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.