Saturday, February 9, 2008

"Forever Peace" by Joe Haldeman (Military Science Fiction, Spoiler Warning)

This book won the Nebula and Hugo awards for best novel in 1998. That's quite an impressive accomplishment.

Joe Haldeman was already a well-known figure in science fiction publishing, mainly for having published "The Forever War" in 1974, which also won the Nebula award in 1975 and the Hugo award in 1976. Despite what you might think from the title, though, "Forever Peace" is not a direct sequel to "The Forever War." It does, however, explore issues about war and its effects on soldiers from a different perspective.

In "Forever Peace," Julian Class is one of a group of soldiers who fight by operating "soldierboys." These are remote controlled battle machines, which allow the war to be fought by soldiers who remain safely in their homeland, hundreds of miles away from where the action is taking place.

The nanotechnology and other advances that make this possible are, however, not shared by everyone. Some countries have it, and fight against less technologically advanced nations whose people have to confront the soldierboys the old fashioned way, and fight and die themselves.

The soldiers who use the soldierboys are able to see what's happening during a battle as if they were really there, and the experiences they go through can still take an emotional toll. These experiences also tend to make soldiers bond closely between themselves, in a way that civilians can't understand.

War is also depicted as a form of entertainment. Video taken from battles is distributed for people's viewing pleasure. Some groups of soldiers even have fans who closely follow all of their battles.

In order to be able to connect to a soldierboy and work with a squad of soldiers, each individual soldier has to undergo an operation on their brain so they can "jack in." The procedure doesn't always work, though, with potentially serious consequences if it goes wrong.

(I'm going to re-iterate my spoiler warning here).

This technology, which enables one to jack in, turns out to have an ironic effect. Julian and some of his friends discover that, while it allows soldiers to communicate and literally be inside each other's heads, prolonged exposure to this linking with others can permanently make one more empathetic. And that could make it harder for a person to harm another human being. That makes them realize they may have found a tool that could bring about peace and end war at last.

That makes it a good example of a theme that runs through much of the science fiction genre. A lot ot scientific discoveries and technological innovations aren't necessarily good or evil all by themselves, but how human beings choose to use them is always the vital question.

There's another, parallel plot involving some physics experiments and an attempt to re-create the big bang, but which might have hugely destructive consequences. This threat adds more ugency to the characters' quest to change the world.

Many of the issues Haldeman brings in to this story are very real and relevant today, even though this novel is set in the future. It's a nice example of the way science fiction can show what can happen if we continue on the course we're on. The stark difference between have and have-not nations, highlighted by the way wars are fought is one example. War as a form of entertainment is something all too true - how many people are glued to their T.V. sets when a war is on? It's been that way since the Vietnam war, hasn't it? And the fact is, there is technology available today that is coming closer to making remote control war possible. Or even beyond that, automated war - there have been stories in the news recently about the use of armed robot drones in Iraq.

That's the sign of a good novel - no matter where or when it takes place, it shows us something relevant to the world today.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

"The Snow Queen" by Joan D. Vinge (Science Fiction, some spoilers)

This book won the best novel Hugo award in 1981.

It's certainly science fiction, and discusses a number of scientific points in the setting. At the same time, the style of the writing and story is kind of like a fantasy novel, and according to some sources, the novel was in fact influenced by the fairy tale of the same title by Hans Christian Andersen.

The story starts on a planet called Tiamat. This planet's culture is divided into two main groups, Summers and Winters. The planet's orbit causes dramatic changes in climate to occur every 150 years, and when that happens, the Summers and Winters trade places as the ruling group, so they take turns. A queen rules the world, so there is always either a Summer Queen or a Snow Queen.

The Snow Queen, Arienrhod has some of her genetic material used to impregnate a number of Summer women. By doing so, she hopes to orchestrate the rise to power of a Summer Queen who will be her clone, not just physically but also in spirit. This is, however, done in secret, since it would be considered unethical even for the Snow Queen.

The story follows Moon, a girl, and her cousin Sparks, a boy, both Summers. The Summers are less interested in technology and progress than the Winters, and tend to live in a way more based on old traditions. Moon and Sparks are lovers. But, when Moon starts training to be a sybil, it separates her from Sparks. A sybil is someone who can enter a trance-like state that allows them to access information accumulated throughout the galaxy, and answer questions.

Sparks goes to Carbuncle, Tiamat's capital, where he ends up being found by Arienhrod - not entirely by accident - and becomes the "Starbuck," the Queen's lover. He first has to fight the old Starbuck, and win. He also has to lead the hunt for mers, creatures whose blood hold a chemical that can hold off the effects of growing old and extend life for decades.

Moon, not knowing that she is a clone of Arienrhod, finds out more about how Tiamat is being manipulated by other worlds in the galactic Hegemony. She realizes this has harmed Tiamat and wants to change it.

One thing I liked about this novel was the prose, I found it very vivid, and it made me feel like I was right there with the characters, seeing and hearing and feeling everything they did.

I found it fascinating to see how of the two characters, Moon and the Snow Queen turn out to be very different people, despite Moon being a genetic clone of Arienrhod. Raised in the summer culture, Moon has different values and does not think the same way as Arienrhod. Maybe Vinge was trying to venture an opinion on the the nature versus nurture debate, a question that's never been definitively answered.

Arienrhod seems to come across as far more selfish and manipulative. Moon seems like a person more sincerely interested in helping others and doing what she can for the greater good of everyone.

Although, there's an ironic twist in what does happen to Moon in the end - spoiler warning - just as Arienrhod wanted, Moon does become the Summer Queen. So despite their differences and Airenrhod's realization that Moon isn't the same as her, part of Airenrhod's plan does come to pass.

I also noticed how much of the behavior of the characters was defined by the setting and culture, to the point where some people are expected to make considerable sacrifices in the name of their culture. This is especially true of people who work in government, which is ironic as well because such people are often perceived as having a lot of power. But in this book, many of them come across as being very bound by customs and rules, and what the public perception of their actions will be.

This novel certainly has some strong themes, but they're explored subtly, which makes it a good read. Intelligent and thoughtful, with good characters. I found the pace to be a little bit slow, which isn't a criticism - but if you prefer more intense, fast-paced material, this might not be your favorite type of book.

There were a few things that made it seemed little dated - some things about the characters' attitudes and interactions seemed like they were influenced by the late seventies type of thinking, but not too much.

All in all, a good read.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

"Fossil Hunter" by Robert J. Sawyer (Science Fiction, some spoilers)

This is an early Sawyer novel, originally published in the early nineties. It is the second book of the Quintaglio Ascension, a trilogy of books. These stories take place on an alien world inhabited by a race of intelligent dinosaurs, descended from dinosaurs from Earth.

The novel follows Toroca, son of Afsan. Afsan was the central figure in the first novel, "Far-Seer," and is also an important character in this novel. Toroca is a geologist who has made some fascinating finds in the fossil record. He also embarks on a journey that takes him to places no Quintaglio has seen before, and he finds forms of life previously unobserved.

While this is happening, Afsan must cope with the deaths of two of his children, who are found violently murdered. This is a very unique situation for two reasons. All of Afsan's children were allowed to live, which is unusual. Normally bloodpriests kill all but one hatchling from each clutch of eight eggs. Secondly, murder outside of territorial challenges is very uncommon in Quintaglio society.

But it turns out that Afsan isn't the only person whose children escaped the culling. His friend, Emperor Dybo, has living siblings. The scandal that erupts when this is exposed results in a call for a new culling, but something appropriate for adult Quintaglios, rather than the usual bloodpriest.

These three plotlines - Toroca's discoveries and the theories he develops, Afsan's investigation of the murders, and Dybo facing the culling, are all interwoven in ways that support the main theme. It's all about evolution, but more than one kind. There's natural selection, of course, but the story also grapples with the issue of deliberately guided evolution, when a society tries to steer its own direction. The ethics of this raise huge issues, difficult to contemplate. The novel shows some of the positive and negative things about the Quintaglios' particular methods of selection, but also shows why they may need to change.

The book also has some comments on other issues. Like, there's a paragraph at the end of a chapter that talks about how a leader has to do the right thing, and not just have brains and brawn. There is a lot of truth in this. Some societies throughout human history have had some of the greatest intellects and power, through superior technology. Sadly, some such societies have also been some of the most brutal and inhumane. We all marvel at ancient Roman engineering - yet this was a society that practiced crucifixion and decimation. Or consider World War II. The Nazis had technology nobody else had, because they had the engineering prowess to develop it. But what did they use it for?

Or, near the end of the book, Afsan's son Toroca is to be appointed by the emperor to a special position, which Afsan and Dybo know Toroca probably won't want. And there's a comment about how that makes him particularly qualified for the job. There's a lot of truth in that, too. Some jobs, especially those involved in serving the public, are sometimes sought by those who only want power and prestige for themselves. Those who wouldn't want such a job as much, may well be better choices, because they will try to do the job properly for the common good, not personal gain.

This book also has some nice, small touches that reflect the larger themes, like Toroca's relationship with a colleague that he hopes will become more than professional. But this proves difficult because her feelings about herself, and being different. Toroca, however, is different himself, and has come to understand the evolutionary value of genetic variability.

Obviously, genetic variability would be severely restricted by the culling. See, all the main ideas in the novel tie together so neatly, and that's one thing I always like about Sawyer.

So, once again, I read a Sawyer novel and thoroughly enjoyed it. Highly recommended!

Sunday, September 30, 2007

"The Big Bad Wolf" by James Patterson (Thriller)

This novel is another one in Patterson's well-known Alex Cross series. It takes place when Cross is making a career change, in training with the F.B.I. And he becomes involved in a case, trying to track down what turns out to be an abduction ring.

It seems that someone is providing a very interesting - and illegal - service to high-paying customers. This service involves the acquisition and sale of a very precious commodity - live human beings, based on whatever criteria you want. Some customers want women, some want men, and what they do with their acquisitions is up to them. The people who are abducted include people from wealthy families, or students, a variety of ages, depending on a customer's taste.

Some parts of the story are told from the point of view of the victims. Finding themselves abducted, and then trapped somewhere with a person who has paid to have them in their power, strictly controlled and not knowing exactly where they are, cut off from contact with the outside world - it's obviously a frightening experience.

But the people doing the abductions have some dissension within their own ranks, and this is one of the things that allows Cross to start following the trail to the main ringleader of the operation.

Enter the Wolf.

In the past, the Wolf was a KGB agent, with suspected mob connections. Patterson shows some scenes from the villain's point of view, and he is brutal - violent, murderous, absolutely unhesitating about eliminating anyone if it suits his purpose to do so.

In the meantime, Alex Cross is also contending with personal problems, as he fights for custody of his son. It seems that Christine Johnson, the boy's mother, is fighting back pretty hard, and the whole thing takes a tough emotional toll on Cross.

Some of Patterson's novels seem to take on a larger-than-life quality. Admittedly, there is a certain James-Bondishness to Alex Cross at times, and a villain like the Wolf does come across a little like over-the-top Bond villains, too.

But, then again, that's all right with me - I actually prefer an author to err on the side of making things more interesting and exciting than settling for mediocrity. I read for entertainment and enjoyment, after all!

And, of course, throughout all this, there's the one thing that's always very consistent in Patterson's Alex Cross novels. It's all very intense, with short chapters in which one thing after another keeps happening, and it's a very addictive writing style Patterson has. Very unputdownable.

And there are some connections to other Cross novels, Kyle Craig, the villain from "Cat and Mouse" makes an appearance, and Patterson used the Wolf in a later novel, "London Bridges."

Saturday, September 22, 2007

"The Fountains of Paradise" by Arthur C. Clarke

This novel won both the Hugo award(1980) and the Nebula award(1979), in the "best novel" category. That's by no means a small accomplishment, heck, a lot of science fiction writers are happy just to get nominated.

The story deals with Vannevar Morgan, a highly accomplished engineer who want to take on a new, very ambitious engineering project. He wants to build a space elevator.

The idea of a space elevator is by no means pure fiction - it is theoretically possible. The idea is to literally build a cable that would be anchored on the surface of the Earth at one end, and a counter-weight at the other end, in orbit. This would make it possible to build elevator cars that could ride the cable into orbit. It would have an advantage over traditional rockets. You see, rockets have to expend a lot of energy and burn fuel just to maintain their position over the surface of the Earth when they're still close enough to feel the Earth's gravity strongly, and then use up even more energy to keep climbing. If you have a solid object sitting on the surface of the Earth that you can stand on or climb up, you don't have expend energy to maintain a position - so you can just focus your energy on increasing your altitude, and that is much more energy-efficient.

Of course, I'm not a physicist, but that's the way it's been explained to me by people who should know.

This novel shows Morgan go through several stages while trying to make the project come to fruition. First he has to try to get support and funding, which isn't easy. Many possibilities are considered, including starting on Mars instead of Earth; Mars has lower gravity, which would make the work easier. Of course, with two moons, one of which orbits quite closely, you might have a little problem if it ran into your elevator cable.

Throughout the novel, Clarke provides his trademark attention to scientific detail. If you like your science fiction to have good science in it - and I certainly do - you'll appreciate that. There are plenty of fascinating physics and engineering ideas here.

But it's not all just about discussing the science; the plot has some good twists, and some exciting parts. When the elevator is well on its way to completion, some problems make a daring rescue attempt necessary. Morgan has to ride up to a group of people stuck farther up the cable, and bring them life-saving supplies until they can be properly brought back home. These scenes show a nice interplay of the scientific ideas and some action and excitement.

Clarke is sometimes criticized for not having well-developed characters, although I'd say the lead character, Morgan, is a good character, and the supporting cast are written at least competently. But, of course, Morgan is the engineer whose story this really is focused on; it becomes a very personal story for him.

There are also some descriptions of the distant past and the even farther future, that show how humankind's ongoing aspiration to learn and reach beyond our limits can be truly amazing over time.

Anyway, I'd say that this novel is very good, and very consistent for Clarke - I wouldn't say there's any big departure in style here from his other works of read, which is fine - I like my science fiction with good science and bold ideas. An enjoyable read, well worth a look.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

"The Winter King" by Bernard Cornwell

This is actually the first part of a trilogy, but I felt it worked quite well as a novel on its own - even though the ending sets things up for the story to be continued.

This is a re-telling of the story of King Arthur. Of course, it's been done many times. There are lots of fiction books based on the legend, not to mention books that try to document the truth of the story, as far as possible. And the story's also been told in film; I'm quite partial to the 1981 movie "Excalibur."

Anyway, one thing that struck me about "The Winter King" was the wonderful job it does of telling a story that's been told before, and yet keep it fresh, interesting and dynamic. This is accomplished in a number of ways.

One thing that's neat here is the way some of the characters are portrayed. Cornwell presents them in a way that makes sense and doesn't outright contradict what you'd typically expect, but still puts a creative twist on the characters. Like Sir Lancelot. Instead of the brave knight and strong leader second only to Arthur that a lot of Arthurian retellings portray, this Lancelot is a flake. He's just good at grabbing credit and making himself look good, regardless of whether he's really done very much.

And Guinevere is portrayed as majestic, strong-willed and somewhat manipulative and opportunistic.

Arthur himself is portrayed as having all the qualities he should - a strong leader, charismatic, a great fighter, yet still humble and respectful of others, most of the time. But he does have flaws. His falling in love with Guinevere is impulsive at best, and causes huge problems when he breaks off his previous engagement, or betrothal. The political implications pour gasoline on the political fires that lead to violent conflict.

Also, Cornwell uses his imagination to fill in details about things we don't know much about form the Dark Ages. Druidic religion is something that is very much shrouded in mystery, or so I've been told. The druids portrayed here are believable and seem to fit nicely into the setting. Corwell shows us a religion deeply rooted in nature as well as polytheistic, but the various gods that are worshipped are all closely tied to aspects of real life.

The story is told in the first person from the point of view of Derfel, who trains to be a soldier and serves Arthur. Faithful and loyal to Arthur, Derfel also has his own personal story, and goes through considerable growth and development as a person himself throughout the story, he's not just there to relate the events around him.

The plot is very sophisticated, and would take an awfully long time to describe. Much of it centres around Arthur's devotion to Mordred, the infant who is to be king. But until Mordred grows up, Mordred has to be protected - and that's no easy task. Saving Mordred's life proves to be a task that takes considerable skill and wit. I like that, though, Arthur is not just a fighter or the best swordsman, he and his followers have to be constantly thinking ahead, trying to stay one step ahead of their enemies.

And I really enjoy the way Cornwell brings the setting to life; his attention to detail will make you feel as if you're right there with Derfel, experiencing the sights and sounds and smells of Dark Ages Britain. You'll feel what it's like to try and fight in a heavy suit of armour, or to go through grueling training with a sword, or watch Druids casting spells.

A very enjoyable read - definitely recommended. I'll have to read the rest of this trilogy some time soon.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

"Darwin's Radio" by Greg Bear (Hard Science Fiction, minor spoilers)

This book is, without a doubt, hard science fiction. It is very heavy on the science. Most of the major characters are scientists, and many chapters have extensive dialogues focused on the scientific details of what's happening. Heck, there's even a glossary of scientific terms at the end of the book, to help readers who need a primer on some of the words used throughout these passages.

So one of my comments on this book is that it might appeal the most to fans of science fiction, especially if you already have at least a passing knowledge of genetics. I'm not sure if this book would go over as well with a broader audience, I could see it maybe being a bit tough to swallow for people with little or no knowledge or interest in science.

The central part of the plot involves evolution, and deals with the idea of humankind entering a new phase of development. Something bizarre has been happening around the world, with women experiencing miscarriages early in their pregnancies, followed by a second pregnancy producing babies that don't live long.

Much of this is shown from the point of view of Kaye Lang, herself a molecular biologist who becomes involved in the effort to understand the situation. Her own specialty is retroviruses. She thinks that parts of human D.N.A. that have no apparent purpose, may actually contain the seeds of a new evolutionary leap.

Despite the efforts of governments to control and study the situation, there is strong public response, sometimes leading to violence and riots. Some people seem to blame the scientists or the government for what's happening, even though this thinking is not very rational.

Now, this type of story isn't completely new to science fiction. Stories about humankind witnessing its own evolutionary change, accompanied by feelings of fear and anger, has been done in a variety of ways. Examples include the old classic story, "The Man Who Evolved" by Edmond Hamilton, or the "Star Trek: The Next Generation" episode "Transfigurations." But, I'll give Bear a lot of credit for doing it better, in many ways. Bear's reputation as a hard science fiction writer is well deserved. The details and the science in the story make this by far one of the most believable, well thought-out presentations of this kind of idea in science fiction.

There's a near part of the story involving a character named Mitch Rafelson, and some frozen Neanderthals. It seems that an evolutionary change like the one happening in the present day may have happened once before, a very long time ago, possibly when modern humans first arrived on the scene.

All this leads to a debate about how evolution works, whether it's a gradual process or if it can happen with a sudden leap, and if so, what is the mechanism by which that leap occurs. Ideas about D.N.A., retroviruses, how they arise and what purpose they may serve all come into play.
Apparently, at the time Bear wrote the novel, this was a debate that hadn't been resolved yet. I'm not sure what the current state of this discussion is in the scientific community.

A good book, one I'd recommend if you like your hard science fiction with plenty of emphasis on the science, or perhaps if you want to learn more about genetics.