Monday, June 25, 2007

"The Ugly Little Boy" by Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg (Science fiction, spoilers)

I suppose the title of this novel might not be considered very politically correct these days.

This novel is based on an original short story by Isaac Asimov, published back in the 1950s. This expansion into a novel was published in the early 1990s. My understanding is that there really wasn't much direct collaboration between Asimov and Silverberg, but that Silverberg simply took Asimov's story as the starting point and expanded it into a full-length novel.

The result is, in my opinion, a very good book. I enjoyed this one a lot, and found that it worked on many levels, as science fiction but also as a very human drama.

The plot involves a kind of unusual time travel experiment. Gerald Hoskins is in charge of a company that has developed the technology making it possible. The machine makes it possible to scoop an object out of time, into the present. So far, they've brought forward rocks and one live dinosaur.

There are some limitations to what they can do, though. They are limited in how much mass they can scoop out of time, and they can only go back to prehistoric times. It is actually harder to go back to something more recent.

As a scientific aside, this is quite plausible. Sometimes, in physics, when something is "closer" to you, it is harder to manipulate - consider magnets, with like poles facing each other. The closer they get, the harder it gets to move them closer still, and the magnetic forces completely prevent you from bringing them into direct contact. And, there are physics theories about particles called tachyons capable of travelling through time, but tachyons with less energy would actually travel across a greater span of time, and the energy needed for travelling through a short time become very large. This kind of idea has been used in other science fiction novels, like Robert J. Sawyer's "End of an Era."

Now, the story begins when Hoskins is interviewing some candidates for a special job. He needs a nurse to help care for a young child. This child will be the first human brought forth through time. But, because of the limitations of the machine, they have to go far back enough in time that this will be a prehistoric human. Not only prehistoric, but a neanderthal.

Just to clarify for those of you who may not know - neanderthals are believed to have existed alongside early humans, and were very close cousins to humans. They are considered to be like another form of human. But, they died out while our own species of humankind survived. The reasons why neanderthals disappeared are unknown. Like dinosaur extinction, there are a number of theories and ideas.

Nenaderthals are another idea that have been used in other science fiction stories. Coming back again to Mr. Sawyer, those of you who remember the 2005 "One Book, One Community" program might recall his novel, "Hominids," which took place in part on a parallel earth where it was the other way around, and neanderthals had survived to become Earth's dominant intelligent species, while humans such as ourselves had died out.

The opening chapters of "The Ugly Little Boy" are a fascinating example of an author selecting viewpoints. The scenes about the first few candidates being interviewed for the job are described from the point of view of Mr. Hoskins. From that point of view, the reader gets to understand what Hoskins is looking for, as well as learn a bit about what kind of person he is. But the third candidate's interview is shown from her point of view. This shift allows the reader to then see what Hoskins looks like, and it also shows some fascinating things about character. Edith Fellowes is the least self-confident, and the most humble of the applicants. But by now the reader can see how that may well make her the most qualified for the job - she's less interested in showing off or trying to impress Hoskins, and far more interested in the welfare of the child she'll be asked to care for. This wins Hoskins over.

And the experiment proceeds. A child, a young neanderthal boy, is ripped out of his own time into the present.

The novel gives the reader some sense for how alien our world must seem to this boy, by showing the reader the world he came from. There's a parallel plot line in which his neanderthal tribe's life is shown, including their interactions with the "others," who are, in fact, us, humans.

Edith Fellowes has some trouble getting used to her charge. The boy is human but not human at the same time, and she finds her own feelings confused. But, that doesn't take long to change.

The novel describes what the boy - who Edith names "Timmie" - looks like, and the differences between his neanderthal appearance and a typical human's appearance are made clear.

But as the novel continues, things like that don't matter so much. Edith just sees the person inside. A child who she's able to teach to live in a human environment. Timmie learns to sleep in a bed, to play with toys, interact with humans, and to speak. Edith can understand his speech, although not everyone else can. And Timmie starts learning to read. He becomes quite civilized.

Edith, with no children of her own and a failed marriage behind her, seems to start to see Timmie as the child she never had. At one point in the story Timmie even tells her that he thinks of her as his mother.

Then, Edith is horrified to learn that Timmie is to be sent back to his own time. After his years in modern times, she's terrified that this will be fatal to him, that he'll have little or no chance to survive there.

This whole scenario raises a lot of tough, ethical questions. Was such an experiment ethical in the first place? Should Timmie be returned to his own time? Or do Hoskins and his associates have a responsibility to take care of him now? And even though this novel is fiction, these questions are very true of real scientific studies - how far can biologists go when it comes to taking any living things away from their environments for study in a lab? What's ethical?

Another thing this novel touches on, though, is parent-child relationships. Edith's fear of what will happen to Timmie when he's removed from her care is probably not that different from any parent's concern for a child going through such experiences as a first day of school to leaving home for the first time. As I said, this novel works as a human drama, too.

I'm not going to spoil the ending,'s not the most happy ending - but it's a fitting one.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

"Rollback" by Robert J. Sawyer (Hard Science Fiction, Mild spoilers)

This is Sawyer's latest, and was officially published earlier this year. I picked it up in hardcover when Rob was on his book tour and stopped here in Kitchener, and got my copy autographed.

This novel deals with a couple of topics, and it's neat to see how Rob puts the different ideas together into one plot. The title, "Rollback," refers to one of the main ideas in the novel. It involves rejuvenation technology, which makes it possible to take an elderly person, in their eighties, and physically restore them to a state of health of a twenty-five year old.

Sound hard to believe? Don't be so sure. Fact is, geneticists now think they've found out some of the main causes of the aging process. Not only that, but experiments along this line have already been done with lab mice, with very encouraging success. This book may be science fiction today, but for how much longer before it becomes fact? It's very likely that will happen, possibly within the next twenty years or so.

Now, in this book, Rob has applied this technology to a particular character. Don and Sarah Halifax are a married couple who have just celebrated their sixtieth anniversary. About forty years previously, Sarah had been involved in decoding an alien message received from another world. Actually, she was the key person who figured out how to interpret the message. But it takes a long time to hold a conversation with people from another planet. A reply is sent, but it's not until decades later, when Sarah is in her eighties, that the next message from the aliens gets to Earth.

But this message is encrypted, and unreadable.

Enter Cody McGavin. A billionaire interested in SETI, McGavin wants Sarah to work on decoding the latest message, since she figured out the first one. At this age, though, Sarah's not sure she's up to it, so McGavin offers to pay for her to have a rollback. McGavin is one of the few people who could afford to make such an offer, because it's relatively new and costs a huge amount of money, making it a privilege for the very wealthy only.

Sarah agrees, but on one condition - she insists that McGavin also pay for Don to have a rollback. After all their years together, she won't face this new stage of life without her husband coming with her.

McGavin agrees. But, in a cruel twist of fate, the rollback works for Don and fails for Sarah. People from Rejuvenex, try to find out why, and think it might have something to do with treatment she underwent years ago for cancer.

But now, after all these years together, suddenly Don and Sarah are separated by a big gulf - he experiences a second youth, while she moves inexorably further into old age.

Being rejuvenated might sound like a wonderful thing - and it has fantastic potential. But it's not all easy or fun for Don, especially since he is the only one among his family and friends to have had it. Some people resent him for his good fortune. He has emotions and experiences that make him feel guilty, especially when he finds himself attracted to younger women, while still married to Sarah.

As it happens, Sarah does still try to work on decoding the alien message. Now, it turns out that the first message was, in part, a survey, asking questions about a great many topics, and part of the reply Earth sent was responses of a sample of people to the survey questions.

So, how does all this tie together? Believe it or not, by the end, these different strands of plot converge beautifully. I don't want to give it all away, but I'll give you a hint. The responses to the first message have something to do with decoding the second. But, what the second message turns out to contain involves something that will require a serious commitment to follow up on. A commitment Sarah, at her age, can't make.

But Don can.

Amazingly, the end of this novel brings together seemingly different plot strands in a way that seems perfectly natural, and flows easily, without feeling at all contrived. And, even though some of the ideas have been explored in science fiction before - halting or reversing ageing, decoding messages from aliens - Sawyer brings these ideas together with some new, creative twists that make this novel a nice variation on these ideas. And the characters are very likable and engaging, the prose clear and lucid, and the whole book is just a wonderful pleasure to read.

I couldn't help but notice the way this book contrasts Rob's previous novel, "Mindscan." That novel was about uploading human consciousness into android bodies. So if you were old and/or sick, you could have your mind copied into an android and live forever. As a result, two people separated in age by many years, suddenly find themselves brought together when they become uploads. Their own families and friends become uncomfortable around them, and they become each other's new best friends. They never would have become involved before, with such a big gap in their ages. But in "Rollback," we have the opposite side of the coin, and Don and Sarah are now separated in a way, after many decades of life together. And in both novels the change comes about as a direct result of using a new technology that can drastically change a person.

Of course, in "Mindscan," the original human being is sent to a place called High Eden on the moon to live out the remainder of their natural life, while all rights of personhood are transferred to the upload. He he he...I guess if Don and Sarah from Rollback had decided to formally separate, maybe Sarah could have gone to high Eden and hooked up with Jake Sullivan, the protaganist from "Mindscan," and maybe Don could find a nice new uploaded girlfriend like Karen Bessarian, except the uploaded version of her was already dating the uploaded Jake Sullivan...

Not that both novels take place in the same imagined future - or do they? Technically they don't, but I do suspect that Sawyer wanted readers to consider the parallels and contrasts between the two novels, because he put a few things in "Rollback" that seem to be little references to "Mindscan." Like, the name of the company that does the rollbacks is called Rejuvenex, a similar name to Immortex, the company from "Mindscan" that offers the uploading process. And, there's a scene in "Rollback" in which Don's at a bar with some new friends and orders a drink, an "Old Sully's Light." If I recall correctly, Old Sully's was the name people in "Mindscan" used to refer to the varieties of beer produced by the company Jake Sullivan's family owned.

I guess it's pretty obvious by now I'm a big fan of Mr. Sawyer's novels...we'll, they're good!

His next one is going to be called "Wake," and is the first part of a trilogy about the world wide web gaining consciousness.

On a personal note, some of the things in "Rollback" paralleled some personal experiences for me in recent years. It was just a few years ago my grandparents celebrated their sixtieth anniversary, for example. But I wish there was such a thing as a rollback now, because sadly my grandmother is no longer with us now.

Still, for all the problems Don goes through and how saddening parts of the novel are, it does end on a positive, hopeful note, and I liked that, too.

"The Uplift War" by David Brin (Science Fiction, minor spoilers)

This is a far-future hard science fiction novel, and a sequel to "Startide Rising." However, although it takes place in the same futuristic setting as "Startide Rising" and has some connection to the events of that novel, it follows a different set of characters and events.

Just about everything about this book is big - lots of plot, lots of characters, including many from alien races, lots of exotic settings, and lots of detail about the events described.

It's hard to know just where to start to discuss this book - but I'll try.

Okay, the main plot involves a planet called Garth, which is currently being colonized by people of Earth. Also present on Garth are uplifted chimpanzees - intelligent, and made so by humans uplifting them.

Enter the Gubru - a birdlike race that decides it wants Garth for its own purposes, and launches an all-out invasion and occupation of Garth.

Some of the humans and chimpanzees resist the Gubru, but it's not easy, the Gubru are quite powerful.

Some of the story is told from the point of view of Fiben, a very likeable intelligent chimpanzee who becomes involved in the resistance. But, what's interesting about some of the things we see from his point of view are some of the more subtle ways the Gubru try to be manipulative. It turns out that the Gubru want to intervene in the chimpanzees' uplift process, and push out humans. They try to convince the chimpanzees that they will be better off under the Gubru. So this part of the story is not always portrayed as an outright forced invasion and occupation, but a more subtle attempt to use the chimpanzees and win them over.

Now, I don't want to give away too much of the plot, but near the end of the story, Brin does a pretty nifty job of connecting the events of this novel to those of "The Uplift War." You do have to be patient and wait, though, to the end of the book.

The book explores a huge amount of material, and just about any plot line could be the subject of a full-blown novel of its own. The whole subject of uplift, how it affects relatinships between species, how rules have developed to govern its operation, and what happens when a species tries to sidestep those rules is a topic that could give rise to a massive amount of debate over whether it's even possible, or ethical.

And, just in case you think this is purely fiction, I'm not so sure. Consider the idea of uplifting another species to a state of sentience and intelligence. Isn't it true that some experiments have been done in which primates other than humans have been taught to communicate with sign language? Granted it's a far cry from the kind of uplift Brin describes, but who knows, it might be a first step in such a direction.

Brin also describes relationships between different species. There's a subplot that describes a relationship between a human man, Robert, and a Tymbrimi girl, Athaclena, which turns into an unusual love story. And there are stories of friendships between humans and chimpanzees, in which the chimps make exceptionally loyal, faithful friends.

Anyway, it's a fascinating story. I wouldn't call it light, easy reading, though - the sheer size of the cast of characters and the number of turns the plot takes require close attention and concentration to get through and follow everything. It's actually the kind of novel I feel I should probably read a second time someday, just to make sure I picked up on everything in it.

Very good as hard science fiction, though, Brin knows his science so well it shows, but never in an 'inf0-dump' kind of way, the scientific information is always sprinkled around in small doses when needed while the plot keeps moving and the characterization develops.