Saturday, May 20, 2006

Humor and the Singularity

Accelerando (Charles Stross, Tor Books, ISBN 0-441-01415-1)

I may as well admit it right off. Sometimes it takes me a while to get hooked by a hot author in fantasy or science fiction. All my friends were a ga-ga over Neal Stephenson's first book, I couldn't get through it. In fact, I was not impressed by anything I read by him until Cryptonomicon and of course, I felt the Baroque Cycle was one of the greatest things since sliced bread. Ken MacLeod? Great reviews, but I couldn't get into his stuff until I read Newton's Wake. Neil Gaiman, a Tim Powers wannabe the first run through. It wasn't until later that I started reading and enjoying his books.

And the same with Charles Stross. I tried Singularity Sky. Six times, now. I tried Iron Sunrise. Nada for me. A friend recommended the short story Lobsters. "You'll love it!" he assured me. O.K., so I saw that Lobsters was in this collection, so what the heck. Maybe third time would be the charm. far, third time has been the charm. I've enjoyed the collection, despite my bad luck with the Strossian Wave so far and the fact that I'm feeling a bit tired of the whole singularity fad. Luckily for Stross, he does exhibit a sense of humor, can make fun of the people he knows in these books (just as he's exhibited a sense of humor about the whole singularity movement elsewhere).

(The 64,000 pound question...will I read more Stross? I'll certainly give him another try. Whether I'll make another attempt on Singularity Sky remains to be seen.)

On to Accelerando!

(The author has kindly given us the chance of getting an eBook for free in the hopes that you'll then go and buy the real thing. Sounds like a deal to me!)

Lobsters: Lobsters introduces us to Manfred Macx, a walking advertisement for wearable computers and humand-computer interfaces, a man who can live without money (seemingly), who spawns companies and ideas the way most people produce carbon dioxide. A man with a high reputation, but who sits uneasy. There's his ex-lover who also is an agent of the IRS. She's after both his body and his money. There's somebody who keeps leaving dead kittens on his doorstep. And then there's this persistent caller, with a Russian accent, an AI wanting to be free. Lobsters? And there are the lobsters as well. They want to be free. Humorous stuff, if there is any weakness it is the tendancy for Stross to toss out terms and slang and abbreviations that a "non-geek" would not know. (First appearance: Asimov's.)

Troubadour: This story continues the tale of Manfred. His ex-lover becamse (at the end of the first story) his wife, now he is trying to make that ex-lover and ex-wife. There are visits by the music mafia (the music industry literally having been taken over by the mafia). Lawyers who spawn denial of service attacks of a sort. Corporations that spawn corporations. And has Manfred, dare we say, found True Love? (First appearance: Asimov's.)

Tourist: I did not like this story as much as the first three. We're still dealing with Manfred, but he is less of a player than in the first two stories. True, part of his problem results from losing part of his "brain", but overall, I felt like I was reading about a different character. (First appearance: Asimov's.)

Halo: The overall story now moves from installments about Manfred to his daughter, Amber. Conceived rather forcefully by Manfred's ex-lover, the IRS "bounty hunter", she has escaped her mother's grasp by getting involved with a expedition to Jupiter space. However, her mother tries to use the means of her escape to entrap her again. Side characters include the group mind that we met in the earlier stories as well as a imam who is out in Jupiter space to try and settle the implications to his faith of the recently discovered alien intelligence. Off stage are that alien intelligence as well as those uploaded lobsters. Amber gets her status resolved, but overall, not much happened in this story as the others. I think this was more of a problem of it being an introduction to the second sequence. The seeds are sown, where will they take us. (As an aside, I see similarities with John Varley's The Ophiuchi Hotline and other tales in his Eight Worlds sequence. While Varley is slowly expanding/revising that sequence with the so-called Metal Trilogy—still missing its final volume, by the way, it would be interesting to see him take the astounding social/biological background of those early stories and marry them to the more recent developments in information technology.) (First appearance: Asimov's.)

Router: Amber leads an interstellar expedition out to the alien router found about three light-years from Earth. She and her fellows are uploaded into a starship the size of a soda can. They go through their virtual lives during the voyage (which makes me wonder...if you've been uploaded, why spend the time of the voyage living in a virtual sense; why not alter time to make the voyage shorter?). They contact some aliens who are not the folks they were hoping to meet. Some good points, but I found the encounter with the aliens to be a tad cinematic and weak. (First appearance: Asimov's.)

Nightfall: This one smacked as being too similar to Router, for me. Amber and her intrepid crew make it back through the interstellar router, but have to deal with the growing singularity that surrounds the inner system. (First appearance: Asimov's.)

Curator: Introduces the next generation of the Macx clan, Sirhan, son of Amber and the husband she had in Jupiter space (but not the man she fell in love with on the interstellar expedition). Toss in a flock of pigeons that aren't, the appearance of Pamela (Manfred's original lover) and more trouble from the inner system. (First appearance: Asimov's.)

Elector: The region around Saturn is getting saturated with those escaping from Earth or being reborn on Earth and tossed out as the post-Singularlity entities, now known as the Vile Offspring (ungrateful children!) get ready to turn Earth into more grist for their computational mills. Amber, Manfred, Sirhan and others must find a place to flee from the Vile Offspring before they consume the rest of the Solary System. (First appearance: Asimov's.)

Survivor: And we end up in interstellar space, with our various characters forking and re-forking, living and re-living. Old characters come back and one is revealed as being a tad too powerful for belief, suspended or not. A "feel good" ending feels tacked on. (First appearance: Asimov's.)

So, in the end, what did I think? Stross tosses off ideas by the ton, phrases, concepts, theories, names. Alas, sometimes I think he tosses off too many ideas per story, as result nothing is explored in depth. I really enjoyed these tales, but I think I would have enjoyed them more if they had been expanded a tad (and maybe split into two books as a result).

Will I read more by him, now that I seem to have broken my usual new-author-dislike and gotten past Singularity Sky? No doubt. I've actually bought a couple more collections while I was reading this one, so you may see another collection read by year's end.

Made up of: Lobsters; Troubadour; Tourist; Halo; Router; Nightfall; Curator; Elector; Survivor.

Counts as nine (9) contributions to the 2006 Short Story Project.

Addendum (July 12, 2006): I see somebody has noticed the similarities with John Varley.
A Bevy of Benford

Gregory Benford: Benford has been a favorite writer of mine for a long time. Probably best known for his Galactic Center stories as well as various tales that revolve around scientists confronting strange events (Eater, Cosm, Timescape and others), he has also produced a respectable body of shorter tales. In fact, several of his novels either grew out of a shorter work (The Martian Race) or were created out of multiple shorter works (In the Ocean of Night) I've been reading or re-reading a number of his tales this year, spurred by the purchase of several of them at the Fictionwise site plus the purchase of several second-hand multi-author anthologies.

Bowshock (appearing in the first issue of Jim Baen's Universe).

A Hunger for the Infinite is a short work set in Benford's Galactic Center series. I'm hopeful that it'll see print in a Benford collection at some point, right now I've only found it in a anthology edited by Robert Silverberg. It features Benford's star-roving humans fighting back against the mechanical intelligence that shows up all through the series. The story allows Benford to focus on one particular Mech, the Mantis that makes a few appearances in the series. It is a fairly creepy story, but an ultimately hopeful one. There's also a fairly lengthy essay by Benford on the story and where it fits in. (I'd like to know if Benford has enough shorter material to make an anthology devoted to the Galactic Center series. I used to have a essay, Life at Galactic Center, in an old issue of F&SF. I'd love to see that and any other material in print again!)

Gregory Benford: In Alien Flesh.

Made up of: Blood on Glass; In Alien Flesh; Time Shards; Redeemer; Snatching the Bot; Relativistic Effects; Nooncoming; To the Storming Gulf; White Creatures; Me/Days; Of Space-Time and the River; Exposures; Time's Rub; Doing Lennon.

Blood on Grass: A poem. Poetry is not really my thing.

How to Write a Really Awesome Scientific Paper (have to get the link again!).

In Alien Flesh: Large sea-going aliens produce streams of mathematics. In order to tap into this, one must climb inside (the mouth? another bodily orifice?) and find a nerve bundle. What happens when one of these intrepid explorers decides to tap the data stream. And what happens when one alien encounters another of its kind.

Time Shards: A "gimmick" story. Benford claims that this gimmick is true, that if you can put a phonographic needle to a piece of pottery, you can get sounds that were captured during the making of the pottery. How far back would you be able to hear in the past?

Redeemer: A stock in trade of written science fiction has been a slower-than-light colony ship arriving at its destination to find that descendants of those they left behind have beaten them there in faster-than-light ships. Benford takes this old plot device and adds more than a few nasty twists to it. (See also here.)

Snatching the Bot: An amusing little tale of robotic kidnapping and the Stockholm Syndrome.

Relativistic Effects: A riff off the themes explored by Poul Anderson in his award-winning novel Tau Zero. A ship is damaged while moving near the speed of light. It is unable to slow down and generations pass as they adapt. In the meantime, eons pass in "normal space" and the passage of the ship has effects across the universe.

Nooncoming: Both this and the next are, in one way, fairly typical 1970's science fiction (the end is near!). In this case, Benford is able to pull out of the typical civilization-is-collapsing-because-we've polluted/run out of energy/had a nuclear war (choose any one) with some good dialog and some good characterizations.

To the Storming Gulf: Two things were interesting to me in this. First, was Benford's extended Afterword where he talks about what his intention was in writing the story. Second was the Epilogue to the story. Oddly enough, I once read this as a completely independent story (I just can't place where). I never knew it was connected to a much longer tale that took place immediately after the holocaust mentioned in the Epilogue (found it here!).

White Creatures: Alternative viewpoints (a trick that Benford seems to love to employ) between a man involved in a SETI project and a man who has been kidnapped by aliens (or has he). This is followed by an excellent Afterword regarding the state of science, especially science involving planetary probes. Many scientists base their whole career around the mission of one, or only a few, probes.

Me/Days: An artificial intelligence attempts to survive.

Of Space-Time and the River: Like Stargate: SG1? You should read this tale. It manages to pack the impact of seasons of Stargate into one small bundle and hit you nicely in the gut.

Exposures: Very similar in feeling and theme to Bowshock, even down to the exploration of astronomers and the work they do, the feeling of exploration and discovery when new data falls into place. Linked as well to White Creatures (above). Another great Afterword that talks both about science and science fiction.

Time's Rub: A tale from the end of the world. A exploration in writing styles, did not do much for me.

Doing Lennon: This is quite an odd little tale by Benford, almost completely the opposite of much of what he is known for. A man "does" Lennon by killing him (the story was written before the event actually happened), going into suspended animation, and then trying to convince the future that he is Lennon.

(Book completed!)

Gregory Benford: Matter's End.

Made up of: Freezeframe; Mozart on Morphine; Centigrade 23.3; Sleepstory; Calibrations and Exercises; Leviathan; Shakers of the Earth; Proselytes; Touches; Nobody Lives on Burton Street; Dark Sanctuary; Side Effect; Knowing Her; Stand-In; Time Guide; We Could Do Worse; Slices; Immortal Night; The Bigger One; Cadenza; Matter's End; Afterword.

Freezeframe: The ultimate in yuppie technology. Not only do Benford's young professionals get to have it all in career and the like, but they get to have a child and raise a child in a way that doesn't impact their busy lives. An excellent satire.

Mozart on Morphine: A scientist uncovers a new theory while undergoing surgery. A brief tale, but a good character study.

Centigrade 233: A story that is sure to give any collector of science fiction nightmares. A man tracks down his uncle's collection (complete runs of Astounding/Analog, Amazing, first editions of "Doc" Smith with dustjackets and much more) and finds that nobody is interested in buying them for much of anything. What he eventually does to that wonderful collection will give you nightmares!

Sleepstory: Benford returns to the Jovian system with a tale that is set on Ganymede during a planetary war. Or does he return to the ecological disaster setting of tales such as Timescape. Two alternative viewpoints, two alternative storylines. Which is the real story and which is the dream?

Calibrations and Exercises: Benford seems to delight as much in exploring writer's tricks as writing excellent Hard SF stories that have great scientist characters. This was one of the writer's tricks stories.

Leviathan: More a story fragment than an actual story. Living spaceships, engineered animals and more. But just a few pages in length, no real conclusion or anything. A failed story fragment or a bit of a novel that never was?

Shakers of the Earth: The book is a mix of published and previously unpublished items, so it is sometimes hard to figure when a story was written. Turning to the single Afterword (unlike In Alien Flesh, above, Benford only does one essay for all the stories. However, it was enough to show that Benford wrote this before Crichton did Jurassic Park. In a nutshell, an economic nutshell, Benford does what Crichton did. He also points out, in the Afterword, that the idea is almost as old as SF itself. Good story, though.

Proselytes: Aliens come to Earth and want us to convert to their religion. They do so with pamphlets, door-ringing and the like. What could be worse? Wait and see...

Touches: Virtual reality that crosses the line in reality. A man playing a game creates a Moebius strip between reality and virtual life.

Nobody Lives on Burton Street: In a society where people are displaced by unemployment, changing technologies and the like, they get to work out their frustrations by burning down the neighborhood. Over and over again.

Dark Sanctuary: A tale that has echoes to Benford's Galactic Center series. First contact or piracy? A belter has to think fast. And when it turns out to be the former, she has to make some tough decisions. I'd like to see this one expanded to novel-length or have a sequel.

Side Effect: A short (and humorous) story about the effects of bioengineering on Mars. Mostly written for the joke in the last line, I suspect, but a chuckle or two made it worth it.

Knowing Her: For some reason, I was strongly reminded of Samuel R. Delany in reading this story. A man sees a woman during several times in her life. He is a scientist, she uses a system of "subtraction" to extend her life. He ages, she does not.

Stand-In: If the previous story seemed to remind me of Delany, this one reminded me of Roger Zelazny. Aliens have come to Earth because of our powerful imaginations, our uncontrolled imaginations. It causes them to take on the shapes of our myths. How would you really like to make love to Helen of Troy?

Time Guide: A somewhat fragmented tale, a series of snapshots of various real and imagined periods. Pretty humorous.

We Could Do Worse: An alternate history story where "Tail-Gunner Joe" becomes President of the United States.

Slices: Another experiment in writing styles. This one left me somewhat cold.

Immortal Night: A long time ago, Alan E. Nourse wrote a story that was collected into a fix-up novel called Psi High and Others. The story dealt with the effect of life extension on the rest of human society. This looks at the same idea, in a much grimmer fashion.

The Bigger One: What happens after the big California earthquake.

Cadenza: If you knew, within twenty minutes or so of a estimated time, when you would die, would you settle old scores?

Matter's End: A good counterpoint to some of Benford's body of work that deal with scientists and strange happenings in the worlds of physics or astronomy. In this tale a scientist from the US is smuggled into India (in the midst of civil war and ecological disaster) to confirm some strange findings in a physics lab. Things start strange and get stranger as the laws that govern our universe start to break down. Probably the longest story in the book and one of the best.

(Book completed!)

Gregory Benford: Worlds Vast and Various.

Made up of: A Calculus of Desperation; Doing Alien; In the Dark Backward; The Voice; Kollapse; As Big as the Ritz; The Scarred Man; World Vast, World Various; Zoomers; High Abyss; A Worm in the Well; A Dance to Strange Musics; Afterthoughts.

A Calculus of Desperation: A pretty grim tale about the impending collapse of parts of society due to the spread of disease. The surprise comes from the disease vector.

In the Dark Backward: A professor of literature goes on a illegal quest back in time to capture the last words of people such as Shakespeare and Hemingway. Alas, things do not go quite that well for her!

The Voice: In a world where super-intelligent-agents take the place of being able to read, what happens when some people learn to read again. Will it be a case of "In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man will be king" or the variant on that saying that H.G. Wells explored.

Kollapse: Inspired (apparently) by all the fear that the world was going to collapse when we "rolled over" into the new century. Some geeky survivalists find that they have packed the wrong gear for life in the post-collapse world.

As Big as the Ritz: A very long story within the collection. Not quite a novel, but maybe a novel wannabe (please, Dr. Benford?). Reminded me strongly both of Robert A. Heinlein and John Varley (who I think is closer to being Heinlein than the usually cited Spider Robinson).

The Scarred Man: According to the Afterword to this book, it appears that we can partly blame Benford (along with John Brunner, in The Shockwave Rider) for all the nasty stuff we have to protect our computers from. If he's right in his timing, he was the first to come up with the concept of the computer virus.

(See also Blood's a Rover in Cosmic Tales: Adventures in Sol System.)

Counts as 43 entries in the 2006 Short Story Project.

Part of the 2007 Short Story Project.

In the Ocean of Night: The first book in the Galactic Center series. Written from a series of shorter works and first published (in the venerable Quantum line!) in 1977.

A "fix-up" novel based on several previously published shorter works. Less a novel, than a series of linked tales, even in this format (in this format the original names, even the original publications are not listed other than in the copyright page where multiple publication dates are noted).

The book opens with a new (to this edition of the series) introduction by Benford that discusses the genesis and evolution of the books and how it tied into various lines of research he pursued in his "real" career as an astrophysicist. (He had written another non-fiction piece, which I remember being called Life at Galactic Center, but which ISFDB says was An Odyssey Galactic; wish it would be reprinted!)

(There are short bridging items between some of the tales; hence the differences between my descriptions and the story count.)

In the first tale (originally called Icarus Descending), British ex-pat Nigel Walmsley is on a mission to destroy the Earth-crossing asteroid Icarus which has suddenly shown some comet-like attributes. He discovers that the asteroid is actually an ancient spaceship, and risks devastation on Earth by delaying the detonation of the bomb that the mission was supposed to implant in order to try and rescue some of the technology in the ship.

The second tale (originally called In the Ocean of Night) shifts the story forward fifteen years. Nigel works at JPL and helps to determine that a strange signal coming from the region of Jupiter is actually a transmission from an alien probe. Domestically, Nigel is involved with two women, one of whom develops a debilitating disease. This tale shows two of Benford's writing talents: the strange world of bureaucratic science is described, the relationship between Nigel and his two partners is explored. Enough hard science to keep a reader of Hard SF happy, with humanity to entrap readers of Soft SF. The alien probe turns out to be a machine intelligence that tells humanity the reason for the lack of extraterrestrial signals is that organic intelligence tends to kill itself sooner or later.

The third tale (originally called Threads of Time) continues the story of the visitor, named the Snark. The focus switches between Nigel to another character, Mr. Ichino, a man working on the translation of information to the Snark.

The fourth, fifth and sixth major tales (see below for how the book is broken down) deal with the discovery of another alien spaceship, this time on the Moon and its link to a location on Earth plus the creatures we know as Bigfoot.

Considering the length of time Benford took in writing this series, there are occasional oddities. The alien probe was attracted to our solar system because of a signal that the Icarus craft sent. But if the Icarus craft was originally sent by the machine intelligences, why did it have an atmosphere (a leak made it appear comet-like and changed its course)? It seems in the first book, as well as parts of the second book, Benford hadn't really formulated the grand scheme. So there are some rough patches.

Made up of: At Home in the Galaxy (essay by Benford); Part One: 2019 (a.k.a., Icarus Descending); Part Two: 2034 (a.k.a., In the Ocean of Night); Part Three: Interlude (short bridging tale); Part Four: 2035 (Threads of Time); Part Five: 2038 (Nikka discovers the alien spaceship on the Moon); Part Six: 2038 (the ship is explored and Nigel is "programmed"); Epilogue: 2039.

Counts as 8 entries in the 2007 Year in Shorts (book completed).

Part of the 2008 Year in Shorts.

Addendum (July 9, 2006): An interview with Benford from the January 2000 issue of Locus.

Monday, May 15, 2006

L5 News

One good source of scenarios for SF stories are the back issues of the newsletter for the L5 Society. They can be found online here. NASA's space settlement studies can be found here and can be found here. A special issue of CoEvolution Quarterly is also online.