I just read: Aurora

auroraA lot of the most popular sci-fi books being released in the last few years are kind of downers. By that I mean their more ‘down to earth’ (sometimes literally) about humanity’s prospects of ever flying spaceships to the stars. They tamp down the magical thinking of classic pop sci-fi in favor of more realistic physics. Nothing can travel faster than the speed of light; we probably can’t even get close to it. There will never be a warp speed. Luke can’t fly a tiny X-Wing fighter to the Dagobah system. Han can’t complete the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs.

And so, a bit of a downer. But once you get over the sobering ground-rules, most of these books are really great. You’ve got rollicking adventure (Seveneves, The Martian, the Expanse series). And who needs Hoth and Tatooine when you’ve got the mind-blowing landscapes of Mercury, Io, or Europa from books like 2312 and Blue Remembered Earth? All of these titles take place entirely in our own solar system. And their authors use this dose of realism, and the latest scientific insights, to create more interest and drama. As most authors know, sometimes adding limitations to your story can actually make it more compelling.

In July 2015, Kim Stanley Robinson (the writer of the aforementioned 2312) took this style of reality-check sci-fi to the next level with his novel, Aurora. The humans in his tale actually fly very far from Earth—ten lightyears away from our solar system. And yet, the interstellar problems they run into are far more overwhelming and unsolvable than the issues I’ve read in other ‘downer’ books. I won’t spoil the hardships here. It’s more fun (fun being a very relative term here) to discover these challenges as the would-be colonists do. Eventually, they run headlong into  a problem that drives the final nail into their best-laid plans, and the spacefarers start to fight it out over what their next course of action should be.

Troubles. Troubles. Everywhere troubles. The basic point of the book is that humans will never be able to establish life on other planets. And Robison presents very sound reasoning behind this premise. According to Aurora, Interstellar travel is an endeavor that is masochistic and—even worse—is anti-Darwinist. And it’s doomed to fail.

As Robinson puts it, ‘life is a planetary expression.’ And our planet is Earth, so our species should never travel unreasonably far from our home.

So this book was a bit of a sad read. In fact, by the time I got to the sixth part of the book and saw its title ‘The Hard Problem,’ I nearly had to put my Kindle down. So all the suicides and societal declines, civil war, birth issues, and diseases that the spacefarers had faced so far weren’t as hard as what was to come? Good lord! But I carried on. Robinson is always an extremely intelligent and intriguing writer, but some patience is required to read through his stuff. Then again, this patience is always rewarded. In the end, Aurora was a very thought-provoking read, and I think it will stick with me for a while.

One of the most intriguing parts of the book is that—for the most part—it’s told by the spacefarers’ starship, which is semi-sentient and practically omniscient (because it has so many sensor devices scattered throughout its insides). At first, this makes the ship a typical 3rd-person omniscient narrator. Then the ship’s nascent A.I. complains that it doesn’t have the artistic qualities or even just the prioritization and self-editing skills needed to create an appealing narrative. And indeed, many parts of the novel are told in a somewhat distant, meandering style. Eventually, the ship learns more about humanity from its subjects, and for a while it even begins philosophizing for long tracts of the book. Depending on what you’ve thought of the book so far, you might find these passages imminently skippable, or captivating.

The narrative often turns esoteric. Robinson namedrops all kinds of scientific theories and concepts, and often he doesn’t explain what these concepts are. For a lay-person such as myself, these terms are like fascinating stumbling blocks.
Eventually I started highlighting the terms so that I could list some of them:
Zeno’s Paradox
Femi’s Paradox
The pathetic fallacy
Greedy algorithms
Halting problems
Winograd Schema
Exceptionalist fallacy
Jevon’s paradox
The two-body Kepler problem
Barker’s equation

Sometimes I have trouble quantifying what is ‘Hard Sci-Fi.’ I don’t have any doubts that Aurora qualifies. It is a challenging read, but it also has a strong vein of veracity and courage running through its core. Even though Robinson’s view of phychics and biology is unflinchingly rational, his view of the human spirit (throughout all his work) is unfailingly compassionate and optimistic.

Favorite books: Winter 2014

Apparently, for me, this winter was all about sci-fi space operas. I read three novels, and they were all great.

2312

2312

2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson 
This book and the next focused stuck to action within the boundaries of our own solar systems. Robinson in particular seems very pessimistic on the idea of humans EVER making the jump to interstellar travel. A complaint that I saw again and again about this book is that it skimped on character and plot in favor of developing incredible set pieces. I can understand this complaint, but that doesn’t change the fact that the set pieces are INCREDIBLE. You’re got:

– Ecospheres on the tubular insides of spinning asteroids. (Imagine standing inside a rolled up map—except the fields and cities and lakes that are around and above you are all real.)
-Astronauts bodysurfing in a wake of ice-chunks in the rings of Saturn
-A flooded New York that’s become a Venetian utopia (Who says all climate change is bad? Not Postal Service!)
-A city-on-rails that constantly moves to straddle the line between the shady and the (brutally) sunny side of Mercury. That line is called a terminator. I did not know that.

A volcanic planet. A sea planet. A dust planet. Who needs warp drive when we’ve got so many amazing (and real) locales right here in our own ecliptic? Robinson explores them all, and the result is awe-inspiring. Also, there’s something about evil terrorist computers who like to play bocce balls? That part was OK too.

leviathanwakes

Leviathan Wakes

Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey
This book has two protagonists who start off (at least in my mind) being nearly indistinguishable. Both are bright guys who are too independent-minded to advance to the upper-tiers of their profession (one is an executive officer on a commercial spacecraft and the other is a police detective). Like most average-joe types in a sci-fi/fantasy book, these guys are swept up into extreme, world-shaking events, and this is when each character’s unique flaws are exposed. At the point when the crewman and detective meet, they are already on diverging, well-developed character arcs. One of them clings to his idealistic principles (sometimes to the point of foolishness); the other descends into obsession and ruthlessness.

The action really pops, and the story never meanders, which tells me the author(s) are really strong at outlining their plot. I’m looking forward to seeing what Corey has planned for the rest of the series.

surfacedetail

Surface Detail

Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks
This was my first time reading a novel by Iain M. Banks, and I have to say at first I felt like I had missed something. The first five chapters of this book gave me whiplash. The stabbing of a sex-slave! A medieval castle siege! A terrorist attack in space! The resurrection of said sex-slave! And Hell-ephants! (Of course, those are an alien species of elephants who been banished to their own alien version of Hell)!

After a while, all of these trippy plotlines coalesce around a central concept: The idea that (with enough advanced technology) a person’s consciousness can be copied and downloaded into something else. You’ve probably seen this before (Lawnmower Man, Freejack, Avatar, Inception, and perhaps most horrifically, in the Kirk Cameron vehicle Like Father Like Son). But Mr. Banks takes this idea one step further: Why not copy everyone’s psyches so that we all can live on after our physical bodies fail? And if you’re really into the idea of spiritual retribution, why not send (un)deserving souls to a virtual-reality version of Hell?

Some alien societies see these virtual Hells as a logical manifestation of their religion. Others think they’re the equivalent of eternal concentration camps. Hmmm. Lxet’s have a galactic war about it! Awesome! The ideas, action, dialog, and descriptions in this book were all brilliant. Surface Detail might not have been the most noob-friendly introduction to Bank’s ‘Culture’ world, but it definitely hooked me. Now I just have to figure out who is Mr. Zakalwe. The Culture’s version of Ron Burgundy?