Book Review: 2312 By Kim Stanley Robinson

Any avid reader knows that good books come in many forms.  Some are fast, accessible, satisfying stories that demand little from the reader yet present exciting adventures and creative new ideas.  Many SF writers are masters of this form, including (but not at all limited to) Spider Robinson, Richard Morgan and hundreds of others.  I love reading their books when riding the bus, flying or otherwise wanting an excellent novel that doesn’t make me work too hard.  Other writers are masters of the sprawling story full of overlapping complex ideas that demand the reader slow down, pay close attention and absorb every detail.  I am convinced Kim Stanley Robinson fits well within the latter category, and when I undertake to read one of his books I know that my work is cut out for me – and that my work will be paid off beautifully.

2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson is a brilliant, thought-provoking novel of humanity’s near future.  His commitment to plausibility and realism combine with a thorough consideration of the dramatic changes that our species is creating combines with some very likely problems we will face because of, and with, our growing technological prowess.  At the same time Robinson manages to create very real characters with whom it is easy to empathize and even worry about.  Swan er Hong’s rebelliousness and Wahram’s dogged stolidity are wholly realized and enjoyable to observe as they navigate the challenges of their era.

The novel’s main weakness is in its slow pacing, which I suspect was a deliberate choice by the author.  It stands to reason that a story told through the perspectives of people well into their second centuries is not going to have a sense of frantic urgency.  Even when they respond to genuine emergencies, it is with a pragmatism that would only grow with experience and age.  Robinson has done a masterful job of presenting believable characters who have lived a lot, yet are not remotely feeling or approaching ‘old’.  Nowhere is this more clear than in the gradual evolution of a very believable love interest between two of the characters, over the course of many years.

2312 is a well worth the read.  It is definitely what I call a bedside table book, meant to be enjoyed slowly, over many readings.  When I pick up a Kim Stanley Robinson novel I know that I am starting a large project, but that I will like the result.  I highly recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys serious science fiction.

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A Snow Crash Movie?

YT From Snow Crash by Ruben Devela

Giant Freakin Robot has a piece about the director who will be working on a movie adaptation of Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson’s genre-creating novel from way back in 1992.  I have no real opinion on the director, but I really hope he can capture the sprawling, chaotic awesomeness that was the novel.  I fear that the limits of the movie form will mean that 98% of the novel will be lost in favor of a basic action movie with SF flavors.  It would be better as a trilogy, but that is perhaps too much to ask.

I’m not sure how any of Stephenson’s novels would make the transition to the screen, to be honest.  Though the The Baroque Cycle would make for a hell of a television serial.  (Oh please god do not let them make a movie out of those books).

 

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Book Review: Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson

Robopocalypse is a near future apocalyptic story written in the form of transcripts and summaries of a variety of key events in a “War with the Robots”.  The concept of an advanced AI choosing to rebel and turning our machines against us is not new (see The Terminator), but the story was exciting and enjoyable to read.

There are a great many similarities in structure and execution to another bestselling apocalyptic SF novel, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, which I reviewed here.  Both novels take the form of after-the-fact descriptions of events as related (mostly) by survivors.  Both follow a similar story arc, taking us through the initial chaos and panic through the humans regrouping, finding ways to survive, and ultimately triumphing over their adversaries.

Robopocalypse is a darkly depressing novel, portraying our current technological trend toward wholly integrated computing and ubiquitous technology as a massive risk.  Genuinely sentient AI seems possible (if unlikely)even now, and like any sentient being it would be almost impossible to completely predict its actions and choices.

The main character and primary narrator of the book, a Sgt. Cormac Macarthy, relates his own experiences as well as those of a few key other individuals.  His insights into events outside his own experiences are provided by a robot record of the war, which the AI had made a point of preserving.  Most of the stories are compelling, though the story does stretch credibility in some events, as might be expected in an apocalyptic SF novel.

Robopocalypse is currently a strong seller, which is not surprising given the current trend towards apocalypse in fiction and the public zeitgeist.  This book is definitely worth a read, and I encourage anyone with an interest in current SF to try it out.  That said, the novel does not break any new ground, and does not explore new ideas in the manner of the SF greats.

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Locus Award SF Novel Winners

The Locus Awards were announced last week.  I have been looking forward to reading Rule 34 and Embassytown for awhile now, and I am going to make a point of reading the rest.  In the Science Fiction novel category the winners were as follows:

1.
2.
3.
4.
5.

The rest of the Locus Award winners can be found at Locus Online.

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Classic Science Fiction: The Gripping Hand

In my continuing expedition through the great SF novels of the last 100 years, I recently read The Gripping Hand by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, a sequel to The Mote in God’s Eye. The authors waited 17 years between publishing the two novels (both of which were excellent for very specific reasons.  I reviewed the first novel in a previous post.

The Gripping Hand was an excellent novel for its vivid portrayal of the friction between two very different species, the Empire of Man and the Civilization of the Mote (‘Moties’).  The novel picks up 25 years after the events of the first book, in which the Empire opts to blockade the Moties into their own system rather than risk being overrun.  Events conspire to make a blockade impossible, and the Moties and Humans must come to terms in some way.  The evolution of this relationship, and the conflict within the Motie civilization and with the humans form the core of the novel.

In my review of the first novel I qualified my enthusiasm by noting the anachronistic social mores and gender relationships of the 35th century human culture.  The Moties were a brilliant exploration of what a truly alien species might be like.  However, at a glance, the Navy appeared grounded somewhere in the mid 18th century, a milieu in which Aubrey and Maturin would have felt completely at home. The gender relationships and ideas were pure idealized 1950s American. It was hard to get past the absurd social interactions between the human men and the single woman in the novel, with everyone getting embarrassed at the slightest hint of impropriety.  The cultural stereotypes were powerfully rooted in the mid-20th century as well (a loyal Irish Marine Sergeant with a knack for brewing whiskey, the Scottish Naval Engineer with the impenetrable brogue, the treacherous Levantine trader).

I was pleasantly surprised to note that the authors had been paying attention to social events in North America.  The Navy of the Empire now had female officers, the young women were prone to making their own decisions without it being ‘shocking’, and the culture had evolved significantly to allow for these developments (much like our own in the intervening years).  Even the treacherous Levantine appeared in a much more sympathetic light, and he was one of the main heroes of the novel.

In all, The Gripping Hand was an excellent classic of Science Fiction, and any true fan of the genre should make a point of the reading both novels.

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Classics of Science Fiction: The Mote In God’s Eye

I just finished reading one of the all-time science fiction classic novels. The Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle is an imaginative leap into the far, space operatic future where humans have their first encounters with another sentient species.  The humans are members of an anachronistic Imperial Navy, sent to make contact with the new species and assess if they are a threat.  The aliens (“Moties”) are an intelligent, highly technological species that has many problems of their own.  Each side has large and potentially dangerous misconceptions about the other, and the central plot of the book focuses on the secrets and problems that arise.

Chris Doll’s “MacArthur” scratchbuilt model

The book primarily follows the human characters, with a focus on Captain Rod Blaine, an aristocrat who is in command of the primary contact ship (The `MacArthur`).  Many of the secondary characters matter, but Blaine is the prime decision maker both on the ship and later in a more elevated role.

The motivations of the Moties are the prime Macguffin of the story.  Are they truly benign and friendly?  Do they merely wish to escape their system and open trading routes, or do they have more dangerous intentions? The authors’ conception of the Moties actually held up more with time than his portrayal of the human characters.

Like all science fiction, most of the events reflect ideas and conceptions at the date of publication more than anything in the future.  Published in the early 1970s, the characters reflect many assumptions of the time.  As a prime example, consider that there were no women on the warships with the exception of one perky young aristocrat who sought to ‘make her own way’ before finding a man.

Sexual mores were firmly grounded in early 1950s America, and class relationships grounded somewhere in Napoleonic Europe.  There was only one non-European character of note, and he was a sneaky businessman and a traitor to the Empire.  Everyone was deeply religious, and the perspective of the Church (quasi-Catholic) was important and of significant concern, more so that it is even now.

Such characterizations even now seem quaint, though the authors did insert some future-historical justification for such anachronistic social structures.  It is hard now, in our accelerating-change-as-norm existence to imagine any such throwback ideas gaining traction in the distant future.

On the other hand, the Moties were a fascinating exploration of what a wholly different alien species might be like, how they might think and act.  Their society was deep in an eons old cycle of civilization alternating with chaos and barbarism, driven largely by population pressures far beyond those experienced by humans.  Every aspect of their interactions with each other and with the humans was informed by the knowledge of an impending cyclical collapse.  Their whole cultural groupthink made the assumption that anyone who made serious efforts to prevent the cycle was ‘Crazy Eddie’ and therefore insane.

It took me awhile to get past the mid-20th century American cultural assumptions that dominated the entire novel, but at its root The Mote in God’s Eye is a brilliant, creative novel about the moral quandaries that would face anyone who meets a new group of sentient creatures.  We humans have not historically been very good at meeting new human cultures, and while I hope for the best, I suspect we will do worse with aliens.

I strongly recommend any Science Fiction fan read this book, as one of the must-read classics of the 20th century.

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10 Very Weird SF Novels

io9 has a list with ten of the better weird science fiction novels out there.

Personally I think they give Philip K. Dick’s lesser novels a little too much credit (he wrote some amazing novels, but I don’t count Ubik among them).  Some of the rest are now on my to-read list.

I would like to have seen something a bit more recent, like Glasshouse
by Charles Stross, but to each their own.

Read the list and reasoning here.

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Exodyssey

I am very intrigued by this book: Exodyssey: Visual Development of an Epic Adventure by Steambot Studios.

Follow the Steambot crew through an original but also realistic point of view on futuristic civilizations, space transportation and society as they visually develop the characters, vehicles, environments and props needed to tell the tale. Various educational lectures and tools are thoroughly documented in this visually stunning book.

I particularly want to get my eyes on the hundreds of sketches and color illustrations.

 

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