Thursday, August 29, 2013

There's Always Time for the End of the World

The Fuller Memorandum
Charles Stross
Ace, 2011
ISBN 044102050X

The world isn’t what we think it is. There are secrets known only to a few of us, and if you stumbled across them you might go insane.

That’s the rational behind a particular subgenre of urban fantasy that includes such diverse fare as the successful Will Smith vehicle Men in Black and Tim Powers’ fantastic Three Days to Never. The genre is itself a branch off the horror story genre.

The Fuller Memorandum, book three of the Laundry Files, holds true to the best form of this type of story. Our intrepid hero, Bob Howard (not his real name), is an agent working for Her Majesty’s Occult Service, where he deals with everything from random hauntings to demonic possession. But there’s a leak in his department, and he’s the bait. Before long everything goes fantastically pear shaped, which is the best way for stories like this to go. After all, what’s more horrifying than finding that your best laid plans are missing essential details, or have been anticipated by the enemy?

I had read a Laundry Files short story a little while ago, but none of the novels. I’m also a big fan of Stross’s stories, and this story was no disappointment. Stross writes a judicious mix of first person account (as Bob Howard’s memoirs) and third person (framed as later reconstruction), all set in the familiar streets of London that turn into a maze beset by crazed cultists. The book makes occasional references to the Lovecraft mythos (like Bob Howard’s pseudonym), without making this a Lovecraft fanfic. The tone is light and chatty - Bob Howard explains that’s necessary to keep him from going insane from the horror - but that doesn’t lessen the tension one bit.

One particular feature of the story, the main villain, was especially fun. This is a character that starts out in a good light in the story, and not until the last few dozen pages is the villain’s identity revealed. The best villains don’t actually believe they’re doing anything wrong - can’t make omelettes without breaking a few eggs - and this villain is no exception.

Although The Fuller Memorandum is book three in a series, it’s perfectly readable without having read the previous two books. For that matter, The Apocalypse Codex, the fourth book in the series has just hit the shelves. Unless you need to satisfy your OCD itch not to read books in a series out of order, you should be OK to just dive into that one.

And dive in you should.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

If I picked the Hugos, 2013 Edition

I just realized today that I've read all the nominees! Woohoo!

Well, let's have a look, in no particular order.

Mira Grant's Blackout came out early last year, and I read it on the spot. It's number three of her "Newsflesh" series, an innovative and fun zombie thriller that follows the lives of a team of professional bloggers. In book three, a number of reveals have already happened, and the one that remains is unmasking the conspiracy that has been driving the zombie infestations. The heroes bring it off, although they can't avoid a tragic death.

John Scalzi's Redshirts is a fantasy about getting writers of TV shows to give their characters a bit more thought. The title makes fun of the observation that many Star Trek fans have made that characters who join the captain on a mission, but who wear a red shirt, have a terrible life expectancy. Well, Ensign Dahl is quickly clued in how to avoid falling prey to bad writing, but tragedy still strikes. Dahl contrives to journey to the Real Worldtm, where he and his friends confront the people responsible for their meaningless lives.

Lois McMaster Bujold's latest entry Captain Vorpatril's Alliance is another addition to her "Vorkosigan Saga." It concerns Captain Ivan Vorpatril, an easygoing fellow her fans met earlier in A Civil Campaign, who once again gets unwillingly dragged into an adventure by Byerly Vorrutyer, whom fans also met in the earlier book. Ivan is the sort of guy all guys wish they could be - competent, cool under pressure, able to see through mind bending plots - and apparently is being shoved into a bit of a screwball romantic comedy in this case. There's some danger to life and limb, especially towards the end, but as long as we get the requisite happy ending, it's all cool.

Kim Stanley Robinson's decidedly hard SF entry 2312, set, obviously, 300 years in the future follows a handful of characters around the solar system, a place that's at the same time exotic and familiar, well settled and filled with intrigue. The story starts with a death, and intimations are that the death wasn't entirely natural. When that event is quickly followed by what appears to be a sophisticated terrorist attack, our characters head off in various directions with varying levels of purposefulness to try and nab the bad guys.

And, finally, there's Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon, a Dungeons and Dragon-esque adventure in the world of One-thousand-and-one Arabian Nights. Wizard Adoulla, with the help of a holy fighter and a shapeshifting desert girl, faces down an evil wizard who has designs on the khalif's throne. The story has a number of battles and finishes with a battle royal at the khalif's palace.

I had a soft spot for Blackout. The second book in that series, Deadline concerned itself with several interesting philosophical questions, and I thought Mira Grant (Seanan McGuire) just rocked the zombie world with a refreshing take on the science of becoming a zombie, and on the politics that might arise in such a world. Sadly, her conspiracy driven finale fell short of my expectations. Conspiracies are difficult things to write well, and I got the distinct impression that she was letting herself get sloppy, when compared to the tight plotting of the first two novels. Still, it was an excellent book.

John Scalzi writes some cracking good yarns, and Redshirts was a fun read, as well, but it was more a fannish love letter to Star Trek and the like than it was what I would think of as a serious SF&F story. Yes, the story had to be written, and, yes, I'm glad I read it. I compare it favorably with many stories. But because it's mostly an in-joke with some thinly disguised advice to writers, I think it falls short of my admittedly idiosyncratic requirements for a Hugo nominee. That it got nominated is more due to the love fans have for Scalzi the author, I think, than for the quality of this book.

Lois McMaster Bujold's "Vorkosigan" series has such a strong following, that she pretty much only has to publish another book in the series, and her fans will push her into the short list. That's not a slam, but it means that she's had some fairly weak offerings get nominated, like her novel Cryoburn, which I reviewed a few years ago. Happily, Captain Vorpatril's Alliance is a much stronger book than Cryoburn, though setting is still a bit weak, giving us generic city scapes with only a little better sense of place than she managed in the earlier book. But the characters are more fleshed out, and even the somewhat one-sided female characters she introduces are given more stage time. Still, this book falls short for me.

I reviewed Saladin Ahmed's Kingdom of the Crescent Moon earlier. When I describe it as a Dungeons and Dragon-esque adventure, I don't mean it as a slam, but the tropes are transparent enough that anyone familiar with the game will recognize it. What made me happy about the story is that here I had a sword and sorcery fantasy that was not set in a Euro-centric medieval world. We need more like that, and I'd be happy to see this book win for that reason.

However, Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312 is a true tour-de-force. This is a book with well thought out and well fleshed out characters. It's got plotting, oh heavens it's got plotting. It's got setting, yessir, complete with surfing the frickin' rings of Saturn. And it's hard SF. OK, I'm told the market for hard SF is a fraction of the market for fantasy. That only makes me love this book more: Robinson has not knocked off just another copy of write-by-the-numbers novel. I know all authors pour a little bit of their very soul into their books, but with this book, it shows. Yes, 2312 also won the Nebula this year, but, hell, it deserved it.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Prickly Propositions

Justice for Hedgehogs
Ronald Dworkin (1931-2013)
Harvard University Press, 2011
ISBN 978-0-674-04671-9

Morals or ethics are contentious issues that seem to divide us (the people sharing the most general forms of Western Civilization) into two distinct camps.

On the one hand there are those who say their guidance to moral behavior is received from a higher power, as transmitted to us by inspired men and women in past ages. On the other, there are those who claim that all behavioral rules are socially constructed, and none are intrinsically better than any others. The disagreements between these two camps are what shape much of the culture wars of the past few decades.

Ronald Dworkin stepped into this affray to say that both sides are completely wrong. The title of this book refers to Archilochus' surviving quip, "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." Dworkin means to prove that there is a unity of value (one big thing that the hedgehog knows) that we can use to arrive at true rules for moral and ethical behavior (he makes a distinction between the two). He argues that, once this set of true rules has been described, the moral and ethical rules for politics and laws become clear, as well. It's a tall order, and he starts by demolishing the case of the multiculturalists, the moral relativists, and anyone else who might dispute that it is possible to make true statements about morals or ethics.

It's a tall order.

"I will not rely on any assumption that a theory is sound just because it fits with other theories we also find agreeable."
Everything is up for grabs, but he wants to arrive at an objective truth. He's totally serious about the objectivity of this truth, and spends a considerable amount of time discussing truth in its various forms.

Dworkin nails down one principle first and foremost: Hume's Guillotine.

"[Hume's Principle] requires us to reject the Enlightenment's epistemological code for the moral domains."
This was a surprising move for me. E.O. Wilson, writing in Consilience, felt certain that the unity of knowledge had to lead to an understanding of ethics. Sam Harris in The Moral Landscape argues that answering questions about ethics by definition means acting so other people don't come to harm, and to the extent that it is possible, ensuring that people in general flourish.

But Dworkin means to carve out a new path. In the case of morals and ethics, he says, Hume's Principle doesn't allow us to look for physical evidence that we have arrived at a true statement. (He coins the amusing term "morons" to describe particles that might determine moral truths, the way protons, neutrons, and electrons determine physical truths.) Instead, he says, we must use interpretive reasoning, which he describes as a collaborative process (a social construction, in other words), which has explanatory power (accounts for why we say some act is a moral or ethical act), and conceptually is consistent with other parts of the web of moral truths that we are building.

He makes the unique distinction between morals and ethics (this is to make his arguments easier to organize, not because his use of the words is somehow more correct) that morals are rules that govern our behavior towards other people, and ethics are rules that govern our behavior towards ourselves. He starts by looking at morals, where he uses as his foundation Kant's notion that a moral truth should not depend on any benefit that being moral might bring.

As I was reading this book I found that his closely reasoned synthesis made a lot of sense. I didn't agree with him in every detail, but certainly a lot of notions that had been floating around in my head became better defined and better understood. I certainly agreed with most of the political program that he derived from his moral and ethical principles - particularly where he argues that a political community is by its very nature coercive, so it must avoid intruding on the ethical realm of people (their behavior towards themselves), while still showing equal concern for all citizens (the moral end of the business).

But the fact that I agreed with him here also raised a danger flag. He had arrived here by proposing a principle that, to me, seemed eminently sensible: the Golden Rule. But the Golden Rule is only a small part of what many people use to make moral decisions. The recently developed Moral Foundations Theory, just by way of example, attempts to explain the wide divergence of moral behavior across cultures by referring to six distinct instincts according to which people make moral decisions. The Golden Rule makes use of just some of them: Care/Harm and Fairness/Cheating, and perhaps Liberty/Oppression. This raised the important question of which principles someone to whom these other instincts were more important would start with. Recent studies seem to show that in particular Conservatives depend a lot more on the other instincts, particularly Sanctity/Degradation. Dworkin would expect a Hassidic Jew to build his interpretive web on something other than the Talmud, arguing that by Hume's Principle an inspired person (someone with an intution for moral truths, in other words) cannot exist. But that doesn't mean that it isn't possible to create moral principles that have equal standing with the Golden Rule, and express concerns for Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity. (They don't disappear under Dworkin's treatment, but they certainly don't hold pride of place.)

It surprised me a little to find that, while Dworkin admitted that this interpretive process may lead to more than one set of moral and ethical truths, he carried through his particular program with single mindedness. Not only that, but Dworkin's attack on establishment moral philosophy must have been such a surprise that few people challenged him on that point, even though, prior to his publication, he invited comments from pretty much the entire world, and held a major symposium where his book was critiqued quite mercilessly. Yes, this is moral philosophy with peer review.

But that flaw aside, this book must be one of the most important books on moral philosophy published in the past 100 years. Even if you think you'd rather hang your hat on received moral rules (e.g. Qur'an, Bhagavad Gita, Doctrine and Covenants, Kojiki, etc - the fact that you may realize there are some that I'm leaving out makes my point here, as well as Dworkin's), you'll want to brave the dojo of moral philosophy.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Here's Sand in Your Tropes!

Throne of the Crescent Moon
Saladin Ahmed
Penguin, 2012
ISBN 0756407117

The standard fantasy has a medieval setting. This standard is so pervasive that Orson Scott Card writes that he wasn't able to sell a science fiction story to a science fiction publisher because it started in a medieval setting.

That's not the worst of it, though. The worst of it is that standard fantasy has a Eurocentric medieval setting. Even when authors go to great pains to draw maps of non-existent places where the story takes place, it remains essentially Europe, somewhere between a thousand and five hundred years ago.

For me any change in that is welcome, so I knew I was going to enjoy Ahmed's story as soon as I started reading. OK, so it's the obligatory medieval setting, with powerful rulers and powerful magic users and powerful fighters. You can practically hear the D and D dice roll, though I don't mean it in disrespect. It's just so very standard, it requires no explanation, which is partly why authors write this way.

Adoulla and his loyal assistant Raseed set out to deal with some ghuls that reportedly killed most of a family. They meet up with Zamia, a desert warrior who can shapeshift into a powerful lion. As they compare notes, they realize that they are up against the most powerful evil wizard they had ever encountered. Of course, the wizard knows where they live...

What set this story apart for me was that Ahmed had set it in a fantasy Muslim kingdom. The language and setting were all beautifully done, and required no effort on my part to immerse myself into this world. It's vaguely reminiscent of A Thousand and One Nights, which provides an element of familiarity for readers from the West.

But Ahmed doesn't simply mine Sheherezade's stories. I found his story full of fresh new ideas, new to me, certainly, but also new to the genre. This is a well written book that ought to set a standard for what authors try to write in the future. It's got fighting and loving and magic and horrible creatures, if you're into excitement. And it has some great characters, like Adoulla, the crude wizard, or Zamia, the shape shifting desert woman. Though in places the story reads a bit like a Dungeons and Dragons adventure module, the writing is so good that even those of us familiar with that game should be willing to overlook it.

Throne of the Crescent Moon was the fourth of the 2013 Hugo nominees that I read. I highly recommend it.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Diamonds in the Sky

Kim Stanley Robinson
Orbit, 2012
ISBN 0316098124

Three hundred years ago, in 1713, the schooner was the height of technology. If you had talked to people back then, even scientists like Descartes or Newton, they would have been unlikely to predict our world today: computers, cell phones, satellites, orbiting laboratories, molecular cancer treatments, laser surgery - that's just a very partial list of technological features of the early 21st century of which even knowledgeable people three hundred years ago would have had no inkling.

It's not any different now. Science fiction is seen by many as a genre of predictive fiction, and yet only rarely do writers manage to predict the future. Heinlein thought that by 2000 we'd be living on the Moon. Fifty years seemed like plenty of time to him to go from Braun's experimental rockets to lunar settlements. And if he completely misjudged the shape of the future, he's in excellent company.

If Robinson worried about getting the future wrong, he's given himself plenty of room. But it's a lovely future he's painting. 2312 has people living all over the solar system, with access to practically unlimited energy, from solar power stations in close orbit around the Sun to exotic technologies like fusion and antimatter. We travel in hollow asteroids filled with miniature ecologies on cometary orbits between the planets, and life extension is available so that we may live to be almost 200 years old, or older, depending on the subspecies of humanity we belong to.

But as Robinson lets us peer more closely at this paradisaical future, the worm in the apple becomes apparent. People are still people, and we still manage to act out on our less lovely emotions. So it happens that the story's heroine, Swan, and her companion Wahram barely survive a deadly attack on Terminator, Swan's home city on Mercury. As Swan, Wahram, and the diminutive Inspector Genette are on the trail of the attackers, more of the worm is revealed. This is especially evident on Earth, where banditry seems to be common and where political and tribal rivalries make life on the solar system's single most hospital planet more precarious than in some tiny terrarium whizzing about the Sun.

So there's plenty going on. But Robinson doesn't stop there. In Swan and Wahram he serves up two of the best realized characters in fiction. Swan is a complex woman, mercurial in the proverbial sense. She is believable as a woman with two lifetimes worth of experience, and her self discovery in the course of this story is nevertheless fascinating. Wahram, as saturnine as Swan is mercurial, makes the perfect contrast in their pas-de-deux, as he looks for routine in life, rather than disruptions. It is hard to imagine an unlikelier couple, and Robinson brings it off without a hitch. I think if 2312 turns out to be as different from the world of this story as the year 2000 was from Heinlein's imaginings, this book will still be worth reading then if only for this well done love story.

To be sure, the story has a couple of features that I didn't fully understand. There are a number of interludes, one or two between each chapter, with headings like "Lists" or "Excerpts." The first is lists of words, things, or ideas, without any narrative connection, though usually tied to some aspect of the foregoing chapter. I thought of them as a bit like illustrations between chapters. The excerpts are written as quoted passages, starting in the middle of a sentence, and ending in the middle of another, each passage providing some information, and the entire section serving as an info dump for 2312. I didn't think these parts were necessary, since science fiction for a long time now has traded in a set of familiar tropes, and this story is no different.

Then there were three interludes with the heading "Quantum Walk," which were more closely connected to the story, but I didn't realize the connection until well towards the end of the book. I had to go back and re-read those three sections. They made an interesting sidelight to the story for various reasons. I have not figured out if I can say the same thing about the "Lists" or the "Excerpts." Suffice it to say that they weren't intrusive, so I didn't see them as detracting from the overall story. I did notice the similarity between these interludes and Brin's interludes in Existence, and wondered if there was a new style developing. (Probably not, though.)

2312 was the third of the 2013 Hugo nominees that I read. I liked it a lot.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Shouting into Silent Space

David Brin
Tor Books, 2012
ISBN 0765303612

A little over 60 years ago, so the story goes, Enrico Fermi pointed out a problem with our thinking about the universe. Our Sun, he said, is actually quite young. There are billions of stars in our galaxy that are much older. Around our Sun it seems life evolved rather quickly. We don't know of any reason why Earth should be special in that regard. There should be millions of planets in our galaxy that offer similar advantages.

If we accept those premises, then there's a painfully obvious question we should be asking ourselves: where is everybody?!

Since then many scientists have offered up theories to explain the Great Silence. Not least among them is David Brin. After holding forth on the topic thirty years ago, Existence is a fictional treatment of his thinking on the matter.

The story takes place a few decades in our future, when orbital worker Gerald Livingstone retrieves an artifact that turns out to have come from a non-human civilization. As the story develops, the alien civilization that sent us the artifact turns out to pose an unforeseen danger to humanity, and various actors on Brin's stage struggle to save humanity's future.

In spite of a large number of interruptions where Brin in the persona of "Pandora's Oracle" muses on the reasons why a technological civilization might not survive to colonize the galaxy (one of the obvious explanations for the Great Silence), the story is well paced. There is a large cast of well developed characters, though some of the more important ones seem to sneak up from the sidelines, like Peng Xiang Bin's wife and child. It is clear by the end of the book that, while writing an entertaining story was certainly one of Brin's goals, it's those interruptions that were the greater purpose.

Brin is one of those SF authors mother used to warn you about. His SF is political. Until Existence the stories weren't obviously political, but it seems that this time Brin had a number of messages he wanted to get off his chest, and he crammed them into the book. He's done that before, for example with Earth, and with Kiln People, both books which clearly repeated points Brin had made at various occasions. But Existence is different, in that rather than telling a story that includes a larger point, this book explains a larger point and makes it palatable by wrapping it in a story.

Brin's politics aren't easily categorized. He blogs as a contrarian, which is apt if you agree with him that every currently fashionable political view in general use in the States and around the world ignores various inconvenient facts about human nature. If you have strong views on political topics, you will knock heads with Brin, no matter what your views are. That makes Existence a little difficult to swallow for many readers. Not only is the story not your typical genre fiction, but there are political ideas in there that Brin defends quite forcefully.

I did enjoy the book. But I know this book isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013


Diogenes lived in a barrel, about 2,400 years ago, as everyone knows. He was the original cynic, named for living like a dog. We now take "cynic" to mean someone who questions everyone's motives, and perhaps has himself questionable motives. But Diogenes questioned everyone's values. It is said that he was looking for a single honest man, but that he never found one. He lived in a barrel because he wanted to live a simple life, without possessions. And thereby hangs a tale told by one of the earliest writers of illustrated verse and prose, Wilhelm Busch, whom some credit with being the inventor of the comic strip. You'll want to find the story for yourself. I've just included a picture of the relevant panel.

I used to maintain a fairly large personal site, first on GeoCities, which was bought by Yahoo, and when they shut down their personal sites I moved it to some other server, where it kinda languished. Trouble with these sites is that there isn't much to motivate me to keep them up.

While it was sitting on GeoCities/Yahoo I used it to learn about site design. The site evolved from the typical GeoCities look (too many pictures, and a lot of vicarious mark-up), to one that was fairly sparse with the pictures, and used HTML5/CSS3 standards (before they were standards).

Most of the site was dedicated to book reviews. I started writing book reviews to help me remember which books I'd read. Most of them were short, one or two-line items. But where I was able to think of more to say, I put the review up on my site.

This blog will be dedicated to more book reviews. I'll also try to figure out a way to resurrect the older reviews. We'll see how that works.