recent books

Some stuff I've read in between hitting reload on Livejournal:

Collapse by Jared Diamond

    This covers some of the same ground as Guns, Germs and Steel (which is awesome), but where Guns was a history of how civilization progressed, this is a comparison of various societies that failed. It's pretty interesting, especially the stuff about Greenland. Basically, the Norse came to Greenland and died out, whereas the inuit who were there already continued on; he attributes this to the Norse's unwillingness to adapt to their new circumstances.

Toast by Charlie Stross

    A bunch of short stories. My favorite by far is "A Colder War", which asks, "what if the technology from Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness was recovered and played a role in WWII and the cold war?" I'm a sucker for Lovecraft sequels.

The Clan Corporate by Charlie Stross

    The sequel, or more accurately, second half of, The Family Trade, which I read last year. It's great -- but it again ends in a cliffhanger. This is what happens when you start reading serieses by authors who are not safely dead.

Accelerando by Charlie Stross

    This story follows a nerd and his family through the transition to superhuman intelligences, and first contact with aliens. It covers a long period of time, and so many of the stories feel a bit disjoint. I wasn't crazy about the ending, and it suffers from the problem that a lot of "singularity" stories do: once your protagonists are effectively immortal, with redundant backups and the ability to fork off clones of themselves, there's not a lot of room left for, well, trouble. It's hard to sympathize with the fates of people who are pretty much incapable of ever being in danger. It's doesn't have this problem nearly as badly as Schild's Ladder did, though.

The Collapsium by Wil McCarthy

    Another singularity story, and in this one, for the first 90% of the book, "peril" is replaced by "court intrigue", I guess under the theory that immortals with nothing to do would turn into Victorian aristocrats. Then the bad guy tries to kill the world. "Oh bother", says the emotionless shell of a protagonist. Ho hum.

    I now promise myself that I'm not going to read books like this any more.

The Oblivion Society by Marcus Alexander Hart

    marcus132 (the author) was kind enough to send me a copy of this, thanks! It's a Y2K-apocalypse road-trip comedy full of mutants, zombies, and giant insects. It's chock-full of jokes; not all of them work, but enough of them do to keep it moving along. As in all movies of this sort, there is an irritating character whose death you are praying for, and (as is traditional) it doesn't come quite soon enough. It's a very visual book; it feels more like a script or screenplay. It would probably make a good comic.

Cusp by Robert A. Metzger

    One day giant rocket engines grow up out of the ground all over Earth and start test-firing. OMG, someone's stealing the planet! It's a pretty cute premise, with an unsatisfying ending.

Spin by Robert Charles Wilson

    One night the stars go out, because the world has been enclosed in a giant black bubble. OMG, someone's stealing the planet! This is actually the same basic intro as Greg Egan's Quarantine which I read a few years ago, but that book sucked and this one is really good. It's good because it has characters that I actually cared about and could empathise with. The technobabble of the bubble and what it's doing are pretty cool, too. And the ending is more-or-less satisfying.

The Prestige by Christopher Priest

    Wow, this book is fantastic! They're making a movie, and I hope it doesn't completely suck. It's the story of two 19th century stage magicians in a bitter rivalry; the first half of the book is the diary of one, and the second half is the diary of the other, with a small wraparound story about a descendant. It's a pretty cool structure; it doesn't quite go all Roshomon or Usual Suspects, but it makes a nice reveal. The two main characters are both nutty in interesting ways. And Nikola Tesla is in it. You can't go wrong with Tesla.

Seeker by Jack McDevitt

    A good old fashioned space opera, and frankly a god damned relief from all of the recent scifi I've read about singularities and godlike posthumans. This is set some 10,000 years in the future, humanity is spread out all over the galaxy and has near-instantanious travel, but there are still telephones and talk shows, and there's not a lot of time wasted explaining why. It's got a bit of an Indiana Jones feel in parts, in that the main characters are "antique dealers" who go out and track down archaeological artifacts from various collapsed and lost human societies. They find a old tea cup, and the logo on it leads them on a long treasure hunt toward a whole lost colony.

Tags: , ,
Current Music: DNA Lounge Live Webcast (Meat vs. Death Guild)

36 Responses:

  1. ctd says:

    Your Collapsium review reads a lot like my review of Iain Banks's "Excession"!

    Singularities: good for humanity, bad for SF.

    • ret4rd says:

      What the what? Excession, like all other Culture novels, finds a way to push backed-up humans into real peril.

      Let's see. Outside Context Problems; the un-backed-up researcher guy; attempts to blow up Orbital Rings; etc; the fucking Idiran war killed billions. Hellloooooooo....

      Oh crap, maybe I'm an SF fanboy after all. At least I can still be cooler than furries.

      • rapier1 says:

        The problem with some of Iain Banks 'Culture' series is that the problems and processes get a little too... I dunno... stretched. Look to Windward for example. This isn't always the case but no one can bat a thousand. I like a lot of his writings outside of the Culture milleau though. The Bridge, Wasp Factory, Song of Stone and even The Business were all very good. None of them can compare to Feersum Endjin though.

    • luserspaz says:

      That series by McCarthy does get better after the first two books, when a whole bunch of people set out to colonize other planets, and then realize that they no longer have unlimited technological resources and have to deal with mortality again. I enjoyed the books, but they're definitely more science than fiction.

    • nelc says:

      From what I recall, it's made fairly clear in the first chapters of Collapsium that if the ring around the Sun hits the Sun, then everything in the Solar System's going to be fucked up. Isn't that enough peril?

  2. mhat says:

    You get a bit more Lovecraft in The Atrocity Archives also by Charlie Stross. Mostly it was enjoyable but parts read a little too much like the Jargon File.

  3. heliocide says:

    That Lovecraft-esque story sounds intriguing, I'll try to check that out (assuming they sell it in Beijing...)

    Based on what you've been reading, I highy reccomend checking out The Last Legends of Earth, by A. A. Attanasio. Some of the best sci-fi I've ever read (which is saying something), with a scope and execution that would have given Frank Herbert a run for his money, were he still alive. Brian Herbert, on the other hand, has fairly well established that he cannot write his way out of a paper bag, even (or especially) with his fathers notes scrawled on the inside...

  4. "A Colder War" is on the web, at Infinity Plus.

    I like.

  5. giantlaser says:

    Basically, the Norse came to Greenland and died out, whereas the inuit who were there already continued on;

    Read on. The Norse settlers came to Greenland at a time when no one inhabited it. The Inuit invaded a few hundred years later, and have stayed to present day.

    As you'll later read, the Inuit lived and died out in Greenland three times in history. Their survival fluctuated with the climate.

    • rapier1 says:

      Collapse, over all, is an interesting read but, even more so than Guns, Germs, and Steel its overly deterministic. I appreciate the point he is making and I believe environmental collapse and a failure to address changing ecological conditions is a factor in the collapse of society. Just not quite to the degree he does.

      • giantlaser says:

        Diamond goes to pains to say several times that he is not advocating environmental determinism. However, he only objects a few times and gives evidence for E. D., well, for the entire book, really. So his claims can seem too little and too late.

        However, in the latter half of Collapse, he argues for why it was peoples' reactions to environmental issues that determined if they collapsed or adjusted. I believe he is right that you cannot ignore these issues; they affect everything from economic opportunity to population density. Perhaps he would do better to give more examples of societies that adapted and survived. Except you can see those societies all around us today.

        • rapier1 says:

          I agree with him that environmental issues can have a huge impact on the long term viability of a society. But, like you said, he cherry picks his examples and expands and contracts the focus to suit his needs. Its a very good and, I would say, important book, but I feel that he falls into the typical trap of many scientists in that he falls in love with his thesis. Often this seems to be most common with this class of books though. Plagues and Peoples by McNeill for eaxmple. A damn good and very seminal work but he overplayed his evidence.

    • jwz says:

      Maybe I'm misremembering, but I thought he said that the inuit were there before, during and after the norse occupation, but for most of that time they were farther north.

      • simmonmt says:

        According to "This Cold Heaven", by Gretel Erlich:

        "When one Norseman, Eric the Red was exiled from the new Icelandic colony for murder, he and his son Leif sailed to the large island to the northwest. Though it was almost entirely covered with ice, he called it Greenland as a lure to others to join him in his lonely exile. And they did. In the spring of 985, twenty-five ships attempted the crossing. ... The rest colonized the grassy meadows at the southern end of the island, unaware that far to the north, Inuit hunters had been living for several thousand years. Four hundred years later, during a cooling trend, the Norse colonists disappeared."

        later on in the book, she talks about how the Inuit came and died off in spurts, so the "several thousand years" is a bit of a stretch. later on (p26 in the paperback), she talks about a 600-800-yr "silence in Greenland" before the coming of the "Dorset people", which puts their arrival around 900-700 BC.

        • giantlaser says:

          This is interesting. Diamond directly contradicts this. The Inuit had come to Greenland and died out twice previously. Perhaps the "several thousand years" was the result of finding evidence of life a long time ago, noticing that the Inuit were still there, and simply assuming that their habitation had been unbroken.

          Diamond argues that they have detected three distinct Inuit habitation periods, identified by the types of tools in use in trash sites, carbon dating, and examining sediment and pollen layers in lake sediment.

          Rereading a bit from chapter 8, "Norse Greenland's End" just now, and cutting for brevity:

          "[The Inuit] were just the most recent in a series of at least four archaeologically recognized peoples who expanded eastward across Canada and entered Northwest Greenland over the course of nearly 4000 years before Norse arrival. Successive waves of them spread, remained in Greenland for centuries, and then vanished ..."

          "The Inuits' immediate predecessors were ... the Dorset people ... After occupying most of the Canadian Artic, they entered Greenland around 800 B.C. and inhabited many parts of the island for about a thousand years, including the areas of the later Viking settlements in the southwest. For unknown reason, they then abandoned all of Greenland and much of the Canadian Artic by around A.D. 300 ..."

          He then describes that the Dorset returned to North Greenland, but not the later Viking sites, around A.D. 700, and existed for about 300 years after the Vikings came. However, these people lacked many Inuit tools, including kayaks, and did die out. The Vikings found ruins at their sites when they colonized. They did encounter them sporadically, but without Inuit technology they were little threat to the Vikings.

          "[The Inuit] entered Northwest Greenland by A.D. 1200, and thereafter moving south along Greenland's west coast to reach the Nordrseta, then the vicinity of Western Settlement around A.D. 1300, and the vicinity of Eastern Settlement around 1400."

          The Vikings settled Greenland some time between A.D. 982 and 1000. Given the timelines above, and Diamond's summary, it seems they settled an abandoned land, probably had militarily insignificant encounters with Dorset people (insignificant to the Vikings, at least), and then slowly lost ground to the Inuit as they settled. Bu the time the Inuit came the Vikings had lost the use of steel, bizarrely stopped eating fish, and never had the use of kayaks. Basically they used weapons equal to the Inuit and seagoing technology that was inferior to them, while the climate was getting colder all the time.

          So I was wrong when I said no one inhabited Greenland when the Norse name; I forgot about the Dorset people. I also referred to the people that came before in Greenland's history as Inuit, but they are historically distinct. If Diamond or his sources are correct, the people we now call the Inuit did come after the Norse.

  6. Jack McDevitt has written some good ones and some absolute trash. One of the other good ones is Eternity Road, which has a plot similar to Seeker's. In that one the recently discovered artifact is a copy of "Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court", previously thought lost along with all but a couple of Mark Twain's works. The goal of the treasure hunt is a library. However there are no spaceships, it's post-apocolypse Earth. One bit I liked was that the new struggling civilization calls our era "the Roadmakers", because the freeways are the most obvious and ubiquitous artifacts.

    • simmonmt says:

      I just bought and read this book. The first 90% of it was really good, but the ending sucked. The idea behind the ending was fine, but I swear that man had a page quota that he wasn't allowed to exceed. It could have been sooo much better had it been another 50-100 pages longer.

  7. Collapse: don't forget how every chapter ends with "and then they resorted to cannibalism." Sometimes there are great details about their culinary habits, sometimes just the odd gross-out, but it's always there. Except for the Norse, apparently.

  8. pozorvlak says:

    A good piece of post-singularity SF I read recently is Newton's Wake, by Ken MacLeod. The AIs have mostly sublimed, leaving the battered remainder of the human race surrounded by a galaxy full of very cool, but frequently very dangerous, posthuman tech. Other than that, the plot's a little complicated to explain... great fun to read.

  9. marcus132 says:

    Thanks for checking out The Oblivion Society. I'm glad you liked it.

    If everyone else wants to like it, you can read the first 100 pages free and then buy the paperback cheap at the website.

    /shameless plug

  10. How do you find time to read?


  11. belgand says:

    Personally I've never really understood and embraced the idea of having a mental backup implanted in a clone being a form of "immortality". It's always seemed much more like a very, very efficient form of inheritance.

    Now, I'm a strict materialist and not one to believe in the idea of a soul or such, but my individual consciousness seems to be pretty heavily linked to my physical body... or I'd assume my brain at the very least.

    If I die and a clone is pulled out a storage and uploaded with my memories then I (as an entity) would have no knowledge of it. A situation easily shown by the idea of pulling out the clone and implanting my memories while I'm still alive: our consciousnesses would remain seperate.

    As long as I am not around to enjoy it, then what's the point of this so-called "immortality"? Give me a good old-fashioned brain in a jar anyway.

  12. lovingboth says:

    I'm a huge fan of The Prestige. Particularly as I don't think the narrators actually lie at any point...