Monday, April 22, 2019

The Skylark of Space by E.E. Smith

Series

Skylark #1

Story

With inklings of space travel in the future this is a series of adventures starting solidly on the Earth that take varying amounts of time on alien worlds afterward. That is not a sales pitch.

Semi- Main Character Richard Seaton accidentally discovers how to “decompose” copper into pure energy. Through some dumb-luck and some governmental machinations that probably wouldn’t have worked back in 1928 much less these days, Seaton is able to liberate the patent, or plans, from the governmental laboratory clutches and starts to really expand the idea in some related ways balanced with the “object compasses.”

Of course a dark, handsome and evil adversary wants nothing more than to utterly control the idea and goes about stealing it. Plans go awry and several hundred light years away and he and his captives need to be rescued. Nicks of time abound and through more dumb luck and a liberal application of chemistry they make it back to Earth.

Concepts

The white male chemist as the Ubermensch: Yeah, is as strong as an ox and can shoot, do dastardly amounts of chemistry, fly brand-new-designed-and-built objects under many gravities, and still woo the love of his life. In fact it is taken so far as an ultra-Darwinian alien culture declaring that he, his fiancee, his friend, and his friend’s wife to be are all just one step away from being perfect. Barf.

I do like a story about nerd “empowerment” but this is more like a power-trip fantasy. It is actually quite hard to get through some sections of the book that might have been gripping to a younger me, or to whole herds of young white males in the past. I think this is exactly what people think of when they are stereotyping science fiction.

While the casual racism sprinkled throughout is unfortunately straightforward cultural, the outright suggestion that white people, such as myself, are ultimately superior, even outwitting a much more “advanced” being is super cringeworthy.

Atomic power: This is actually somewhat interesting. The whole concept behind the book relies on an almost antimatter-like annihilation of copper to produce energy. Since the book was published in 1928, it sits between Einstein’s E=mc^2 and true atomic power. Doc tries to get the reader to understand just how powerful atomic energy could be, but of course is a bit off and very blase about the possibility of radioactivity.

Matter Attractor: I like how this has become a staple in quite a few science fiction media, and beyond just trying to use it in a different way basically hasn’t changed all that much in trying to describe how it works.

The Matter Compasses: Oh the MacGuffins have arrived. Have you accidentally lost your planet while traveling hundreds of light years? Well not to worry: a matter compass attuned to Earth can guide you back! While it isn’t totally out of the realm of the “spooky action at a distance” or quantum entanglement, it is still used with almost a practiced carelessness in the story in order to make the wild flights of fancy even close to possible.

Recommendation

At one point, right before the one-step-below-god scene I was thinking of trying to retell this tale with a bent toward advancing concepts, making characters more believable, and actually creating a story rather than a series of shallow episodes. I could take two approaches: Write an outline from memory, highlight important points that would tie back to the original story and then write a new story, something like Scalzi might have done.

Or reread the book and take careful notes, fill out technology with more modern understanding, etc. But this I think would be too hard. There is too much power fantasy edging into romance. Sure characters have crises, but generally anything more than the overarching return to Earth plot is literally resolved in a paragraph or two. I think I would have to tear this apart much farther than my abilities would allow at this point.

I would not recommend this book beyond getting a good taste of what a science fiction fueled power trip was like in 1928. Why did I write such a long review?

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Rogue Protocol by Martha Wells

Series

Story

Murderbot does some investigating and ends up shadowing a team doing a parallel investigation. Surprising issues make completing their two different tracks very difficult.

Concepts

Pay it Forward: This definitely builds off of the interactions that Murderbot had in the previous book. In fact it is hinted how Murderbot would have carried out its actions if it hadn’t had the experience in the last book. While it isn’t very subtle having read the books as close to back-to-back as I could have checking them out from the library, I think it is a well illustrated lesson that really builds the humanity, or at least independence from being “just a killing machine” that Murderbot often reminds us that SecUnits are.
Acceptance is what you make it: Anybody can accept anything. It doesn’t make it a good acceptance, and sometimes it doesn’t mean it’s even a done deal. However, Murderbot is slowly coming to the realization and acceptance that, while it seemingly free, that it wants to really be free and what that might even mean. What are the actions it will have to execute in order for it to “save” itself and its chances?
Bots Fleshed Out: Bots are really maligned by Murderbot, that is to say, fully-inorganic bots. It’s like they are a separate species. And they are, but if humans made them and trained them… I think this gets to humans as creators. Obviously whoever made a construct like the SecUnits wasn’t going for kindness or aesthetics, but some perfect, twisted entity. Bots seem to also be very specifically built, but when Murderbot runs across one that isn’t, it becomes apparent that there are deep seated biases that have to be inspected.

Recommendation

Again, this series is excellent. I would suggest that you read from the beginning with caveats of course. These novellas include Artificial Condition #2 which is nominated for a Hugo for best novella this year. I am looking forward to reading and reviewing #4, and have some trepidation for the novel that follows.

These have been quite successful as a series of novellas, what is the pressure or reasons that led to #5 being a full novel? As an unpublished writer my most optimistic guess would be that the universe has really just bloomed for Wells, but I have to balance that with the possibility of publisher pressure. If it’s doing so well, why don’t you write a real book?

Either way, I look forward to reading more about Murderbot’s adventures.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Artificial Condition by Martha Wells

Series

The Murderbot Diaries #2

Story

Our “hero” is “emancipated,” sort of, but if anybody recognizes it as a SecUnit there will be very deadly trouble. In order to delve into its past Murderbot must attach itself to a group of humans and do what it’s designed to do, grudgingly: protect clients. And then there is ART, the BFF (Big friendly freighter, my own acronym that might have more than two meanings.)

Again, as a novella this could stand on its own, but it is made richer with the universe and character building of #1. This is either a peek into the soul of Wells as an author who herself would rather curl up away from the universe and binge-watch sci-fi show episodes until the universe ends, or a very nuanced commentary that may hit a little too close to home for a large group of nerds out there that may or may not include myself.

I’ve also been reading books spanning sociology, behavioral economics, and get-better-at-what-you-are-doing books. The fact that I see potential commentary in Muderbot’s caricature pointing at the trend of our society really sliding away from being able to interact with other people might only be because I have recently been told that I am too abrasive. Although I don’t have the fear that people will find out that I have beam weapons embedded in my arms, it could feel much easier to have a conversation with someone while watching myself from a security camera, get those stupid facial ticks smoothed out that might give away my level of frustration.

Or not. Maybe I need to get back into acting, or at least take acting lessons, as my disgust with people doing bad jobs is way more obvious than the SecUnit’s scary secret.

Concepts

While the previous concepts are still on display and certainly explored to some extent, this story certainly takes more advantage of them in order to really bring forward other concepts.

Growth or change: Our friendly SecUnit is immune, it will always be selfish since it has hacked it’s governor module, it doesn’t need to rely on or help anyone. It isn’t quite that stark, but there is a somewhat major shift starting to happen.

Acceptance: The Murderbot was built to kill, and while it accepted that when it was working for the company, it purposely removed itself from those situations, not immediately hiring itself out. It just wants to watch its episodes.

Major One Up: I think this is super important, having just read the third book, to have this realization. It certainly highlight the character growth later.

Recommendation

Good sci-fi with decent background tech and a very strong central character, maybe it’s just because I want to be able to write such great characters. The subtlety of the commentary is great, whether or not it’s intended, hidden behind a slowly cracking mask! If you haven’t read the previous review, take those caveats with this review, but otherwise read this right after you read #1.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Episode 6 - Buggy

Previous Episode   Index

“Something’s happening, it may not be your friends the Fislers, but we need to figure out who this group is.” Jeff handed Al the phase-linked glasses and a report. A few weeks had passed since the start of the operation and Jeff was glad to have any development, but he was taking a risk bringing Al to his temporary office, even if it was a nondescript storefront with brown paper over the windows and a back entrance. Not knowing who your enemy was didn’t mean they didn’t know who you were. However, moving these reports around more than necessary was more of a risk.

Jeff tried to wait patiently laying his hands on top of other reports he couldn’t read until he got the glasses back. Of course he could go code another pair, but the process was long and tedious, and he wanted to see Al’s reaction. When he started playing with the corners of the paper he caught himself and watched. Finally he was rewarded, Al grunted.

“What part are you on?” Jeff thought he knew

“They are definitely referring to the DOD moss project. I am pretty sure that this line talking about the infrared properties wouldn’t be common knowledge, I guess that was why it was flagged?”

“Yeah, but it is a a bit stale. The date was from two weeks ago.”

“Are they monitoring these communication lines? Who’s voice was it originally recorded in?”

“No and I don’t know.” Jeff shook his head and curled a fist on top of the documents on his desk. “The connection was a burner, it’s been dead since this communication, and of course it will take awhile just to figure out where it broadcast from. The voice is artificial, but very flat inflection, essentially just transmitting data.” He forced his fist to relax.

“So it wasn’t broadcast from the Lab? But why would someone do a data dump this way?” Al tried to stay hopeful.

“It was an outside line of communication, the source wasn’t near the lab.” Jeff watched Al’s face fall with his acceptance of the logic. “Though we could still do a bug sweep.” He left the other question unanswered, and tried not to fidget.

A bit of hope crept into Al’s knit brows. “Can I do that without alerting them?”

“I have some multi-spectral bug kits, basically bugs themselves, but built to listen for devices not on normal frequencies, or riding other carriers. I’ll bring a kit tomorrow.”

“Oh good, I think they are taking Edward to his first day of school the day after tomorrow.”

“Sounds like the perfect time.”

“Yes, speaking of a perfect time I had better get out of here and walk back, I don’t want to look too fresh after one of my ‘exploratory walks.’”

***

The kit was delivered as promised. There were several options, but Jeff had included a note indicating that the multi-spectral radio interceptor model would probably be the best thing. Al spent the evening reading through the documentation and committing the setup to memory as the noises of the Fisler’s big day preparation echoed softly through his bedroom door.

After doing a short trial run, spreading out the foil, attaching the tiny circuit board and then calling a friend in Hong Kong. He then attached a device that wasn’t just powered from the radio waves it was listening to, and pulled out the strongest signal, which he ran against the encryption that the call was made through, it was a match.

After carefully folding away the bug into a pocket of his bag he prepared for bed, the noises of the house settling down as the family attempted to get some rest before tomorrow’s major disruption to their normal routine. He thought about how much trouble he was going through in order to clear their name. “They were my favorite students.” He almost slept soundly.

***

The backing on the foil that kept the stickiness protected must have expired, that or the adhesive was also used to patch battleships.

The Fislers were out, just as expected, taking Edward to his first day of class. As usual these days it was expected that anxious parents would attend the first day of class with their children. If there were any stay-at-home parents they were often known to stick around for a week or more until firmly guided to the principal’s office and then carefully told to leave. Kids these days were coddled, he idly wondered how the Fislers had ever dealt with his brusqueness in school.

He had just managed to peel off half the backing when the door lock beeped. He quickly opened a bench drawer and shoved the bug in, closing the drawer and moving toward the microscope to adjust a knob as though he had just been taking notes. The door closed and he looked up.

It was Mr. Smith, the custodian, who waved cheerfully from beyond the second set of doors. “Is this all of your trash for this week?” Of course he had a high security clearance as well, but all he knew about the lab were the phased windows and the sealed bags of trash. He didn’t have access to the interior and was just assuming that someone was in the lab.

Al looked at his watch and realized the man was several hours early for his Wednesday run, he cursed himself and went to the door, he punched a button that cleared a “window” that looked red to him but hazy except for Al’s face to Mr. Smith. “Yes, that’s it for this week. Um, how are things going?”

“Pretty well, but we are only halfway through the week, no telling what might happen in the next few days!” He was altogether too cheerful for Al’s taste.

“Um, yes. Thanks, have a good day.”

“You do as well Prof!”

Al released the button and cursed himself again. He was getting jumpy trying to help his friends, why should he be so jumpy hiding perfectly harmless things from them? “Because, how am I going to explain it to them?”

He opened the drawer with the bug inside of it. He tried to gently extricate it, but it was stuck to several automatic pipettes and a test tube stand as well as the interior of the drawer. He had been planning on putting it on the back of a ceiling tile, but between the adhesive and his force to remove it the foil antenna tore in several places.

No amount of patching got the electronics to give him any good data. He gave up and wadded it up in frustration and threw it at the phased glass wall. It bounced and he went to pick it up, berating himself for getting upset when he saw a trash bag by the door. It was mostly empty and unsealed, he thought about chasing down the custodian, but just chuckled and then went to throw chuck the defunct bug in the bag.

It only had one thing in it, an organic mass not much bigger than his big toe, mostly brown with a few silver wires wrapping it. He stared at it for a few minutes before gingerly reaching in and picking it up between finger and thumb. It wasn’t slimy, in fact it was dry and fuzzy to the touch. It was a bit hefty as though a small chunk of hard wood, and there weren’t any obvious ends to the wires sticking out.

He considered what to do again with the failed bug and the now empty trash bag. The bug couldn’t be thrown out here and an empty trash bag would be too conspicuous for whoever had forgotten to take it any further. He folded it, lifted the edge of a bag already in a can and set it below on top of the few extras that made emptying a can that much easier.

He was just moving the pipettes and other items back into the drawer when he heard the door beep. Rather than jump and go to the microscope, he pulled out the petri dish, spritzed the moss and was walking back to specimen storage when the Fislers came in.

They greeted him and talked about how well Edward had already adjusted. They told of their little rebellion too, they and another couple snuck out before lunch and went to celebrate at a restaurant by themselves. It wasn’t just for the exclusion of Edward, they temporized.

While they were happily talking, Al unhappily decided not to confront them with the unknown object burning a hole in his pants pocket. Just the thought of a lab item not on a bench, or at worst, in his lab coat was slowly killing him inside.

“Are you alright?” Gus paused from describing the small chocolates that each student had received.

“Uh, yes, sorry.” Al grimaced, and then regained his composure. “I don’t think my lunch settled well.” His non-existent lunch, though it wasn’t the only time he had worked through lunch and left it in the fridge, so it would be hard to prove his lie, he smiled and asked another question about their school experience.

All Systems Red by Martha Wells

Series

The Murderbot Diaries #1

Story

Teaser: A “Construct” (half human(?), half robot) is supposed to be guarding an expedition on a planet when a neighboring expedition stops communicating. As they are trying to figure out what has happened they are also “attacked.” Good thing the Sec Unit (Security Unit) hacked its own governor module.

This is novella, so it is shorter than a novel, and told quite well. While there has to be some exposition for the self-styled Murderbot to give some background, it gets to the story quickly. Having read #2 already I am torn as to whether this novella stands on its own. If I didn’t know about the others than I would say that it does, but knowing about the others I would say it doesn’t, but only in the best way.

The best way means that even though the story wraps up quickly I want to read more about the character and this universe. While the tone is dark it is dark satire with some quite hilarious lines that somehow are relatable from a character that is almost not human at all.

Concepts

In general the story takes precedence over the technology, although there are important technological issues that contribute to the story line. The world-building doesn’t dwell to much on any one concept.

Constructs: While the main character is certainly some semblance of sentient, it becomes clear that the organic/robot hybrids are considered non-human by the humans in most cases. This is obviously a very important topic as the main character struggles with caring and not caring about its possible equivalence.

The Feed: In some ways it might be a MacGuffin, in other ways it is just a souped up internet that strains the boundaries of what a software engineer like myself might think is possible. It might be possible, but is really used as an important plot device.

Finding Old Alien Artifacts: I think this is the most interesting and least described idea, maybe an actual MacGuffin, but my speculation is that it has something to do with the constructs.

Recommendation

While I can’t give it a straight, go-read-it-now recommendation for everyone, I would say that a audience with the maturity to not dwell on the language should certainly pick it up. The use of language certainly fits the character quite well and I don’t know if it could be told as well without it.

The exploration of concepts certainly makes this worth a read from the point of view that it touches on several past and modern issues. And as an aspiring writer I find reading an interesting sci fi novella such as this to be quite inspiring.

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John studied himself in the mirror as best he could through tears. Red, puffy eyes stared back at him, a running nose already leaked just a ...