort of thing would be appealing to people though.) Interestingly, Scalzi proposes something completely different in The Android’s Dream, where the artificial consciousness is most definitely a copy (and we’re never entirely sure how good that copy really is). Anyway, Johnson does wonder why anyone would even want to do such a thing, and I do take a bit of an issue with that. I’ll expand on this later in the post, but interstellar space travel seems much more hospitable to some sort of electronic being than it does to biological lifeforms (again, more on this later). Another reason, assuming that the artificial construct can sustain creative thought, it might be nice to keep some folks around after they are gone. Maybe that would be a disaster – maybe Einstein would be a tremendous douchebag if he were still alive in mechanical form today, but it’s probably something worth trying. In the end, I certainly wouldn’t call this an unquestioned assumption. There exist lots of counter-examples, including the recently reviewd Diaspora, where artificial consciousness seems to have lots of advantages over biology (more on this in a bit).
  • Sensors: I completely agree with Johnson here. The non-trivial challenges to sensors are numerous and I don’t see them ever working the way they’re portrayed on tv or in movies (books tend to be better, but still).
  • Space Combat: Another one I mostly agree with, especially given the way it’s portrayed in most SF. This is a topic already covered on this blog (and others mentioned my post) years ago, so I’ll leave it at that. I do think there’s a fantastic movie to be made in the mold of The Enemy Below, but in space and with realistic physics (with some handwaving around the energy and motivational aspects of the whole thing – it could be entertaining, but it probably couldn’t be wholly accurate).
  • Sol III: Quite frankly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen this one before. The convention of naming the star, and then each planet around the star getting a number (i.e. the eighth planet orbiting the star Omicron Persei is referred to as Omicron Persei 8) does seem common, though I don’t find it all that troubling. I can see how it would be a pet peeve of someone though.

So that covers Johnson’s list. There are, of course, lots of omissions here. Perhaps I’ll cover those in a later post.

SF Book Review, Part 5

Still working my way through the book queue, here are a few SF books I’ve read recently. [See also: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4]

  • Diaspora by Greg Egan: One way to divvy up the various scientific disciplines is to make a distinction between hard science (natural sciences like physics) and soft science (social sciences like psychology). Given this popular notion, it thus follows that science fiction is also divided in such a way, with hard science fiction focusing on the nuts-and-bolts details of technology and science (and stories that progress in a logical fashion), and soft science fiction focusing much less on science (if there’s any science at all) and more human behavior. Of course, given a specific SF story, it will probably fall somewhere around inbetween these two arbitrary poles. However, Greg Egan’s Diaspora veers strongly in the direction of hard SF and rarely looks back. This is most certainly not a book for beginners, but if you don’t mind lengthy discussions of mathematics, geometry, particle physics, and even more complicated notions, then this is the book for you.

    The story begins about a thousand years from now. Humanity has fragmented considerably. Some, called statics, exist mostly in the same way we do today. Others are still made of flesh and bone, but have been genetically augmented, sometimes in quite thorough ways. There are Gleisner robots, which are individual AI beings that nevertheless choose to mostly operate in the physical world via mechanical bodies. And finally, there are polises, which are basically networks of distinct artificial consciousnesses. Most citizens of a polis were uploaded from a human, but there are occasionally “orphans”, which are citizens that are created without any ancestor. The main character of the book is Yatima, an orphan, and most of the action is told from the point of view of polis citizens, which is interesting because said citizens can’t quite be categorized as human. Indeed, Egan uses gender-neutral pronouns (Ve, Vis, Ver) to refer to most citizens (there are some recent converts that cling to their original gender).

    The setting alone provides a rich space for speculation and exploration, but once the basics of the universe are settled, Egan starts to throw various crises at our characters, and that’s when things start to get really interesting. I won’t go into detail here, but Egan has crafted an exceptionally ambitious tale here. The scope and scale of the story grows exponentially, with Egan casually skipping past hundreds or thousands of years at a time and by the end, time pretty much ceases to have much meaning. This is audacious stuff, and probably the “hardest” SF I’ve ever read (again, this is not “hard” in a sense of difficulty, just in the way science is treated). It’s not all “hard” stuff, of course. It still exists on that continuum, it’s just way more hard than it is soft. There’s a lot of depth to this book, and a short blog post like this isn’t even beginning to scratch the surface of the ideas and issues that arise out of the paradigm that Egan has set up (I’ve already written a bit of a deeper exploration of some ideas, but there are lots of other things that could be fleshed out). For the purposes of this post, I’ll just say that this is among the most ambitious and audacious SF novels I’ve ever read, and if you’re not scared away by a little (ok, a lot of) math, it is definitely worth a read.

  • The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke: Since The Matrix came out in 1999, I’ve often found myself recognizing bits and pieces of other media as being part of the formula that created The Matrix. Indeed, one of the big reasons the movie is so great is that it pulls on a large number of diverse sources and mashes them together into something seemingly new and exciting. Of course, it’s not, and that’s why I keep seeing pieces of it, even in 60 year old novels like The City and the Stars. The story takes place about a billion years in the future, in an insular city named Diaspar. No one has left or come into the city for as long as anyone can remember, and most citizens have lived many lives within the city. It’s a sort of utopia, and most of its residents are perfectly content. However, there is one man, a “unique” in that he has had no past lives, who doesn’t fear the universe outside the city. He makes plans to exit the city to see what he can find, but it seems that no one even really knows how to leave. To accomplish his task, he enlists the help of “the Jester”, and this is where the Matrix series really takes from.

    Long ago it had been discovered that without some crime or disorder, Utopia soon became unbearably dull. Crime, however, from the nature of things, could not be guaranteed to remain at the optimum level which the social equation demanded. If it was licensed and regulated, it ceased to be crime.

    The office of Jester was the solution – at first sight naive, yet actually profoundly subtle – which the city had evolved. … On rare and unforeseeable occasions, the Jester would turn the city upside-down by some prank which might be no more than an elaborate practical joke, or which might be a calculated assault on some currently cherished belief or way of life. All things considered, the name “Jester” was a highly appropriate one. There had once been med with very similar duties, operating with the same license, in the days when there were courts and kings.

    (Sound familiar? On the other hand, Clarke himself was clearly drawing on longstanding traditions himself.) Then we find out that this “unique” is actually part of a long line of “uniques”, only this time, things are different. He opts to go further and do more than any other unique, and he essentially breaks down the walls of the city (sorry, I guess that’s a spoiler, but it’s necessary to keep up the comparison to The Matrix, and in specific Neo). It’s a really wonderful SF book and it’s aged pretty well. There are some inconsistencies and Clarke’s prose might strike some modern readers as being a bit sparse, but that’s characteristic of the era in which he was writing. The ideas are great and thought provoking, and that’s what a good SF book needs.

  • Conquerors’ Pride by Timothy Zahn: Zahn has been the workhorse of my SF reading over the past few years. I can always count on Zahn to turn the pages and trot out some interesting ideas along the way, which is more than you can say for a lot of supposedly better written novels. I actually read this series about 15 years ago when they came out, but I wanted to re-read them, as I remember enjoying the books a lot, but some of the things I liked back then aren’t as great as I remember. I’m happy to report that this series is about as good as I remember. This book is the first in the series, and it begins as a first contact story. Things don’t go well, as the alien ships immediately attack, quickly obliterating an entire human fleet (in a ruthless move, they even attack escape pods). So now humans are at war with a new and deadly species, and the Cavanagh family is caught in the middle. When Commander Pheylan Cavanagh is captured by the aliens, his family leaps into action to mount a rescue mission. What follows is another compelling Space Opera from Zahn, whose storytelling skills have never been better. I have some minor complaints about some of the plot details, but it’s otherwise an above average page-turner. Being the first in a series can sometimes be a challenge, but Zahn finds a way to end this one in a satisfying fashion.
  • Conquerors’ Heritage by Timothy Zahn: The second book in the series is interesting in that it is told entirely from the perspective of the “Conquerors” (i.e. that aliens). This does tend to slow things down a bit, but that’s common in the middle book of a series, and at least Zahn does keep things moving forward by continuing where we left off in the last book (i.e. he doesn’t retell the first book from another perspective, he keeps progressing the story.) Switching perspectives makes for an interesting plot device, though I guess you could call it gimmicky, and like a lot of alien species in SF, it seems like these are just humans with slightly different faces and sharp tongues. There is one social component that is unique though, which is that Conquerors have something called a Fsss organ. After a Conqueror’s body dies, they live on in an incorporeal form that is tied to the fsss organ. If you split the organ in two, the spirit can move between the two cuttings nearly instantaneously, which gives the Conquerors FTL communication capabilities. This is an interesting idea, and Zahn plays a bit with the social and psychological consequences of such a system. Since there’s a whole book dedicated to their perspective, I guess it’s not a spoiler to say that we’re meant to have a sympathetic relationship with even the Conquerors (who, ironically, refer to the humans as Conquerors as well), though saying how Zahn pulls it off would most certainly be a spoiler. In the end, it’s a solid middle entry and it moves the story forward, albeit not as quickly as the first book (I still managed to read it in only a couple of days, so it’s still a page turner).
  • Conquerors’ Legacy by Timothy Zahn: The final book in the series is told from mixture of perspectives, and now that Zahn has all the pieces in place, he drives the plot forward quickly and relentlessly. I don’t want to give anything away here, but it’s got a satisfying ending and most of what I said about the first two books apply to this one as well. It’s a fast-paced, page-turning conclusing to a solid Space Opera series. This isn’t deep or overly hard SF, but it’s an above-average SF tale and well worth reading if you like this sort of thing.

I’m currently reading Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, and have a few others to finish up from my current book queue. My next book post will probably be about non-fiction books though, as there are a few I’ve read and some others on the queue that I’d like to finish off.

The Clockwork Orange Fallacy

I’ve been reading a science fiction novel called Diaspora, by Greg Egan. The novel is initially set about a thousand years in the future, which is enough time to allow Egan to postulate all sorts of things without really having to explicitly delve into the morality of gene-splicing or consciousness transferral, etc… However, those sorts of questions emerge anyway because we, the readers, are still living our contemporary lives, where these issues are as relevant as ever.

The novel begins in a “Polis”, which is basically a network of artificial consciousnesses. Some of these are humans who have uploaded themselves, others are entirely artificial. Alternatively, there were apparently a lot of people who transferred themselves into human-shaped robots called Gleisners. Regular human beings are still around, and they’re referred to as “Fleshers” (for obvious reasons). At this point, there are tons of genetically altered humans, to the point where many of the variants can no longer communicate with one another (another class of humans, calling themselves “Bridgers” have been bred specifically to solve the problem of communication). Humans without any sort of genetic tampering are referred to as “Statics”, and don’t seem to be doing well.

In the story, the industrious but apparently suspicious gleisners have discovered an odd astrophysical event which could prove disasterous to Earth (at least, to its fleshers). Two of the characters go down to the planet to warn the fleshers, but they’re met with paranoia and disbelief. One of the characters, Yatima, is a completely random mutation from a polis (he has no “parents”, even artificial ones), and he (or, I should say “ve” as they seem to be quasi-asexual, though even the artificial pronouns sometimes seem to have a gender connotation, but that’s a different discussion) is having some trouble understanding the objections to his suggestion that anyone who wants to can upload themselves to his Polis. In the scene below, he’s speaking with a static human and Francesca, who is a human bridger.

He gazed down at them with a fascinated loathing. ‘Why can’t you stay inside your citadels of infinite blandness, and leave us in peace? We humans are fallen creatures; we’ll never come crawling on our bellies into your ersatz Garden of Eden. I tell you this: there will always be flesh, there will always be sin, there will always be dreams and madness, war and famine, torture and slavery.’

Even with the language graft, Yatima could make little sense of this, and the translation into Modern Roman was equally opaque. Ve dredged the library for clarification; half the speech seemed to consist of references to a virulent family of Palestinian theistic replicators.

Ve whispered to Francesca, dismayed, ‘I thought religion was long gone, even among the statics.’

‘God is dead, but the platitudes linger.’ Yatima couldn’t bring verself to ask whether torture and slavery also lingered, but Francesca seemed to read vis face, and added, ‘Including a lot of confused rhetoric about free will. Most statics aren’t violent, but they view the possibility of atrocities as essential for virtue – what philosophers call “the Clockwork Orange fallacy”. So in their eyes, autonomy makes the polises a kind of amoral hell, masquerading as Eden.’ (page 119 in my edition)

The reference to A Clockwork Orange was interesting, as this isn’t a novel that’s been filled with pop culture references, but the concept itself is a common theme in SF (and, for that matter, philosophy). It’s not hard to see why, especially when it comes to something like a Polis. What does morality mean in a Polis? A consciousness living in a Polis is essentially living in an entirely virtual environment – there are minimal physical limits, property doesn’t really exist as a concept, and so on. The inhabitants of any given Polis are modeled after humans, in a fashion, and yet many of our limitations are not applicable. Some polises have a profound respect for the physical world around them. Others have retreated into their virtual reality, some going as far as abandoning the laws of physics altogether in an effort to better understand the elegance of mathematics. Would it be moral to upload yourself into a Polis? Or would that be the cowards way out and represent the evasion of responsibility that free will provides? Would one still have a free will if their consciousness was run by a computer? Once in a Polis, is it necessary to respect the external, natural world? Could anything be gained from retreating into pure mathematics? Egan doesn’t quite address these issues directly, but this sort of indirect exploration of technological advancement is one of the things that the genre excels at.

Strangely, one of the things that seems to take on a more dangerous tone in the world of Diaspora is the concept of a meme (for more on this, check out this post by sd). The way ideas are transmitted and replicated among humans isn’t especially well understood, but it can certainly be dangerous. Egan is pretty clearly coming down against the humans who don’t want to escape to the Polis (to avoid disaster), and he seems to blame their attitude on “a virulent family of Palestinian theistic replicators”. This sort of thing seems even more dangerous to an artificial consciousness though, and Egan even gives an example. These AI consciousnesses can run a non-sentient program called an “outlook” which will monitor the consciousness and adjust it to maintain a certain set of values (in essence, it’s Clockwork Orange software). In the story, one character shows Yatima what’s happened to their outlook:

It was an old outlook, buried in the Ashton-Laval library, copied nine centuries before from one of the ancient memetic replicators replicators that had infested the fleshers. It imposed a hermetically sealed package of beliefs about the nature of the self, and the futility of striving … including explicit renunciations of every mode of reasoning able to illuminate the core belief’s failings.

Analysis with a standard tool confirmed that the outlook was universally self-affirming. Once you ran it, you could not change your mind. Once you ran it, you could not be talked out of it.

I find this sort of thing terrifying. It’s almost the AI equivalent to being a zombie. If you take on this outlook, why even bother existing in the first place? I guess ignorance is bliss…

In case you can’t tell, I’m very much enjoying Diaspora. I’m still not finished, but I only have a little more than a hundred pages left. It’s not much of a page turner, but that’s more because I have to stop every now and again to consider various questions that have arisen than lack of quality (though I will note that Egan is probably not a gateway SF author – he certainly doesn’t shy away from the technical, even in extremes). I’ll probably be posting more when I finish the book…