Posts Tagged ‘scifi’

Book Review: Ringworld

August 8, 2016

*** Spoilers included. But I don’t think you should care, because this is a horrible book and you should not read it. That’s also a spoiler. ***

Recipe: take about 200 grams of insightful ideas concerning civilization and space exploration, slice ’em and dice ’em, then mix in about 10 kilos of misogyny, extreme cherry-picking physics, poor character development, unrealistic behaviour, some more misogyny and a ridiculous historical explanation, and mix thoroughly until homogeneous. Congratulations! You have just cooked “Ringworld”, by Larry Niven.

The main setting of Ringworld is actually quite interesting: an ancient, almost all powerful civilization has figured out a novel way to avoid real estate problems: take all the matter in the solar system and stretch it out in the form of a thin ring around the sun. If the ring is about as far away from the sun as Earth is, and the ring is wide enough, you get an area equivalent to a hundred thousand planets; enough space for everybody. This is the Ringworld.
How would life on such a construction look like? Will it still have trees, mountains, seas, and lakes? What sort precautions do you need to take so that the Ringworld survives through the ages? How do you produce energy? How do you maintain a day-night cycle? How do you effectively leave and return to Ringworld? What happens when society finally collapses? All these questions and more are discussed in the book. Some of Niven’s solutions make good sense, others less so, but in any case, it’s an interesting concept to think about, especially since it’s a sort of intermediate stepping stone on the way to achieving a Dyson Sphere.
Unfortunately, apart from these scientific ponderings, I found the book to have very little value. Negative value, in fact. As you see above, the list of faults is large. Some things annoyed me so very much that I had to force myself to keep on reading. To name a few:

Sexism: There are two women in the book. I reluctantly accept this, as almost all science fiction of the time was exclusively male centered. But the book’s treatment of these two women is horrible. The first woman, Teela, is part of the four-person team that explores Ringworld. Her primary role in the book is to be lucky and naive, having “never been hurt in her entire life”. And by this, I mean that this is an actual plot device. Sentences of the form “this could only have happened because Teela was never really hurt in her entire life” do actually appear in the book. Her most positive merit is her luck. Teela also has a secondary role, which is to be a fuck-buddy to the main character, and to be heroically saved by him whenever possible. In fact, I think I got mixed up in my priorities: this is her primary role, and most of the book’s plot is moved forward by her being a fuck-buddy to the main character, or when the rest of the team tries to save her from peril.
The second woman, Prill, is a survivor who lived through the Ringworld’s downfall. How did she survive? By being a professional whore, of course (again, I’m not making this up; since she takes youth-prolonging drugs, she has had “thousands of years of experience” and is a sex grandmaster; that’s how she gets by). Obviously, a large part of her role is to be a fuck-buddy to the main character. Oh, sorry, did I say “large”? I meant “only”.
And this is without mentioning that there are two alien species in the book, both of which have “non-sentient females”, and one of the aliens in the expedition team is helping out only because this will give him the privilege of mating. If Niven tried to be sexist on purpose, he certainly did a really great job at it.

Physical cherry picking: Niven tries to describe Ringworld realistically. He tries to be accurate with the sizes and dimensions, the methods that spaceships will have to undergo in order to leave and return the Ringworld, etc. But he only does this when it suits him. Otherwise, he just hurls all the rules out the window, and expects us to accept a plethora of miraculous devices which do incredible things. To be fair, science fiction has often relied on some unexplained non-existent phenomenon – say, faster-than-light travel – and then investigated the social and psychological consequences of having such a device. And that’s fine, because that’s why we have “fiction” in the genre title, and people can get away with a little suspension of disbelief.
But Niven really misses it. He introduces way more unbelievable / impossible devices than he explains. To name a few:

  • Spaceships that are impervious to any known force except light and gravity.
  • A pill which prolongs life pretty much indefinitely.
  • Anti-gravity generators, capable of selectively floating entire buildings to arbitrary heights.
  • A small machine that can transform any organic matter into food.
  • A nearly indestructible material that stops neutrinos.
  • Teleportation pads.

Most of these devices are used extensively throughout the book, so it’s not like they are just a curiosity: without the food-generating machines, the exploration team will have no food. Without the life-prolonging drugs, Prill would not have survived, and neither would the main character. Without the nearly-indestructible spaceship, the characters would have been fried at the very beginning. And so on. And these aren’t even the craziest things that happen in the book. Did you know that there is a civilization that decides to migrate away from their solar system, so they get on their spaceships and just push their planets along? Niven is playing god in sandbox mode, and he doesn’t care to explain to us what is possible and what isn’t; it’s useless for us readers to try and predict how any event will turn out. The technology is so advanced, it really is just magic.

Unrealistic downfall: The main characters explore the Ringworld, discovering that its society collapsed from a state of master engineers who can basically move stars, to savages barely above ancient farmer technology and civilization. And why? Because a spaceship accidentally brought in some fungus which eats superconductors. Apparently, for Niven, this is a sufficient explanation for the downfall of a civilization with the power to turn planets into a gigantic ring around the sun. The fungus ate all the superconductors in Ringworld, an object with a 150,000,000 kilometer radius, and destroyed all of its power sources, before anyone could notice and do anything about it. Also, all written text was catastrophically lost, apparently, because the survivors have no recollection of anything of their past grandeur, they cannot fix anything or access any technology, and they worship the “ancient engineers” as gods. Well, I was the one who lost it in this case.

In fact, I’m losing it right now. I already wrote a thousand words, and I haven’t even gotten around to telling you about the crappy, one dimensional behavioural psychology going on between the expedition’s team members (except for Teela, of course. She has zero-dimensional interactions). So I’m going to stop here.

Do yourself a favor; don’t read this book.

Book review: The Futurological Congress

December 2, 2015

phoca_thumb_l_1977 Futura Great Britain

10 VI 2015. I finally decided to replenish the endless yet dwindling tower of books that sits near my bedstand, waiting in vain to be read. Armed with only my credit card, I directed my browser to amazon.com. 2000 NIS worth of books later, a small library is now headed my way, including “Quantum Computation and Quantum Information” by Nielsen and Chuang, “Introduction to Analytic Number Theory” by Apostol, and “The Futurological Congress” by Lem. Needless to say I am excited, but know that many moons will pass until I can lay my hands on my newly acquired fortune.
In the meantime I started preparing for my test in electrodynamics, and learned by heart all possible identities involving cross and dot products of three vectors.

07 VII 2015. Today I had my final test in electrodynamics. I think it went OK.

08 VII 2015. I have successfully forgotten all possible identities involving cross and dot products of three vectors.

17 VII 2015. The books have arrived! Weighing in at half my body weight, they look imposing, yet seductive. The Futurological Congress winks at me playfully.

31 X 2015. I have been unable to get out of bed. And it’s not that I’m sick or anything, it’s just, I don’t see the point. I mean, we go through life having all these experiences, but sometimes I wonder if I really know which ones are authentic and which ones are phony. I mean, I love my wife, of course I do, yet there are days when I have the feeling that this love is not my own. Could she have just put the right chemicals into my drink since our first date? There are all sorts of such substances, you know: Hedonidol, Felicitine, Empathan. Perhaps even Halcyonal. And if she gave me some Antagonil or Sadistizine, would I start hating her instead? Would I hurt her? I certainly don’t want to hurt her. But what if she is just pretending? How do I know if I’m colorblind or not? Ok, so there are tests, but what if *everyone* is colorblind? After all, we are all magnetic-field-blind. What does a pigeon feel when it navigates according to Earth’s magnetic field? Is there a drug I can take to feel how it is to be a pigeon? Maybe if I were a pigeon for a day, I would have a reason to get out of bed. But only for a single day; nobody wants to be a pigeon forever. Not even pigeons.
I don’t know if this has anything to do with it, but I finished The Futurological Congress today.

05 XI 2015. I can’t let go of how many things are in this book. We do all sorts of things in life, but we don’t really *have* to do them. You don’t really need to see “The Matrix”, and you don’t really need to watch “Inception”. You don’t really need to buy consumer products in order to feel good with yourself. But what you do really need, is to read The Futurological Congress. It will play with your mind and poison it like LSD on an acid trip. It will distort your thought and twist you in the same way that the society it portrays twists the minds of its citizens. It will make you laugh. It will force you to look into the inner void that are your own lost feelings. But you will not be able to put it down. You will know that you are being played with, yet this will not help you. You will want to see the light, and you will want to shout out, but your eyes, your ears, they will all be muffled by a stifling haze. In fact, they already are, but you will only see this when you read the book. Lem’s iron grip will squeeze you like a sponge.
Maybe I should write a book review about it, though I’m finding this book difficult to accurately describe. How to take on this hybrid? Its first half is a morbid mocking comedy, which several times caused me to laugh out loud – a rare feat. But the second part… An explosion of imagination, it is enlightening and depressing at the same time, with a powerful ending that many lesser authors would surely have blundered in. Mortal words can hardly do it justice. But what else do I have? Nothing – alas, it seems as if the only way to understand the world Lem had in mind is to read it – no shortcut will do in this case. But if I find something, I will post it.

06 XI 2015. Nothing.

07 XI 2015. Nothing.

15 XI 2015. Still Nothing.

18 XI 2015. I thought I had something, but no, I was wrong. Nothing.

02 XII 2015. Here we are, taking one small step at a time towards a dark, unknown future.

Book review: Imperial Earth

August 8, 2015

By our beloved free encyclopedia, “Hard science fiction is a category of science fiction characterized by an emphasis on scientific accuracy or technical detail, or on both.”
When I (discreetly) mentioned to my friend that I might be interested in that sort of thing, he suggested reading Arthur C. Clarke’s “Rendezvous with Rama”. I did, and found it glorious. But perhaps we should mention another book by Clarke as a runner up for the distinguished merit award in that category. Here is an excerpt, recounting the protagonist’s experience at a fancy party:

duncan_party

Yes folks, your eyes deceive you not. As for me, I was rather lucky – for just half a year ago I took the third-year, fifth-semester course in solid state physics in which students learn about the Drude-Sommerfeld model for electron conduction in lattice-based systems – so I was able to calculate Duncan’s mean free path and draw a mental picture of his quantum scattering.
Intrigued? Want to read a sci-fi political novel while simultaneously taking a crash course in radio astronomy and polyominoes? Say no more! I present to you, Imperial Earth!

ImperialEarth

There is an entire chapter on pentominoes – a cool math puzzle that involves fitting twelve tetris-like pieces together to form various shapes. No ink is spared when describing the combinatorial explosion problem and the comparison between brute force computing and human creativity.
There are several long sections describing the difficulties of picking up long wavelengths on Earth, and how mankind can cope with them. There are considerations of the harsh reality of space travel and communication. There are even numerous paragraphs on interior design (of underground accommodation facilities on Saturn’s moon Titan, of course).
Of course, I exaggerate a bit. There’s still a plot, some character development, and a bit of mysterious schemes. But the reader who expects too much in this area will come out disappointed – these are not the book’s strong points. Rather, they serve mostly as an excuse for Clarke to show off and preach some of his thoughts and ideas about future society.
And this indeed is how you should approach the book: as a collection of ideas. Duncan travels through through a world where we have started colonizing the planets; this takes both time and technology, and Clarke fills in the gaps as he wills. Some ideas are textbook standards, like a unified world government that (somehow) manages to hold the peace on Earth. Others are more amusing with roots in the Classics, such as having the US president be picked at random from a pool of potential candidates: one of the required qualifications is not wanting to be president, and successful presidents get “time off for good behaviour”. And of course, there are more unique ones, such as Earthmen’s obsession for preservation of the past, despite (or perhaps because of) the marvellous technological advances.
It is true, some of the themes and events are underdeveloped, and the book cannot go down every branching path it presents. Various holes scatter the landscape, both in the overall plot and in the little details that make the world go tick: it is nice to have US presidents who are picked at random, but how this system stays in faithful unbiased hands is left for us to wonder.
But perhaps that’s a good thing.

Book review: The Andromeda Strain

July 9, 2015

*** spoiler included ***

Do you know that feeling where you say to yourself “I’ll just check out this article on wikipedia” and then five hours later when you finally raise your head from the screen and gasp for air after having dredged half the the internet you cannot help but wonder “where the hell did seven hours go?!”?
That is “The Andromeda Strain” by Michael Crichton, for the better and worse of that statement. On the one hand, it’s a page turner; you’ll have to take care not to tear the pages as you blaze through them faster than the speed of sound. On the other hand, at the end, you’ll sort of want those seven hours back.

andromeda_strain

Crichton wrote a very engrossing and thrilling book. Merely the basic premise – an emergency team handling the outbreak of an alien microbe – commands us to think for a moment how complicated indeed First Contact would be with any extraterrestrial race. This is an interesting and thought provoking topic, and science fiction is undoubtedly filled with contact books, speculating on an entire range of scenarios. Meeting with a disease is an original one, that seems obvious in hindsight in a satisfying kind of way. The possibility of an alien pandemic that threatens Earth’s entire population with near instant death or insanity is definitely page-turning material. The book also imitates the form of a classified report, and this adds realism to the sense of what-will-happen-next exhilaration.
It’s too bad that as you turn the final pages, exhilaration turns to disappointment, and all the pent-up tension, all the built-up potential energy dissipate to nothing. The disease simply and spontaneously “turns dormant”. Nothing happens to major American cities. Millions of lives are not compromised. No megapolis is evacuated. The scientists working on the project did not save the day; in fact, disaster was averted only because their advice was ignored. This, despite the fact that book constantly warns you, “and then the scientists made their second, crucial mistake”.
“Ok”, you might say, “so the book focuses mainly on the investigation going on in the research laboratory, instead of the dangers of the outside world. How is that so different from Rendezvous with Rama?” Well, there are at least two differences.
First, in Rama the exploration is so obscenely fascinating, and mankind’s technology is so pitifully crude compared to the Raman’s, that the team’s feeble attempts just multiply the overwhelming awe conjured by the book. The whole point of Rama was exploration. By contrast, The Andromeda Strain sells itself as one about preventing a major disaster, but doesn’t finally deliver on that front. The scientific investigation is exciting, but is not sustainable on its own without the knowledge that failure to contain the outbreak will have catastrophic consequences.
Second, there’s a lot of science in this book, but it falls short of convincing the slightly trained eye. While some of the methods used by the investigation team are Freakin’ Cool, the scientists sometimes perform tests in a manner so sloppy you would expect better from a freshman undergraduate. A freshman majoring in History, mind you. And the book uses “evolution of microbes” in such a grossly wrong way, it would have been better off to just blame it all on “the almighty hand of creationism”.

But do not take this review too harshly, dear reader. If disappointment is the main flaw of this piece, then the real problem is just the expectation. Give this book a try! You’ll read it quickly enough. Just keep in mind that today is not the day for a post-apocalyptic Andromeda-quarantined America.

Book review: Rendezvous with Rama

June 12, 2015

Imagine you are a child. Your parents have just told you they have a surprise for you, and are going to take you somewhere special. Excited, you let them blindfold you and get in the car. As the drive goes on, a million (or so it seems to your nine-year-old self) different possibilities pop into your head: is it Disneyland? Or better yet, Disneyworld? Are you going to get a puppy? Is it the beach? Or maybe it’s all a ruse, and they’re taking you to the dentist? Is it the zoo? You wonder how the seatbelt manages to contain so much anticipation condensed in one spot.
Suddenly, the car stops. The engine stills, and the sounds of a busy street come rushing in. Being told to keep the blindfold, you are led through some door.
A myriad of scents and sounds strike you like a shockwave. Some familiar, most new and sensual, the unexplored marketplace is awaiting at the tips of your fingers. What new toys will you find? What new smells? What new tastes? Running through the aisles, a new adventure is about to begin.

rama_cover

This is how I felt like while reading “Rendezvous with Rama” by Arthur C. Clarke. Telling about the first encounter with an alien artifact, the novel evoked within me a thrill of exploration and awe that no other book has ever managed to produce. It’s because of the questions, you see. As the human team of explorers investigate the artifact, they learn a few scattered bits about how it operates, what it can do, and why. But they are only scattered bits; the most vital parts are shrouded in mystery, and the book leaves many more open questions than answered ones. This puts upon you that luring sensation, that thumper of hearts, that there is so much that we don’t yet know – about our world, and about what we can do with it.
Through heavy use of (almost accurate) science and technology, Clarke indeed conveys the impression that such things are indistinguishable from magic; and how magical they can be! And he does this to great extent; turning the final pages, I could not snuff out the thought, that perhaps it’s a bit of a loss that I didn’t study robotics as well as mathematics. But not all is lost.
You see, the books you read, the ideas you come across, all help shape the way you think, all nudge you into some direction or other. I do not yet dare say that “Rendezvous with Rama” was “life-changing” – if only because I have just recently finished it, and life takes time to change. But I do know that the push it gave was a large one, and definitely in the right direction – forward.