Ryan Anderson

Science, Fiction, Life

Category: Science Fiction (page 1 of 3)

Book Review: Cryptonomicon

A while back I discovered that I had accidentally accumulated a handful of Audible credits, and so of course to get the most bang for my buck I used them on audiobooks books that were either not available from the library, had a long wait list, or were as long as possible. Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson weighs in at a respectable 42 hours, and had been on my to-read list for quite a while, so I bought it and finally started it when I had a long road trip for work back in January.

The book is a huge epic, with a good-sized cast of main characters and two separate but related story lines. Half of the book is set during World War 2 and the main characters are Lawrence Waterhouse, a brilliant math prodigy code-breaker who works with Alan Turing, Bobby Shaftoe, a resourceful marine who ends up in all sorts of interesting situations as the allied powers try to hide the fact that they have broken axis codes, and Goto Dengo, a Japanese mining engineer who ends up involved in a plot to bury tons of gold the axis powers have looted from conquered countries.

The other half of the book takes place in the 90s. The main character, Randy Waterhouse, is the grandson of Lawrence and is a computer hacker who is part of an internet startup trying to establish cryptographically secure internet communications including an anonymous digital currency. He ends up working with the various descendants of the other WWII characters in a plot to recover the buried gold.

In typical Neil Stephenson style, Cryptonomicon is prone to long-winded asides about a wide variety of technical topics, particularly computers and cryptography, but also other stuff, such as completely unnecessary parametrization of things in daily life into systems of equations. I guess this is supposed to dazzle readers with how smart the characters (and the author) are, but I often found it tedious. I’m not sure if it would have been better or worse if I was not already familiar with a lot of the topics covered. Some of these asides are interesting, or at least charming, and many that seem irrelevant at the time end up being relevant later on.  Some of these asides have also aged quite poorly. The book was written in the late 90s, and so it has a number of breathless explanations of computer-related things that the reader is clearly supposed to be amazed and impressed by, which nowadays are just normal boring parts of life.

There are also a few that have aged poorly for other reasons. One in particular stands out: Randy is at a dinner party with his (soon to be ex) girlfriend’s academic colleagues. The girlfriend is a caricature of the “bitchy feminist” and her colleagues are (shudder) social scientists (who are, the text makes clear, lesser forms of life compared to hard science, math, and computer geeks). Randy gets in an argument with a dude who has become famous for raising difficult questions about the rise of the internet, and in particular how inequality in society means that poor people will not have the same chance to benefit from the internet as rich people. Instead of responding to the actual (very valid and still very relevant point), Randy leaps to the defense of the internet by criticizing the “information superhighway” analogy and  flaunting his impressive credentials as… a UNIX sysadmin I guess? I guess we’re supposed to be impressed by that? The “best” part of the chapter is when the academic points out that Randy, a white male from a long line of well-to-do math whizzes, has benefited from privileges that others may not have shared, and Randy (a) claims the he doesn’t have privilege, and (b) it’s clear that the reader is supposed to side with him.

That one chapter basically turned me off from Randy and his whole story line. These days it’s just not that fun to read a story glorifying tech-bros who are inventing bitcoin (even if that story improbably leads to all sorts of adventures in the jungles of the Phillipines). I mean, all due credit to Stephenson for linking cryptography and the potential for digital currency back in the late 90s: that’s some good sci-fi future prediction, even if Cryptonomicon is naively obsessed with the need for a gold standard to back such a currency. But too often I found that the book, especially the modern story line, seemed to glorify white male nerds in a way that doesn’t sit quite right nowadays, when stereotypical white male nerds, especially those obsessed with “individual liberty” and cryptocurrency have become one of the most toxic segments of the population on and off the internet. (I should also mention that Randy’s interactions with and thoughts about women do not help the situation. There’s a “Men are from Mars, women are from Venus” vibe that doesn’t age well. I found his romance with Amy Shaftoe extremely far-fetched: at some point in the book she goes from strong, independent woman to emotional and needy potential girlfriend, and it’s entirely unclear why she would be interested in him.)

On the other hand, the WWII storyline is really good. Still prone to long, often gratuitous, tangents, but I enjoyed the characters and the story much more. Lots of interesting people jetting around the globe, getting into and out of trouble. And it also focused on a part of the war that I did not know much about, the southeast Pacific, so I learned at least a little real history mixed in with the fictional parts.

When I finished this book, I wavered on how to rate it on Goodreads. I love giant doorstopper epics, and it has some great moments and memorable characters. It tells a heck of a yarn, and the way the past and “present” story lines are interrelated is pretty well done. But it also has the issues I mentioned above. In the end I went with three stars. I think there is a four or even five-star book buried in there, but Cryptonomicon is badly in need of an editor willing to mercilessly wield her red pen to trim down the considerable bloat and improve the modern storyline. Lacking that, it’s uneven and too-long. I’m glad I read it, but I’m always disappointed when a book isn’t as good as it could have been.

 

Book Review: Too Like the Lightning

They say you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but what about its title? The title of Ada Palmer’s “Too Like the Lightning” gripped me the first time I saw it, and I knew I had to read the book regardless of what it was about. I only learned later that the title is part of a line from Romeo and Juliet:

I have no joy of this contract tonight.
It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden,
Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be
Ere one can say “It lightens.”
I’ll say up front that although this book is not perfect, I thoroughly enjoyed it. In fact, I can’t stop thinking about it. The basic premise is that several hundred years in the future, geopolitics on Earth looks radically different from what we have now. Technology is advanced enough that people can hop in a (flying) car and travel anywhere in the world in less than two hours, and this has led to a breakdown of traditional nations. Instead, society is organized into several different groups or “hives” and people can choose which one they ant to be a part of, if any:
  • Humanists: focused on human achievements (athletic, artistic, etc)
  • Cousins: focused on altruism and providing social services to all
  • The Masonic empire: A Rome-like monarchy built on the longstanding rumors of a secret society pulling the strings throughout history
  • The Gordians: Basically a think-tank become a nation, with a focus on understanding the human brain and behavior
  • The European Union: Self-explanatory
  • Mitsubishi corporation: A coalition of former Asian nations now run as a “shareholder democracy”. Owns most of the land on Earth.
  • Utopians: A group of scientists and others focused on the future. They work tirelessly to end all disease, extend human life, and colonize other planets.

Here is a more detailed description of each hive, written by Palmer herself.

This fascinating vision of the future is only the tip of the iceberg. The novel is crammed full of other really creative ideas about the future, and that’s what really made me love it. Some are relatively minor, like textiles that project an image of the background on their surface rendering the wearer nearly invisible. Others are fascinating and troubling, like “set sets”: humans who have been interfaced directly with computers since birth, co-opting the neural pathways normally reserved for things like sight and smell and taste, turning them into phenomenally powerful biological computers.

The plot of the novel revolves around a family who play a central role in the smooth functioning of this future world. Their two “set-sets” (along with a massive array of supercomputers) are responsible for the flight paths of the billions and billions of high-speed cars that zip around the world and make the distributed “Hives” possible. (The cars of course, are not driven by their passengers, and crashes are so rare that they make international news when they occur.) Only the small Utopian hive does not use their system of cars. Unbeknownst to most, the family also harbors a boy with extraordinary abilities that I won’t divulge here, and protecting him from discovery is a major driver of the plot.

But really I’ll be honest: this is not a novel about plot. It’s about this vivid and fascinating vision of the future in all of its glorious, messy, detail. The plot serves primarily as an excuse for the main characters to meet and interact with the outlandish characters who lead each of the Hives, and therefore to show the reader another facet of the complicated future world. (And of course, just as has often been the case with leaders of nations throughout history, the leaders of the hives all know each other and are connected by a web of marriages, adoptions, etc.)

In case the intricate worldbuilding didn’t clue you in, this novel is unabashedly smart, and to some it may veer into the territory of “pretentious”. You see, “Too Like The Lightning” is obsessed with Enlightenment philosophy. The writing style of the book is heavily influenced by this time period as well, with a narrator (who is also a main character) who speaks directly to the reader, sometimes even inventing interjections from the reader and responding to them. Palmer does some exposition jiu-jitsu by having the narrator ostensibly relating the events of the novel to a reader even farther in the future, but by explaining things to that future reader, we in the “past” are also able to understand things. Here, it’s probably easier if I just show an example, from where the narrator is explaining why he’s writing in the style of the 18th century:

“You will criticize me, reader, for writing in a style six hundred years removed from the events I describe, but you came to me for explanation of those days of transformation which left your world the world it is, and since it was the philosophy of the Eighteenth Century, heavy with optimism and ambition, whose abrupt revival birthed the recent revolution, so it is only in the language of the Enlightenment, rich with opinion and sentiment, that those days can be described. You must forgive me my ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s and ‘he’s and ‘she’s, my lack of modern words and modern objectivity. It will be hard at first, but whether you are my contemporary still awed by the new order, or an historian gazing back at my Twenty-Fifth Century as remotely as I gaze back on the Eighteenth, you will find yourself more fluent in the language of the past than you imagined; we all are.”

I suspect some readers might balk at the almost self-indulgent way this book goes on about various philosophers and how their works are relevant for certain aspects of the future society depicted, but I found it refreshing. Usually if sci-fi is going to get self-indulgent about some subject, it’s science (often physics). Most people don’t bat an eye when the brilliant scientist in a hard sci-fi novel gives a big speech explaining special relativity or the chaotic orbits of planets in a multi-star system, or what have you. In fact, books like that are often applauded for their perceived realism. I’d argue that “Too Like The Lightning” is doing exactly the same thing, explaining some point of philosophy that is just as fundamental to understanding the world depicted in the novel as special relativity is fundamental to understanding Tau Zero, for example.

What really impressed me about this book (Palmer’s first published novel!) is the confidence and skill with which Palmer manages to pull off several very difficult things. The voice and narrative style, as you can see in the quote above, are very distinctive and unusual. The world she has created is intricate and complicated and feels organic, which means it is potentially confusing, yet somehow Palmer manages to write in such a way that you always have just enough information to want to keep going to learn more. From the very beginning , it is written in such a way that you trust all will be made clear in due time. Often I lose patience with stories that string the reader along, but “Too Like the Lightning” does it extremely well. In this, it has a lot in common with Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, which also contains lots of philosophical discussions and likewise provides the reader just enough information to understand but doles it out slowly.

Finally, I found it refreshing to read far-future sci-fi set here on Earth rather than a space opera set in an unknown star system on the other side of the galaxy. Most authors writing this far into the future use the time gap and fictional worlds they’re writing about as an excuse to start with a relatively blank slate. Palmer instead takes the far more challenging route of setting her story here on Earth. That means that her worldbuilding has to deal with the complicated, messy baggage of thousands of years of real history, but as a historian Palmer is up to the challenge and the result is a sci-fi vision of the future that feels far more “real” than the hardest “hard” sci-fi.

I was disappointed at the end of the book to learn that it is really only the beginning of a longer story, but that’s unfortunately par for the course in speculative fiction. That said, I still thought the twists and revelations at the end were very good. As I listened to the end of the audiobook (which has a great narrator) on a plane, I may have said “whoaaah” out loud. I am eagerly looking forward to reading the next book in the series.

 

Book Review: The Sheep Look Up

It’s strange to call a book that was published in the 70s “timely” but The Sheep Look Up by John Brunner is just that. It is a dystopian sci-fi novel about a world where there are no government regulations on pollution, so corporations are freely poisoning the air and water, making the planet unlivable. The president of the United States is an idiot who, when he can be bothered to get involved in current events at all, mostly delivers short, simplistic, often xenophobic quips that indicate that he has no idea what he’s talking about. Race and Class relations are tense and the incompetent government and ongoing environmental disasters only exacerbate them.

In the novel, the skies are perpetually overcast because of all the smog. People have to wear filter masks whenever they go outdoors, and rain comes down filthy and acidic. The Mediterranean sea and the Great Lakes are dead. Rampant pesticide use has led to an evolutionary arms race and there are now nearly-indestructible pests that destroy most crops, not to mention the resistant fleas and lice that infest the slums. Likewise with antibiotics: resistant diseases are widespread, and combined with the many diseases caused by all the pollution, most people are constantly sick with multiple ailments. All of this causes political and geopolitical unrest that grows out of control over the course of the book.

Like his other famous novel, Stand On Zanzibar, The Sheep Look Up is written in an experimental style, telling a larger story through lots of small, disjointed sections. A page or two about one character, then a news report, then a few advertising jingles, then a poem, then back to a few pages about some other characters, then an emergency government bulletin, and so on. It’s an effective way to give an overall feel for events in the country and wider world, but it makes it very difficult to keep track of main characters. By the end of the book I recognized some of the names as people I’d heard about before, but had completely lost track of who was who. It doesn’t help that they are all written in basically the same 1970s slangy voice.

I remember enjoying Stand on Zanzibar, but I read it much faster (while on Christmas break in grad school) rather than the slow pace that was forced on me for The Sheep Look Up by a new baby, work, and occasionally having to return the ebook to the library because someone else put a hold on it. I almost didn’t finish, but decided that the book was so timely that I might as well power through.

The Sheep Look Up is an unusual and challenging read, and definitely feels dated, but at the same time is frighteningly relevant to current events, and for that reason I’d still recommend checking it out.

 

Patriotism, Genre Fiction, and Criticizing What You Love

In both genre fiction and politics, our culture is struggling with the idea that you can criticize something that you love.

When someone points out that many video games are disturbingly sexist, or that Lord of the Rings is kind of racist, or that the Avatar movie perpetuates the “white savior” trope, are they no longer a fan of genre fiction?

When someone points out that the United States is the only country out of the 25 wealthiest nations that lacks universal health care, or that black people are disproportionately incarcerated and killed by police, or that our wars in the Middle East are responsible for the rise of ISIS, are they no longer a patriot?

In both cases, I say that thoughtful criticism is a deeper, more meaningful expression of love than blind enthusiastic support.

Let’s take Game of Thrones as an example. I love Game of Thrones. The books are among my favorite books of all time. They’re vast and deep, with well-developed characters with unique narrative voices; exciting, twisty, satisfyingly complex plots; epic, vivid worldbuilding; and they signal a profound shift in the fantasy genre, subverting the tropes of the genre established by Lord of the Rings and beginning the modern era of more “grimdark” fantasy. Likewise, the show is excellent: visually stunning, well-acted, and it brings the books that I love to life in a way that allows many more people to experience them. Not only that, but the show has been a revolution in terms of getting excellent genre fiction onto television, demonstrating to TV channels that compelling, adult-oriented stories can be told through genre fiction, and that audiences will eat it up.

But I will readily admit that both the books and the show have major problems too. The show is famous for its gratuitous nudity, and there have been several notorious examples of changes to the original book where main female characters are raped or threatened with rape. There is also a problematic “white savior” vibe to much of Danaerys’ story line. I would argue that the books are somewhat better, but there’s still a whole lot of rape and threats of rape, which is often defended with the old “historical accuracy” argument, because apparently dragons are plausible but a medieval society that isn’t quite so horrifically misogynistic is not.

There are those who see comments like those in the last paragraph and reflexively condemn them. How dare some “social justice warrior” criticize the genre they love? Why can’t people just enjoy things without picking them apart and over-analyzing everything? Why do these SJWs have to ruin everything by insisting on political correctness? They’re clearly not real fans. They clearly hate the genre.

For those who have been paying attention, this conflict came to a head in the video game community with the “gamergate” fiasco a few years ago. Women who dared to point out that video games are full of a disgusting amount of misogyny were harassed by an army of angry, mostly white, mostly male gamers who felt that their favorite hobby and its fundamental culture were being unfairly bashed. The conflict rapidly escalated to doxing (the release of private personal information), lost jobs, lost homes, and death threats.

Later, in the speculative fiction community, a similar conflict arose when the “Sad Puppies“, a group of angry, mostly white, mostly male, readers stuffed the ballot for the Hugo Award. They were supposedly fighting back against their perception  that science fiction and fantasy were being ruined by SJWs trying to force everything to be politically correct and shoehorning women, people of color, and LGBT people into fiction, rather than trying to tell good old fashioned apolitical stories. (It apparently did not occur to them that it is possible to tell great speculative fiction about people who are not white straight men, or that all fiction carries with it political baggage.)

And then, of course, there is the 2016 election, where a group of angry, mostly white, mostly male, voters were apparently so appalled that we had a black president, and that a woman dared to run as his successor on a platform of inclusiveness and tolerance, that they instead voted for an unqualified narcissistic idiot. Trump’s campaign and its “Make America Great Again” slogan catered directly to the perception that criticizing our country is unpatriotic, and that somehow making things better for people who aren’t straight white men undermines what makes our country great.

But here’s the thing that the gamer-gators, sad puppies, and Trump voters don’t understand: unlike them, we don’t criticize from a place of hatred, but of love.

Sci-fi and Fantasy are supposed to push the limits of imagination, so why is it so hard to imagine that young women and people of color could be the heroes in great adventures? Video games allow the player to escape the real world and experience being powerful and “the chosen one”, so shouldn’t players be allowed to leave behind racism and misogyny when they enter the game world? And the United States is supposed to be a country where all people have unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, so shouldn’t we strive to uphold that ideal? Shouldn’t we point out where our great country does not live up to its promise for all of its citizens and then work together to form a “more perfect union”?

When you’re raising a child, you don’t praise them when they are behaving badly. You set high expectations and then help them to live up to those expectations. Why is it so hard to apply the same logic to the other things we love?

Whether it’s genre fiction, video games, or the United States of America itself, what we want is for the things that we love to live up to their true potential. To me, this is a much deeper, more meaningful way to show your devotion to something than blindly singing its praises and ignoring its flaws.

 

Movie Review: Arrival

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They did it.

I was excited but skeptical when I heard that the brilliant short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang was going to be made into a movie, called “Arrival”. Excited because “Story of Your Life” is among the best science fiction short stories that I have ever read, skeptical because it’s an unusual story and I wasn’t sure how a movie would be able to capture its brilliance. But they did it.

Fundamentally, Arrival/Story of Your Life is a first contact story (in fact, many parts of the movie reminded me of Contact). Mysterious alien ships appear one day all over the world, and linguist Dr. Louise Banks is brought in by the American military to learn the aliens’ language and allow them to communicate. She discovers that they actually have two forms of language, a spoken form, which humans could never hope to speak because the sounds are impossible for us to make, and a written form, different from any written language on Earth in that it has no correspondence to spoken language and has a very unusual structure. As she learns the language it begins to change how she thinks. At the same time, it’s a drama about Louise’s relationship with her daughter, and it bounces back and forth between vignettes of her daughter and scenes where Dr. Banks is figuring out the alien language.

It’s a hard story to describe without giving away what makes it special, so you’re going to have to trust me on this, but you need to experience it. If you can, set aside an hour or so, get your hands on the story, and read it. Once you’ve read it, or if you don’t think you’ll get around to reading it, then go see the movie. The movie is almost as good as the story. There’s a little bit of added geopolitical drama that I don’t remember being as prominent in the story, but that’s ok. The core idea is still there and it’s done well. This is the type of intelligent science fiction that makes my whole brain light up, and is a reminder that great sci-fi is about ideas, not flashy space battles.  Do yourself a favor, take a break from current events, and check out this excellent story.

 

Double Book Review: Among Others & Rocannon’s World

This week I had the good fortune to finish two books that I enjoyed in rapid succession, so I figure I might as well review them that way too! First up, Among Others by Jo Walton:

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Among Others is a sort of coming-of-age story, told in the form of diary entries by a 15 year old Welsh girl named Mori. It starts shortly after a car accident which killed her twin sister and left her crippled, as she is shipped off to live with her estranged father and rich aunts, who in turn send her to a girl’s boarding school, which she hates. Mori is obsessed with reading sci-fi and fantasy, and regularly interacts with fairies and does magic to protect herself from her mother, who is an evil witch. At least, that’s what Mori thinks. Interestingly, it is never entirely clear how real the magic and the fairies in this book are, and this is something that Mori is aware of and grapples with, making for an interesting take on magical realism.

Among Others won the top awards in sci-fi and fantasy, the Hugo and the Nebula, and it’s no wonder. This book is precision targeted to hit awkward smart kids who never quite fit in and found solace in SF right in the feels, and those kids grow up and vote for the Nebula and Hugo awards. Mori is a voracious reader, and the novel is a laundry list of classic SF novels. Part of the fun of the book is reading along as Mori discovers, and reacts to, all these famous authors and books.

At the same time, the book is really about finding your place in the world when you are different, which means finding others who are different in the same way. It’s a quiet, thoughtful, and melancholy story, but it also has plenty of moments of charm and humor. The tone of the book reminded me of Station Eleven or The Namesake, both of which I also enjoyed thoroughly.

My only complaint about Among Others is that it ends somewhat abruptly, but I really enjoyed reading it and I would recommend it, especially to fans of classic SF. And speaking of classic SF, apparently SF legend Ursula K. LeGuin, whose books Mori loves, also enjoyed Among Others, and she happens to be the author of the second book I’m reviewing in this post!

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Rocannon’s World is LeGuin’s first novel, and was published in 1966. It is a bit more pulpy and less serious than some of the later books that made LeGuin famous, like Left Hand of Darkness or The Dispossessed, but even in this first novel her writing is beautiful. The story follows a man named Rocannon, who is an ethnologist from a futuristic society who is exploring a planet populated by several races of human-like people at a medieval technology level. Rocannon’s ship and crewmates are killed by a mysterious and technologically advanced enemy, and most of the book is a quest across the strange world to get to the enemy base and use their technology to call for help.

Even though it is nominally a science fiction novel, the bulk of the book is essentially fantasy. In place of Tolkien’s elves and dwarves and men, the planet in Rocannon’s World has the elf-like Fiia, the dwarf-like Gdemiar, and the human-like Liuar. As Rocannon travels across the world with his group of companions, his high-tech gear (in particular, an invisible impermeable skin-like force field) leads him to be revered as a sort of God, with legends springing up about his exploits almost as soon as they occur. After all, as Arthur C. Clarke famously said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

One of my favorite things in the novel was the archaic way that most of the various races on the planet speak, with lots of honorifics and nicknames and flowery language. For example, at one point when a new character is greeting Rocannon and his friend Mogien (a nobleman of the Liuar people), instead of saying “Hello Mogien and Rocannon” they say: “Hail Mogien, Halla’s heir, sun-haired, sword bearer! Hail, Hallan-guest, star-lord, wanderer!” This sort of style reminded me strongly of the epithets used in Homer: “grey-eyed Athena”, “rosy-fingered dawn”, “Trojans, breakers of horses”. It’s a wonderful way to convey that these are people who live in a culture where history is passed down orally, and these sorts of epithets serve a real purpose as memory triggers and in fitting speech to a specific rhythm. In the hands of a less capable author it could have been horrible and over-the-top, but LeGuin not only gets away with it, but made it one of the things I liked most.

I’ve read many books by LeGuin before, but reading Among Others made me want to dig back into some of the classics that I have never read. I am very glad that I did. I knew that I liked LeGuin’s writing, but Rocannon’s world has jogged my memory and refreshed that knowledge. I’m looking forward to reading some of her other early works!

Rapid-fire reviews: Starcraft, Steelheart, Oscar Wao, Zootopia, etc.

I’ve gotten behind on posting reviews here, so in the interest of getting caught back up, here are some quick thoughts on a bunch of books and movies and games from the past few months!

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  • Starcraft 2: Legacy of the Void – I loved StarCraft when I was in high school, and I mostly enjoyed the first two parts of the Starcraft 2 trilogy, so I am disappointed to say that this one wasn’t very good. The plot was boring and lacked interesting characters or any sort of emotional range. It was like the game makers were trying so hard to make the finale of Starcraft 2 epic that they forgot how to make a good game. Instead it’s just heavy-handed and over-the-top and relentlessly epic. Also, it was very Protoss heavy. One of the things that is fun about Starcraft is the shifting alliances between the three playable races and their factions. This game seemed to have much less of that.

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  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – So apparently this won a Pulitzer? I enjoyed parts of this: the premise of a super geeky Dominican immigrant living in the city in the US was interesting, but nothing really happens. He basically mopes around about how he can’t get laid, and that’s interspersed with some flashbacks to his relatives past lives in the Dominican Republic. The reader is beaten over the head with how misogynistic Dominican culture is and how much Oscar doesn’t fit in with it. And then he find himself back in the DR and involved in a very ill-advised relationship, and then he gets killed. Maybe this one was too literary for me. Sometimes literary stuff is great, but other times it can end up just boring. I found this one was mostly in the latter category. On the plus side, I learned some history that I only vaguely knew about before.

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  • Steelheart – This is Brandon Sanderson’s YA take on superheroes. The premise is basically: What if all superheroes were evil? I am starting to think that Sanderson is just not my style of author. This book especially felt to me like he was just phoning it in. He even goes so far as to make one of the main character’s personality traits be that he is terrible with metaphors, which to me screams that the author was too lazy to think of good metaphors so instead used the first dumb thing that came to mind and made it into a running gag. It destroyed my suspension of disbelief every time. But that’s just one minor nitpick. More generally, I think my issue with Sanderson is that he is great at the craft of writing but severely lacking in the art side. Reading his books is sort of like looking at a house that isn’t quite finished. Like, yeah the house is safe to live in, and the roof doesn’t leak, but I can see the foundation and interior structure. The walls aren’t painted yet: I can see where there were plot holes that got patched with a well placed infodump. I’m actually thinking that because Sanderson’s books lend themselves so well to being able to sense the underlying structure and outline, that I should read more of them because it may help learn the craft, even if they’re not my favorites. My favorite books suck me in so well that I can’t sense these sorts of underlying details as easily. (Edited to add: Also, Sanderson is absolutely awful at writing love subplots. Some parts of this book were truly cringe-worthy in that regard.)

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  • All the Light We Cannot See – Another Pulitzer winner. I enjoyed this more than Oscar Wao, but it also reminded me very strongly of The Book Thief (not a bad thing by any means, but it made it feel less original). This book is about a blind girl in France during WWII and a German boy who is a prodigy at fixing radios. There is some lovely writing in this one, but again it moved a bit slowly for my taste.

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  • The Ocean at the End of the Lane – This is a nice short book by Neil Gaiman, and I think it’s my favorite book of his so far. After reading American Gods, I suspected that Gaiman was better at short fiction than long and this book seems to support that idea. Nice writing, suitably weird, full of melancholy reminiscences about childhood and growing up, with unnerving and ominous powers hidden just beneath the surface of reality.

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  • The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet – This is by the same author who wrote Cloud Atlas but is a much more “normal” historical fiction book. The setting is interesting: Japan in 1799. It’s about a young Dutch man who is stationed at the port of Dejima, the only part of Japan where Europeans are allowed, and who falls in love with a Japanese girl. The writing is generally very nice, but I found that there was one stylistic quirk that really bugged me (particularly because I was reading this book out loud). Almost every single piece of dialog is interrupted partway through with dialog tags. Here are couple of examples that I found by searching for quotes from the book:
    • “Don’t let death,” Jacob reproves himself, “be your final thought.”
    • “I find a certain comfort,” confesses Marinus, “in humanity’s helplessness.”

    Every once in a while this would be ok, but it really is basically every piece of dialog. I’m sure there’s some sort of symbolism or something that the author deliberately was trying to achieve here, but it mostly just bugged me. My other issue with this book was that it moves very slowly. Again, this is probably just my preference for genre fiction over literary fiction, but I can always tell a book is going too slowly when I start to nod off while reading before bed, and that happened way too much with this one. Happily, the end finally picks up pace and redeems the slow build, so overall I ended up enjoying this.

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  • A Pirate of Exquisite Mind – This is a biography of William Dampier, a guy who really should be better known than he is. The story of his life is pretty remarkable. He was a buccaneer and privateer for a while in the Caribbean and on the west coast of Panama, but also took careful notes in his journal, which made him the first European to describe many things we take for granted like barbecues and avocados and chopsticks. He circumnavigated the world three times and was one of the first Europeans to explore parts of Australia. His writings went on to inspire famous writers (Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels both draw on his writings), scientists (such as Charles Darwin), and explorers (such as James Cook). The only downside to this biography is that it did get dry at times. A lot of it is based on Dampier’s own writings, combined with other written accounts from the time, but the authors of the book paraphrase these documents so heavily that I often thought it would be more interesting and easier to read if they would just quote larger chunks from the original sources. But despite this, I’m definitely glad I learned more about Dampier.

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  • Zootopia – This movie was so good! Great animation, full of lots of jokes that kids will get, as well as a lot of them that are aimed squarely at adults. The plot is actually interesting, and the message of this story about bias and racial tolerance is a really important one, and it somehow manages to convey it without being overly saccharine or preachy. It has one of the highest ratings I’ve ever seen on Rotten Tomatoes: 98%. I look forward to owning this movie and showing it to my kids.

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  • The Jungle Book – Yes, we have been mostly watching children’s movies at the theaters lately! They’re sure more interesting than the umpteenth superhero sequel! I am still a bit skeptical about this trend of remaking classic Disney movies as darker live action/CGI movies, but there were so many great actors in this one I figured we should give it a try. It was pretty good, and certainly visually impressive, but ended up feeling a lot shallower than Zootopia despite looking much more “serious”.

Movie Review: Jurassic World

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Jurassic World is the worst movie I have seen in a long time. Let me explain why.

I love the original Jurassic Park. It came out when I was in elementary school and obsessed with dinosaurs, and I have watched it many times since then. I admittedly have a lot of warm fuzzy nostalgia feelings for the original movie. But still, I think the original is also a genuinely good movie. It has its flaws, to be sure, but it is overall pretty good.

Jurassic World is basically the opposite of that, and should become a textbook example of how not to reboot a franchise. Except that it made mountains of cash, so who cares if it was any good?

The most impressive failure of Jurassic World is that it manages to look more fake than the original movie, despite the fact that it has the benefit of 20 years of advances in CGI. In fact, that’s exactly its problem. When the original Jurassic Park came out, CGI was a new thing, and the filmmakers knew that it needed to be used very carefully or else it would look super-fake. Jurassic World has no such qualms. Every single shot is CGI, and although computer graphics these days are incredible, they still can’t match the realism that you get from an actual physical object that exists. The animatronics in the original movie were amazing. No, you can’t do as much with them as you can with a completely animated CGI creation, but they look real. The way the light glints off of a T-Rex standing in the rain at night can’t yet be captured by CGI. It can get close, but it is not to the point yet where it really looks quite right. Rely on it too much and your movie starts to look like a cartoon. Despite the amazing graphics, the animals in Jurassic World look totally fake, because the filmmakers thought they could get away with showing everything. The graphics just aren’t there yet to make something like an absurdly large mosasaur leaping out of the water to devour a shark look real.

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There’s no reason that Jurassic World had to look fake. They could have artfully mixed physical models of dinosaurs and CGI dinosaurs the same way that the original did and had a great, realistic-looking movie. They could have held back a bit, and thought a little bit about cinematography, and realized that hey, maybe less is still more when it comes to CGI. But they didn’t and here’s the reason: they didn’t care. And that’s my next big qualm. The original movie was all about making the dinosaurs real. It was grounded in relatively modern science, and it did a good job of treating the dinosaurs as animals and not just fictional monsters. They weren’t evil, they were just… dinosaurs. There was a true sense of awe at that fact that permeated the movie.

Jurassic World lacks that entirely. They even go so far as to acknowledge it in a lame attempt to explain their ridiculous godzilla monster of a fake dinosaur, saying that the public just wants bigger and scarier dinosaurs and what are they to do? This is basically the creators of the movie admitting directly to the audience that they think the viewers are stupid and that they can get away with the lazy route of making up a big fake dinosaur instead of, I don’t know, writing a movie with an actual plot about actual characters.

And let’s talk about the characters. What character traits do we learn about them? The teen-aged boy likes girls. The younger boy is nerdy in a sort of vague way. The pretty lady is their aunt, and doesn’t know what to do with kids, and is mostly useless. Chris Pratt is ex-navy and trains the raptors like dogs. The guy in charge of the park is learning to fly a helicopter. The bad guy wants to use dinosaurs as weapons in war, because he is an idiot. That is literally all I can tell you about the characters in Jurassic World. I don’t know any of their names. Among them, Chris Pratt is the only character who is competent at anything.

Now, Jurassic Park is not the strongest movie when it comes to characterization and plot, but the characters were at least competent and had a purpose that made some sense. Why were Drs. Grant and Satler visiting the island? Because Hammond promised them funding for their research. There’s a whole subplot about how Grant doesn’t want to have kids but then when the park shuts down he becomes a father figure to Lex and Tim. Lex and Tim are computer and dinosaur geeks, respectively, but these skills actually are useful to drive the plot or character development. Tim is able to identify dinosaurs and reassure his sister that some are safe, and Lex’s computer hacking skills save the day to electronically lock the doors. (I’ll also note that Tim’s dino geekery is rooted in the scientific literature of the time. He even cites the paleontologist Bakker as having a theory that dinosaurs died of disease rather than a big impact.) Ian Malcom is his own special snowflake of a character, stealing every scene he’s in, and serving as a cautionary voice, but also as comic relief, and as a source of tension with Grant when he starts hitting on Satler.  Hammond means well, and gives a whole speech about how he wanted to create something real, not just the flea circuses of his childhood. Dennis Nedry is the closest thing to a villain, but his motives at least make some sense, and we get a lot of insight into his character from his weird hacker tricks (“Ah ah ah, you didn’t say the magic word!”) and messy workspace. There’s just so much more there in terms of plot and character development in the original movie than there is in Jurassic World.

There’s also the whole problem of scientific accuracy. Jurassic Park was pretty cutting edge. At the time, the idea that dinosaurs were warm blooded and related to birds was relatively new, and the movie did its best to remain in line with current theories while still telling a good story. Since then, we’ve learned that most dinosaurs had feathers. And not just a few, they were likely covered in them. And yet all the animals in Jurassic World are bald. This isn’t a really big deal, but it’s just annoying to those of us who loved the original movie in part because it tried to be relatively accurate. (And don’t try to convince me that an animal with feathers can’t still look scary and awesome.)

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I roll my eyes in the original movie when they say the used frog DNA to fill in the genome, but ok, they needed an excuse the make the dinosaurs breed in the wild. But in Jurassic World when they say that they spliced in cuttlefish DNA? And it gave the dinosaur the ability to camouflage like a cuttlefish, and also somehow violate the laws of physics and hide its infrared signature? Ugh.

The last movie that I strongly disliked was Mad Max, and my wife posed an interesting question: Which did I dislike more and why?

I disliked Jurassic World more. Mad Max, even though I was disappointed by it, I have come to appreciate that it essentially succeeds at doing what it intended. It gives the viewer a bunch of weird and spectacular action sequences. Jurassic World on the other hand, fails at what it’s trying to do because it is trying to be like the original movie (it even shamelessly imitates some iconic scenes, such as driving the jeep through the flock of gallimimuses, and luring the T-Rex with a road flare). And yet it completely misses what made the original movie great. Instead of awe and respect, it shows the dinosaurs and pterosaurs and mosasaur as mindless killers. (I sincerely do not understand why the pterosaurs, when released, made a beeline directly toward the crowd of people in the park and started eating them instead of, you know, just…flying around like a bunch of big birds would do.) Instead of intelligent competent characters, we get cartoon villains, a helpless damsel and kids, and a too-perfect badass Chris Pratt. I know people will say that Jurassic World is just trying to be a dumb action flick, but I can’t judge it by that low bar because it is claiming to be a part of the same franchise as the original movie, which showed that you can make an action-packed blockbuster that is also not stupid.

Maybe my judgment is just clouded by nostalgia and scientific geekery. Ok, it definitely is. But I would gladly re-watch the original movie any time for any reason. If I ever have to re-watch Jurassic World, all I can say is I hope there is a drinking game involved.

 

Book Review: Leviathan Wakes

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One of the side effects of having a day job that borders on science fiction (shooting rocks on Mars with a laser mounted on a nuclear-powered robot) is that I find it’s much harder for “hard” sci-fi to impress me. (“Hard” sci-fi, for the uninitiated, is sci-fi that tries to be scientifically accurate.) Too often it’s full of cardboard characters who are there just to advance the plot to the next point where the author can lecture the reader about the next gee-whiz piece of futuristic tech that they researched.

However, I had heard some great things about Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey (a pen name for Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham) and the rest of the Expanse series. I even had a brief exchange on twitter with them in which they expressed interest in asking me some questions about Mars (alas nothing ever came of this). So I was cautiously optimistic when I finally was able to get my hands on an ebook of Leviathan Wakes from the library.

Turns out no caution was necessary: Leviathan Wakes was excellent. Possibly the best hard science fiction I have read since Red Mars. Heck, in many ways, it’s better than Red Mars. Leviathan Wakes is set a few hundred years into a future where humanity has colonized the solar system. Often sci-fi skips over this phase of exploration and just waves its hands and says that humans have colonized the stars and there is faster than light travel so now let’s go fight some aliens. That’s not the case here. Instead of shying away from the messy, slow, complicated process of becoming a multi-planet species, Leviathan Wakes drops us right in the middle of it. Earth is still the cradle of life and is required to sustain the colonies, but only barely. Mars is a sovereign nation with a dominant military presence in space. Ceres and Eros and other large asteroids have been reconstructed into giant space stations, home to millions (artificial gravity provided by spinning up the whole asteroid and building stations such that “up” is toward the interior of the asteroid”). The asteroid belt and outer planets have loosely allied into the “Outer Planets Alliance”.

The book does a great job with the technical details. The main bending of the rules has to do with the propulsion system used by the ships. Other than that everything is pretty good. There’s no artificial gravity fields or “inertial dampers”. Instead gravity is provided by either spinning or accelerating. For high levels of acceleration, people have to strap into padded couches and get injected with a cocktail of drugs to avoid passing out. Combat in space is as much a dance of jamming communications or being dark to radar or detecting infrared signatures as it is about actually firing ordnance (and of course, it’s mostly missiles since the distances involved are usually too larger for ballistic projectiles to make sense).

But while it is good with the technical details, the book doesn’t get bogged down in them, and it has some great characters too. The two point of view characters are Jim Holden, an idealistic captain of a small crew (a bit reminiscent of Firefly) who keep ending up in the middle of unexpectedly significant events, and Miller, a washed up detective on Ceres trying to complete his final missing person case against all odds (bringing a bit of the noir/mystery genre to the book, especially in the first half). The supporting cast are good too: Naomi Nagata (Holden’s highly competent XO), Alex Kamal (a Martian-born ex-navy pilot), and Amos Burton (the hilarious mechanic). Even minor characters have distinct personalities and a role to play in the story.

The future of Leviathan Wakes feels real. It’s not just a bunch of white American scientists and steely-eyed missile men with “the right stuff”. The space stations are huge and messy and multicultural. Kids from the slums of Ceres speak an almost incomprehensible mash up of slang and various languages. The Mormons are at Tycho station, preparing to launch a generation ship to the stars. There are women in positions of authority (head of security on Ceres, admiral in the Martian navy, etc.). Arabic and Hindi are commonly spoken, and many other cultures make cameo appearances in the names of minor characters. This all adds up to a feeling of verisimilitude, like this is a future that could really exist.

To me, that’s one of the best things about this book. It makes it feel possible to colonize the solar system, something that in my line of work it’s easy to get cynical about. I was discussing the book with a co-worker the other day and she said something that I realized really rang true. Not only is it a good book, but it makes me more excited about my job because in some small way I’m contributing toward the future that the book depicts.

So ok, the technical details are good, the characters are good, what about the plot? It’s awesome. This is a long book, but it’s a page-turner. Every chapter ends with something that makes you want to start reading the next one. Cliffhangers can be poorly done, with the reader wondering what just happened or getting annoyed at the author for hiding things. There’s very little of that here. Instead you get the good kind of cliffhanger, where the chapter ends with some new twist or piece of information with such major implications that you just have to turn the page and find out what happens next. I was reminded in the best possible way of Storm of Swords, where the book seemed to have several climaxes because so much happened. A similar thing happened here. I feared I was nearing the end at one point because things were starting to feel climactic, only to check on my kindle and find that I was only halfway finished! I do much of my reading out loud to my wife right before bed and I can always tell if a book is working by how long it takes for me to start to nod off. I’ll just say this: I didn’t nod off very often with this book!

Bottom line? Leviathan Wakes was awesome. I highly recommend it to everyone, especially my planetary science colleagues. I am eagerly looking forward to reading the next books in the series. There is also apparently a TV show on SyFy based on the books called The Expanse, so I will need to check that out (once I have verified that it won’t spoil events in the later books).

Other minor thoughts:

  • Reading out loud also means that it’s noticeable when dialog doesn’t feel natural. I’m happy to report that the dialog in Leviathan Wakes reads very well out loud. I imagine the audiobook would be very good.
  • The book deftly incorporates bits and piece of other genres and pieces of fiction that I have loved without ever feeling like a copy cat. I mentioned above that the crew of the Rocinante reminded me a bit of Firefly, and that Miller’s early chapters had a nice noir feel to them. I was also reminded of StarCraft and Mass Effect at times, two of my favorite sci-fi video games.
  • I only have a few negative things to say about the book. It would have been nice to have a female POV character. There were a few times where I lost track of exactly what was happening and why (in particular, the geometry of the inside of the big space stations could be confusing and so the characters’ motivations for getting to a certain location sometimes got fuzzy). And as with any sci-fi, there were a few cases where the rules had to be broken to accommodate the plot.

Movie Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

WARNING: This review will contain spoilers! Proceed with caution!

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I finally saw the new Star Wars movie the day after Christmas. Prior to that, I had to almost entirely cut down on reading the internet to avoid spoilers, and I’m happy to report that I was successful. All I really knew about The Force Awakens going in was that it was supposed to be much better than the prequels.

So, did it live up to the hype?

Maybe? I have some complicated feelings about The Force Awakens. On the one hand, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I really like the new main characters, and being back in the Star Wars universe was pure joy. On the other hand, the movie was basically two hours of nothing but fan service, mashing up iconic characters, moments, and plot devices from the original trilogy into something precision engineered to hit older readers right in the nostalgia.

Here are some things that are awfully familiar:

  • A hero who lives in poverty on a desert planet who happens to be a great pilot.
  • The hero encounters a scrappy droid who speaks in a series of cute noises, and that droid is carrying information vital to the rebellion, who are battling against the forces of evil.
  • The hero meets an ally and escapes from the desert planet in the Millennium Falcon, after taking down some TIE fighters using the Falcon’s Anti-Aircraft-style blasters.
  • Han Solo and Chewbacca have to talk/fight their way out of a confrontation with some shady characters.
  • The good guys go to a cantina filled with an assortment of exotic aliens with a catchy tune playing in the background.
  • A cute, diminutive, thousand-year-old alien dispenses wisdom to our protagonist.
  • The enemy has a super-weapon capable of destroying entire planets. However it has a single weak point that can be taken out by sending a strike force down to the surface to disable the shields, allowing a squadron of fighters to fly in and destroy it.
  • The bad guy wears an expressionless black mask that modulates his voice.
  • He is related to a main character and the two have a confrontation where he is called to turn away from the dark side.
  • He is controlled by a shadowy figure of pure evil who often appears in the form of a holographic projection.
  • He has a red light saber.
  • Han Solo and our young male hero go on a mission inside the enemy base to rescue the female hero who is being interrogated.
  • Storm troopers are highly susceptible to Jedi mind tricks.

And there are many other tiny nods to the original series.

And really, there basically had to be. What we all really wanted was to feel the same way we did when we watched the first trilogy, so I can’t complain too much about the new movie delivering that in spades. I worry, though, that it was so very very similar. Sure, some nods and fan service here and there are fun, but major sections of the plot were basically copy-pasted from the original movies. I guess it’s fitting because Star Wars itself was a mashup that borrowed scenes practically verbatim from previous movies, but it does make me worry about where the series will go from here.

But I’m also very optimistic about where it will go from here, and what that will mean. As I said, I think the new main characters are excellent. Fin’s origin as a stormtrooper deserter is fascinating, and Rey is just about everything you could ask for in a strong female protagonist. Poe Dameron, the hot shot fighter pilot, is also a fun character: imagine that, a great pilot who is not strong with the force!

Also, The Force Awakens, despite (or perhaps because of?) basically being a mash-up of the original trilogy, indicates to me that the folks in charge of the Star Wars franchise now know what it is that fans like about Star Wars and what we don’t. I was really relieved that they brought back comic relief in the form of witty banter rather relying entirely on sight gags and slapstick. Of all the things in the prequels that I didn’t like, I think it was the awful attempts at humor that bothered me the most.

Some of my favorite parts of the movie were the early establishing shots of Rey scavenging in the wreckage of a massive battle (and the later dogfight among the wreckage). What battle led to a field of Star Destroyer and AT-AT walker wreckage in the desert of Jakku? It is not explained and it never should be. J.J. Abrams and his team know that the greatest part of Star Wars is not the tip of the iceberg shown on screen, but the hints of a bigger universe full of stories waiting to be told.

All in all, I enjoyed the Force Awakens and I think it achieved what it set out to do: it brought back the feel of the original trilogy (although I wish it hadn’t copied quite so blatantly), and it laid the groundwork for new stories. I just hope going forward that the next movies can move ahead into new territory instead of endlessly rehashing the old movies. I’m cautiously optimistic on that front. If that happens, then I think we have a lot of great adventures to look forward to.

 

Some final assorted observations:

  • I’m glad Han Solo got killed off (and totally saw it coming). From the small number of interviews I’ve seen with Harrison Ford, he seemed completely bored and borderline annoyed with how excited everyone was about Star Wars being rebooted (I got much the same vibe as I get from Peter Dinklage’s interviews about Game of Thrones, like the actor is annoyed that this of all things is what they’re going to be remembered for). Also, killing Solo was a nice mirror image of Vader’s redemption in Return of the Jedi.
  • Boy those bad guys sure are Nazi-like. Star Wars is not known for its subtlety.
  • What exactly is the rebellion rebelling against now? The Republic is the main government now, right? And they’re the good guys, right? So shouldn’t the “rebellion” actually just be called the Republic’s military?
  • Star Wars bad guys need to hire better engineers who have heard of redundancy to avoid single points of failure.
  • I thought it was a nice touch that when Starkiller Base was destroyed, it just turned back into a star (though the size was all wrong)
  • The x-wings flying low over the water gave me all sorts of nostalgic feels about playing Star Wars video games.
  • I was amused that Kylo Ren’s light saber was all raggedy, as if his evilness just couln’t be contained.
  • I also enjoyed how many of the familiar ships from the original Star Wars were slightly tweaked, as if technology had changed, but only slightly, since the events of the earlier series.
  • I really hope that Rey is not a long lost relative of the characters we know and love, and that she’s just an awesome, capable woman who is strong with the Force. There were thousands of Jedi back in the day, and they’re not all related, so Rey doesn’t need to be a secret Skywalker or Kenobi, or whatever.

 

 

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