Monday, July 27, 2015

Read-Along: Full Fathom Five by Max Gladstone, Part 2

Welcome to part two of the read-along of Max Gladstone’s Full Fathom Five!  This week’s host is Lynn of Little Lion Lynnet's, and her questions cover chapters 14-32.  Keep in mind that spoilers up through chapter 32 are fair game in the comments below! As always, feel free to join in on our goodreads group.

1) So Margot too is hoping that Izza can lead him to the Blue Lady. What do you make of his vision? Especially in relation to the nightmares that Kai is having. Do you think they're related?

I’m pretty convinced at this point that all of this is connected to the idols in the pool.  I’m a little unclear on whether Seven Alpha and the Blue Lady are the same entity, or whether Seven Alpha was created from the remains of the Blue Lady.  If the first case is true, then does that mean Izza and the other children were also benefits of her grace, and the Blue Lady died for them when Seven Alpha died?  Either way, it seems like the idol is not completely gone.  I’m wondering if this is a case where a deity is barely saved by the faith of just a few followers (Izza, Margot, Kai?).

2) Teo! Did anyone expect to see Teo? What role do you think she'll play in the rest of the story?

I was not expecting Teo!  She’s shown up twice now, so I can’t imagine it’s just a cameo.  She must have some role to play.  I’m wondering if her pilgrim status is actually just a cover, and there’s something else she’s trying to investigate in Kavekana.  She seemed very keen to see the idols, after all.

3) Kai is worried that Mara has set her up. Do you think it likely?

My guess is that Mara is in a tough spot, and she saw Kai as a potential help.  She probably wanted to get that evidence out of the mountain, and when Kai showed up she realized she had a convenient way to do just that.  It also could have been a way to get Kai to investigate without explicitly asking her (for deniability).  I don’t think she’s setting Kai up, but I do think she’s trying to use Kai while protecting herself.

4) It seems everyone is having discussions of faith with one another. That's not particularly surprising given the tenor of the books, I know, but still. How does what we've learned from Cat and Margot in these chapters affect your feelings on the idea of gods, Craft or Idols that Allie asked?

I don’t think it has really changed my preference, but idols are beginning to seem more and more like enslaved gods.  I mean, they do the same things gods do, but with no choice.  Even if the idol chose to help Margot and Izza, people will see it as Margot and Izza stealing grace.  

5) We're getting a better idea of what Penitence means for the people of Kavekana. What do you think of their idea of punishment now that you have a better idea of how it works?
Cruel and unusual? That’s my first thought.  It sounds like they are basically put through physical and mental torture until they’re at the point where they would believe anything if it would make it stop.  There has got to be a better way to rehabilitate criminals, especially since I get the impression from Izza that teenagers get tossed into those things just for petty theft or hanging with the wrong crowd.

6) Kai has built up an idea of what's going on, but what do you think happened? Did Margot really steal soul without realising it or is there something else going on?

I think Kai is mostly right, except that I suspect Seven Alpha has a conscious mind.  It seems to me like Margot did not steal soul, Seven Alpha gave him her grace.  I think Kai is missing this because she does not believe the idols have any agency of their own.

Other Things:

--Even if Margot is in trouble, I think getting her ex-boyfriend to incarcerate him with no charges is not the way to go…

--Also, it seems like things are not quite over between Kai and Claude. It seems like he’s a mistake she just can’t stop making :(.

--Kai was right, she’s a pretty dreadful salesperson. That’s another reason I’m sure Teo has an ulterior motive.

--Wouldn’t that just be awful if Makawe actually did return from the wars, but the people of Kavekana enslaved him into an idol?

--That’s pretty cool that the priests go to work on a volcano by cable car.  Kai talks about it as if it’s completely mundane, but it’s really neat when you stop to think about it.

Also check out the answers of the other participants!

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Review: The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu

The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu (Translated by Ken Liu)
English Publication: Tor, 2014
Series: Book 1 of the Three-Body Trilogy
Awards Nominated: Nebula, Campbell, Locus SF and Prometheus Awards
Awards Won: Hugo Award

The Book:

“Ye Wenjie lived through China’s Cultural Revolution, and the acts she witnessed have destroyed her faith in humanity.  She found political safety in a secret military project, but it was also there that she committed her ultimate act of betrayal.

Years later, the world is involved in a secret war, and some of the first casualties are scientists who have taken their own lives.  Nanomaterials engineer Wang Miao is pulled into the command center, but is initially provided with very little information about their enemies or even their methods of attack.  The truth may be found through a strange game, known as Three Body, which immerses the player in a world where the usual patterns of day and night are seemingly unpredictable and deadly.” ~Allie  

The Three Body Problem is the first book I’ve read by Cixin Liu, and I believe it is his first work translated into English.  I don’t seem to be capable of talking about The Three Body Problem without including lots of spoilers, so the review below will be full of them. If you don’t want spoilers, skip to the summary paragraph.

My Thoughts:

The Three Body Problem is an interesting take on a classic science fiction story, that of first contact with an alien civilization.  The build-up to revealing the first contact, though, makes up a large portion of the book.  Instead of focusing on the aliens themselves, the novel examines more closely the effect their existence would have on humanity.  For instance, Ye Wenjie no longer has faith in humanity, so she chooses to have faith instead in an unknown alien race.  She is not the only one who does so. While the aliens are not present, the characters are able to gain some understanding of them through the enigmatic Three Body game, which presents how life and civilization might develop in a chaotic (tri-solar) system. I enjoyed all of the scientific and philosophical discussions that arose from these ideas, and I was also intrigued by the apparent breakdown of fundamental physics that made up the central mystery of the novel.

As you might guess, the story is more idea-driven than character- or plot-driven.  There were long stretches, especially within the game, which primarily exist for the introduction and explanation of various ideas about society and physics. Even when the resolution of the novel arrives, the information is given to the characters through documents, discussion, and lecture.  The information could sometimes be a little dry, and the sense of distance I felt from the characters did not help.  The main protagonist, Wang Miao, is mostly a passive observer, existing to witness events and contemplate them.  Ye Wenjie was much more complicated, and I was shocked by some of her actions.  Even with Wenjie, though, I felt like I was watching the characters from the outside.  Still, I was sufficiently interested in the ideas presented that I was always eager to return to reading.

When the secret behind the central mystery was revealed, it was a bit of a letdown for me. While a few of the scientific ideas are pretty farfetched, I enjoyed that most of the novel seemed to have a pretty reasonable idea of the process of science. The early hints in the story led me to believe that the problem leading scientists to suicide was going to be one of fundamental science.  Instead, the story moves into a fever dream of particle physics, and the final conclusion is basically “near-omniscient, near-omnipotent beings did it”.  I was expecting an answer a little more grounded in science, and instead it felt like everything was laid at the feet of an essentially supernatural external influence. Despite this, I am curious to see where the story will go from here.

My Rating: 3.5/5

The Three Body Problem takes an interesting perspective on a familiar science fiction story, with an interesting focus on science and philosophy.  The involvement with China’s Cultural Revolution brought to life a period of Chinese history with which I am only passing familiar, and I was fascinated by the look into such a different social and political landscape. I also enjoyed the focus on physics, particularly on the attempts to solve the three body problem itself, and the way the implications of that problem were wound through the novel. Though I thought that the main characters seemed a little distant and the conclusion was somewhat disappointing, I am curious to see where the trilogy will go next.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Read-Along: Full Fathom Five by Max Gladstone, Part 1

I have joined a read-along of Max Gladstone’s Full Fathom Five, which starts today!  I apologize for not posting an announcement in advance, but time has gotten the better of me this week.  Anyhow, an excellent group of bloggers have been reading the Craft sequence together, the first two of which (Three Parts Dead and Two Serpents Rise) I have reviewed here on Tethyan Books.  I’m excited to join them for the third book!  If you’d like to also join in, we have a group on goodreads, here. Since this is the kick-off post, here is the premise of the novel from goodreads:

“On the island of Kavekana, Kai builds gods to order, then hands them to others to maintain. Her creations aren’t conscious and lack their own wills and voices, but they accept sacrifices, and protect their worshippers from other gods—perfect vehicles for Craftsmen and Craftswomen operating in the divinely controlled Old World.

When Kai sees one of her creations dying and tries to save her, she’s grievously injured—then sidelined from the business entirely, her near-suicidal rescue attempt offered up as proof of her instability. But when Kai gets tired of hearing her boss, her coworkers, and her ex-boyfriend call her crazy, and starts digging into the reasons her creations die, she uncovers a conspiracy of silence and fear—which will crush her, if Kai can’t stop it first.”

The schedule for Full Fathom Five is as follows:

Week 1: July 20 Ch 1-13 (pg 102) - Allie (Me!)
Week 2: July 27 Ch 14-32 (pg 204) - Lynn at Lynn’s Books
Week 3: August 3 Ch 33-50 (pg 302) - Heather at The Bastard Title
Week 4: August 10 Ch 50-62 (pg 382) - Lisa at Over the Effing Rainbow

As you can see, I’m the host this week, and I’ve put together some questions on the first 13 chapters.  Bear in mind that spoilers up to chapter 13 are fair game in the questions and answers below.  In a couple of places, there may also be mild spoilers of Three Parts Dead, and I will try to label those for convenience. In related news, the latest Craft novel, Last First Snow, just came out on July 14th, and it is entirely possible that it will be the target of another read-along sometime soon. Now, on to the discussion!

1) Kai kicks off the story by risking her life in an attempt to save the idol Seven Alpha. Why do you think she chose to try? Do you think idols are truly non-sentient?

I feel like this is going to be an important point as we move forward in the story, but I don’t completely understand the motivation for her actions right now.  I had first thought she was worried for her friend, Mara, but it seemed like the idol’s death was going to be more of a setback than a career-ender for her. Then, I thought that maybe Kai suspected the idol of being sentient, but she was really surprised when she heard it speak.  I considered that maybe she was just confident that she would succeed, but she didn’t seem fazed by the fact that she almost died in the attempt.  Now, I’m wondering if Jace might be right, and she is engaging in risky behavior due to the pain of her breakup with Claude. It seems like it must be more than that, though.

I believe that the idols are sentient, mostly because that would make their whole industry morally questionable in a way that would be interesting for the story.  Also, I believe in Kai’s conviction that Seven Alpha did speak!

2) I think this is the first time we've seen idols, and they have their similarities and differences to gods and craftsmen. Do you think they serve a useful purpose? If you were in this world, would you prefer faith, Craft, or idols?

Of course these are connected in some ways, since Craftspeople use idols as tools. [SPOILER TPD] The idols remind me uncomfortably of Justice from Three Parts Dead, and the damaging effect that Justice had on her followers. [/SPOILER]  I can see how the idols might be necessary, since so much of their world involves contracts with deific power, and many of the deities were killed in the war.

For myself, I like the idea of Craft, but I’m not sure I would want to become a skeleton Craftswoman.  I also think the idols are vaguely creepy at this point, and I’m not sure about the ethics of making them (this depends on whether they are really sentient or not).  I am a Christian person, so I would like to think, in this fantasy world, that I would be off in some peaceful corner untouched by the Wars, keeping my faith.  

3) I found it interesting that priests/priestesses are able to change or reform their bodies in the pool, during their initiation. If it were possible, would you want to make use of this power or not?

Yes, absolutely!  I like myself in general, but there are specific flaws I have often fantasized about magically correcting (Perhaps this is a common thing for women to think about?).  For instance, as a not-so-private example, I would love to correct my nearsightedness/astigmatism.  I know there’s a surgery for that now, but it is obviously not as safe and permanent as magic would be :D.
4) A few familiar faces show up from Three Parts Dead, Cat and Ms. Kevarian! Is this how you would have expected them to be living, after the events of that novel? [SPOILERS FOR TPD ALL THROUGH ANSWER]

It was nice to see Ms. Kevarian again, though she seemed very cold.  I guess that’s more or less the norm for her, but I’m a little surprised she’s an antagonist here.  As for Cat, I am full of sadness.  I was hoping she would be able to turn her life around and master her addictions.  Instead, it looks like her new goddess was too demanding, and it was destroying her.  I hope she can get back on her feet, finally, by the end of this book.  

5) Izza is in a difficult situation; she wants to take care of the other street children, but she also wants to protect herself. What do you think of how she is attempting to meet both goals? Do you think she was right to stop leading the stories and rituals for the other children?

I think she is extremely young to have to balance her own needs and the needs of her ‘children’ like this, and I’m pretty sad about the crappy hand life has dealt her so far.  I agree with her that she needs to get off the island-- the penitents sound awful! I also think she has to realize that all her pickpocketing will not help the children for the long term. I think her heart is in the right place, at least, and I respect that she feels obligated to try to care for the people she has to leave behind.

I got the feeling that she stopped the stories because she felt that the hope they gave the younger kids was false.  She just didn’t have the strength to be their source of hope anymore.  I don’t know if I can say whether it was a good decision or not, at this point.  There’s not much the kids can do to improve their situation right now, so I think they needed the stories for comfort.

6) There is a lot that is hinted near the end of this section, with the line "Howl, Bound World" and the poet Edmond Margot. What do you think it is that ties together Seven Alpha, Kai, Izza, and Margot?

I do not know yet, but speculation is fun!  Izza and the other children followed a goddess that they said was dead, the Blue Lady.  Is it possible that this deity is somehow mostly powerless, but is not actually dead?  Then she is watching over Izza and the others, even if she can do little to help.  

When Izza is captured, something contacts Margot and begs him to help her.  That same something apparently inspires his poetry, and is responsible for the “Howl, Bound World” line.  Maybe the Blue Lady is in some way connected to the idols in the pool (who are maybe the bound souls of mostly-dead gods or something?), and she is only able to communicate with Margot for some reason.  Also, the penitents must be involved somehow, but I haven’t worked that detail out.  Anyway, this is all wild speculation, and I’m excited to get new clues in the next section!

Other Things:

--I still don’t understand what exactly happened in Glebland (politically), but it’s horrible that Izza has already suffered so much.

--Wow, Claude.  How could he think going into his ex-girlfriend’s house uninvited and waiting for her to arrive home from the hospital was a good idea?  He needs to back way off, and she needs to take his key.  On the other hand, I think he really did want to help, and just somehow didn’t realize how inappropriate that was.

--I’m not completely clear about what penitents do to their occupants, but I’m guessing it’s constant torture of some kind.  I don’t really want to find out, so I hope Margot saves Izza before anything horrible happens!

--Jace seems pretty cool.  I know Kai does not appreciate it right now, but I think that was a really good solution for what to do about her.  I especially liked his comment that a personality profile was a guideline for growth, not a list of limitations.

Other Participants:

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Review: King of Morning, Queen of Day by Ian McDonald

King of Morning, Queen of Day by Ian McDonald
Published: Bantam Spectra (1991), Open Road Integrated Media (2013)
Awards Nominated: Locus Fantasy Award
Awards won: Philip K. Dick Award and Prix Imagnales

The Book:

“In early-twentieth-century Ireland, life for Emily Desmond is that of the average teenage girl: She reads, she’s bored with school, and she has a powerful imagination. Then things begin to change. Her imagination is so powerful, in fact, that she wills a faerie into existence—an ability called mythoconsciousness. It’s this power that opens a dangerous door that she will never want to close, and whose repercussions will reverberate across time.

First to be affected is her daughter, Jessica, who, in the mid-1930s, finds that she must face her mother’s power by using the very same gift against her. Then, in [the 1980s], Jessica’s granddaughter, Enye, must end the cycle once and for all—but it may prove too powerful to overcome.”

This is the second novel I’ve read by Ian McDonald, the first being The Dervish House. The subject and style are very different in King of Morning, Queen of Day.  It’s very interesting to see what a range of skill McDonald has, and I am interested to read more of his work.

My Thoughts:

King of Morning, Queen of Day is an unusual style of faerie story.  On the surface, especially with Emily’s story, many of the details are as you might expect: fantastical creatures luring away innocent young girls, and a dangerous portal into faerie.  However, as you get deeper into the explanation of ‘mythoconsciousness’ and how its power manifests in reality, everything begins to feel a lot less like magic and more like paranormal science. This feeling becomes progressively stronger as time moves forward through Jessica’s story and finally to Enye’s.  I think this development is intended to show how faerie adapts to fit into a changing world.  Myths and legends of this sort are not simply discarded, but forced to evolve to reflect the values and beliefs of society.  

The direction these changes take, however, is incredibly dark. Even in Emily’s story, the manifestations were dangerous and capable of considerable harm.  Their violence and danger become more extreme in the next two women’s stories, and they lack any of the caprice or trickster nature that I would naively associate with fairies.  Some of the violence, and one scene of disturbingly sexualized violence, seemed gratuitous to me.  In the end, I was not a huge fan of this general atmosphere of the book, especially as it became progressively grittier moving forward in time.

The novel is split into three stories, each following a different heroine in a different time period of Ireland. Each of the stories feel very grounded in history, and even Emily’s faerie obsession reminded me of the famous historical photo hoax .  While all of the heroines are connected by certain personality traits (impulsiveness, brattiness, disregard for authority), they each are very different women with different relationships with their world and their power.  Even the style of the narrative changes to reflect the personality and era of each of the women.  I found the three sections interesting in terms of seeing how the people and the area changed over time, but I never felt especially emotionally engaged with the characters. Overall,  there is quite a lot to like in King of Morning, Queen of Day, even if it did not completely click with me.

My Rating: 3.5/5

King of Morning, Queen of Day is a fantasy that follows several generations of women in Ireland.  Each of three stories that compose the novel is set in a different time period, and it was interesting to see the differences in the form of the supernatural ‘mythoconsciousness’ and the ways the three heroines respond to their power.  I also enjoyed how the writing style changes to reflect the personality of each heroine, and how the stories feel firmly grounded in each woman’s time and place.  I wasn’t a big fan of the style of supernatural grittiness, though, and I was never particularly attached to any of the characters. The novel definitely shows McDonald’s skill and versatility as a writer, but, so far, his science fiction is more up my alley.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Read-Along: Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline Carey, Final Post

Welcome to the conclusion of the read-along of Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart!  Our host this  week is Lisa of Over the Effing Rainbow, and her questions cover chapters 84 to the end of the book.  The whole book is now fair game for spoilers below, so watch out if you haven’t read it yet!  I’m glad I finally read Kushiel’s Dart, and I’m planning to carry on with the next novel in a read-along that will be announced soon.  Also, I’ll review this one in my usual style soon, probably in a week or two.  All in all, I have to say that things ended up happier than I expected!

1.  Isidore d'Aiglemort comes back into play for the battle against the Skaldi, and Phedre takes a huge risk to turn him from an enemy back into an ally - to a point, at least. And d'Aiglemort's one demand is to have Waldemar Selig left to himself on the battlefield... What were your thoughts on Terre d'Ange's unlikely hero, when all the dust settled?

I am surprised that I actually predicted this in the last post.  I think it makes sense that he would take his only remaining chance to be remembered as a hero instead of a villain.  That particular demand, though, put me in the mind of a trope I don't really enjoy, where a battle is decided by dramatic single combat between two heroes.  In this case, it does kind of make sense, given that the Skaldi army had no real cohesion outside of their obedience to Selig.

2.  After the war, we get a wedding! Ysandre and Drustan survive to unite their people after all. Did you think they'd both get this far, and do you have any thoughts on how this union (political, romantic, or both) might turn out?

They seem to really love each other!  I don’t know if their differences might cause a problem, once they’re out of their honeymoon period.  At the very least, I think they are both devoted to their homelands, and determined to be the best rulers possible.  I think that they will help each other in this, as they have already.  My one sadness is that Eamonn wasn't there to celebrate their wedding.

3.  Melisande is finally discovered, and brought before the Queen to be punished for her treason. Though, of course it's not as simple as that with her... Were you surprised at all when she escaped? And do you have any ideas about who might have aided her?

I was very surprised and excited that she was caught and sentenced to death.  When she escaped it was more of a disappointment to realize that things were going to follow the more expected route, with Melisande as a long-running villain.  I don’t think I know enough about the minor characters in the novel to say anything about who might have helped her.  For all I know, she’s bedazzled one of Ysandre’s ladies-in-waiting as she did Phèdre, and I don’t even know those characters by name!

4.  Ysandre and Drustan aren't the only ones to get their happy ending - well, up to a point, anyway. Phedre and Joscelin try on the quiet country life, and it goes well for a while... Once again Phedre is unable to forget, or be forgotten by, Melisande - wherever she is. Do you think Phedre will return to her old life, as we leave her contemplating? If so, is her choice the right one?

I thought it was kind of surprising to think that Phèdre, with the tastes we know she has, would settle down with a completely vanilla guy.  Not to mention, one who is probably going to remain celibate.  I think sex is far too important to Phèdre for her to be satisfied in this situation for the long term, even if she does enjoy the peace and the chance to pursue her studies.  I think she will make the right choice, to return to the capital and begin again as her own master.  The game is going to be much more difficult this time, though, since I doubt she will be underestimated by the court any longer.

Other Things:

—I still don’t completely get Melisande’s hold on Phèdre.  I believe it is entirely that she is very beautiful and skilled with S&M.  But then, all d’Angeline are very beautiful, and Phèdre didn’t have nearly as big a pull to the Duc de Morbhan, who we’re told was very good. 

—I don’t know if Joscelin is going to be able to handle being a chaste companion in love with a Servant of Naamah.  He has a really tough position.

—I’m relieved that we didn’t lose as many known characters as I’d feared, in the battle.  Even Joscelin’s family were alright. I really didn’t expect things to come out so well, and I’m glad they did!

—I guess now we know the limit of Phèdre’s ability to take joy from pain.  I think being tortured in earnest is not something anyone can enjoy.  I’m so glad Joscelin came after her.

—Now everything is ready for Hyacinthe to become Master of the Straits… time to open the waters and start having Master-of-the-Straits-Island parties? I hope so :).

—I was really touched that Delaunay had written in Phèdre and Alcuin as his heirs. It shows that he really did love and care for them, far beyond their value as tools for his machinations.  I imagine that it must have been something he had set in place shortly before his death, since Phèdre had only just declared that she wanted to remain in his household after earning her marque.

Other Participants:

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Review: They'd Rather Be Right/The Forever Machine, by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley

They’d Rather Be Right/The Forever Machine, by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley
Published: Astounding Science Fiction (Analog), 1954; Carroll & Graf, 1992
Awards Won: Hugo Award

The Book:

“When the government orders that a psychologist design an airplane autopilot system, the psychologist in question, Dr. Billings, promptly concludes that the only way forward is to build a machine that has all the capabilities of a human mind.  To aid in his endeavour, he recruits a lonely young telepath named Joe to help spur his team onward.

It soon becomes clear that what they are creating is something else entirely. Their new artificial intelligence, ‘Bossy’, is able to build an understanding of the universe from various facts fed into her by her creators.  She can then use her understanding to conduct psychological therapy on patients, rendering them telepathic and eternally youthful.  But what is the price for Bossy’s rejuvenation, and is the world ready?” ~Allie

This book has a reputation as one of the worst Hugo winners, so I knew what I was getting into when I picked it up.  I’d like to have read all of the Hugo winners one day, so that means checking out a few weaker books (I have yet to read The Wanderer) along with the good ones. In this case, I’d say the reputation was well earned. I actually read the later-published version of the novel, The Forever Machine, which also includes two related short stories.

My Thoughts:

A science fiction novel’s level of predictive power is not necessarily the most important gauge of it’s quality, but I think They’d Rather be Right is about as successful as these folk. Computer languages were a pretty new development in the 1950s, so I can see how it would be hard to predict what sorts of things would be easy, hard, or impossible with computing systems. In another area, I thought it was pretty funny that citizens in this fictional world found corporations to be more trustworthy than governments.  I know speculative fiction is bound to get some of its predictions wrong, but when something is this dated and off, it tends to get in the way of engaging with the story.

I was also not really aligned to the biases of the novel, which were applied to the narrative with a heavy-hand. For instance, there’s a strong anti-scientist and anti-education vibe, where educated people, particularly professors, are shown as having rigid mindsets and an inability to adapt to new situations.  This does not make sense to me, since it seems obvious that educated people must have chosen their path because they enjoy learning new things. There’s also a weird contempt for psychologists, paired with a respect for paranormal psychology.  All the ‘orthodox’ psychologists are portrayed as uncaring, arrogant, and incompetent. On the other hand, unconventional psychology is able to magically grant open-minded people eternal youth and telepathic powers. It’s possible that the novel might have been in line with some common ideas in the 1950s, but I don’t think it fits particularly well with our society’s reality anymore.  

The characters were also a bit inconsistent, and their actions did not always seem to follow how real people behave. For instance, Joe seems to have basically unlimited power to control the thoughts of all the people around him, but for some reason he seems to forget about this ability during a few crises they face.  In one of these crises, they are attacked by a mob of people who declare themselves to be on a witch hunt, and who use witch-hunt rhetoric.  I don’t know if things were different in the ‘50s, but nowadays the term ‘witch hunt’ is generally used as a derogatory term for a mob attacking innocent people over perceived differences.  It didn’t really make sense to me for a group to proudly claim the label for themselves. Given all of my complaints about the book, it might seem strange to say that I appreciated the way it ended.  If a magical psychology machine like Bossy did exist, their final approach to handling her existence is something I can get behind.

My Rating: 1.5/5

I think They’d Rather be Right was a pretty controversial Hugo win at the time, and it has since earned a reputation as one of the weakest Hugo award winners.  It hasn’t aged well at all, and many of its ideas about the future are entertainingly wrong.  The novel also carries some pretty blatant biases that I don’t agree with, which I find kind of ironic in a book that is about the need for humanity to throw off their prejudices and preconceptions.  I liked how they ended up dealing with Bossy, though, and parts of the story were pretty (unitentionally, I think) funny. Still, it was interesting to see what fans voted for as the best novel written in 1954. I would only recommend this one to other Hugo-winner completionists.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Review: Permutation City by Greg Egan

Permutation City by Greg Egan
Published: Millenium, 1994
Awards Won: John W. Campbell Award
Awards Nominated: Philip K. Dick & British Science Fantasy Association Award

The Book:

“When it becomes possible to make an electronic copy of a human mind, the practice is initially the domain of the eccentric rich who want to cheat death. Over time, though, the reasons people have for copying themselves have begun to change. For instance, Maria is neither rich nor in fear of her own death. After grieving over the death of her father, she’s determined that she’s going to make enough money to copy her mother before it’s too late.

Maria’s interest in the Autoverse, a software environment with simplified natural laws, leads her to contract with a man whose motives are even stranger.  He claims to offer his electronic-copy clients true immortality--free of the fear of loss of computing power--in a universe that can offer all the joys of our physical world, even up to the possibility of alien life.  He is either wrong, a charlatan, or a man who is about to learn the meaning of eternity.” ~Allie

This is the first book I’ve read by Greg Egan, but I plan to seek out more of his work in the future.  I listened to this one on audiobook, and was not really a fan of the voice patterns of the narrator, which seemed too monotonous to me.  Once the story got going, though, I was so interested that my personal dislike of the narration style didn’t matter.

My Thoughts:

This was basically everything I wanted in a book about mind uploading.  It addresses the hardware problems of the copies, the idea of whether they represent a continuation of self, what motivates different people to copy themselves, how it might affect them to exist while knowing they are not a physical entity, how the existence of copies is dealt with in the physical world, and much more.  It’s clear that a lot of thought went into exploring all the implications of this kind of technology, and that is exactly the kind of speculation that I most enjoy reading about.  One point I especially enjoyed was the exploration of flexibility of one’s sense of self. For instance, if you can directly modify the way that you think and feel, does your choice to do so change who you are?  If not, then what is it that defines your core self?  Maria once pointed out that a single person at two random points in their life might seem like two different people, but their lived experience gives a sense of continuity of identity.

On the tech side, Permutation City has a few pretty accurate predictions of the future, and further entertaining speculation.  For instance, this was published just a year after WWW was declared a public asset, but Egan already predicted grid computing and trading of processing power.  I think Egan also accurately concluded that accurately modeling humans would not be a reasonable feat in terms of computing power, and the story acknowledges that many ‘short-cuts’ are required to make copies a reality. Even with the shortcuts, minds can only be run at a maximum ratio of 17:1 real time to subjective experience.  For software environments, I also thought the idea of the Autoverse was really interesting.  It kind of reminds me of the appeal Minecraft seems to have (I may be wrong, I’ve never played it), providing the user with tools, resources, and defined rules for how this specific version of ‘reality’ works.

The second part of the novel takes a turn towards the weird side, and I think that how readers will respond to that will largely depend on how they feel about the “Dust Theory”.  I thought it was a very fun idea, and I liked the direction that it allowed the novel to go.  I don’t want to explain the theory here, since I don’t want to give away any major plot details.  In general, the first part of the novel is embedded in a pretty believable near-future world with some speculative technology, while the second half launches confidently into complete ‘what-if’ territory.  Many of the ideas introduced earlier in the story are allowed to run to their extremes, and the result was fascinating.

My Rating: 5/5     

I think this is the best novel I’ve read about mind uploading thus far.  It addressed pretty much all the aspects of the technology that I find interesting, including the hardware limitations, the social implications, the effects on those involved, and how the it could stretch the idea of a sense of self.  A variety of perspectives and reactions to mind uploading are presented through the handful of viewpoint characters.  The second part of the story veers off wildly from the ordered near-future world, into the idea of the “dust theory” and the potentially eternal lives of electronic copies.  Permutation City was an engaging story from start to finish, and I am looking forward to reading more of Greg Egan’s work!