Thursday, July 30, 2009

Review: Steel Beach, by John Varley

Okay, let's play a game that writers have been at since forever, centuries before Hugo Gernsback started churning out "scientifiction" and imaginary perfect human environments proliferated in the popular culture. What would the world be like if you could solve humanity's more obvious problems: What if you could defeat death, remove hunger, take away the basis of racial and sexual inequality, and the worst of economic want? What would you have to change to do it, and what would the world be like?

What separates the good from the great at this game (cutting some slack, perhaps, to the earliest utopian authors) is a certain depth of scale, one that maintains a real fidelity to the human spirit. The absence of this can be particularly frustrating, when the author is trying to prove some philosophical point or other that requires characters to forget to be corrupt and foolish (or maybe forget to be wise and generous) when under the influence of some airy Ism or other. Fiction based heavily on the setting can more mundanely fail to imagine its environment very thoroughly, where no conversation fails to allude to the warp core, star drive, or some damn thing. Better authors will employ various tricks to evade these shoddy universalisms, of course, and we've been in the business of imagining idealized places for a while, and some authors these days are quite good indeed. But how perfect an environment could we devious apes really devise?

And that's what I like about John Varley, or at least what I like about his "eight worlds" stories. It's got all the science fiction settings you've seen before--it's a colony on the moon (and a few other bodies), medical science is nearly perfected and computer science is through the roof, cheap energy has been figured out--but I want to convince you it's better. The difference between Steel Beach and a hundred other pieces of space-colony wankery you could name, is just how well thought out it is. Or maybe how strange it's not. This world is built to the level of complexity that a humanity, with all its endless banality, requires (and provides some avenues for new deviations just for fun). Things happen (or fail to happen) for economic or bureaucratic reasons, not based on some eggheads working against the clock, or some pilots aiming their proton torpedos just right. People are ruled by the bread and by the circus and mostly live for fostering their shallow individual desires and idiosyncracies. The serious trappings of life are treated with some appropriate cynicism by those who bother to pay attention. Our hero (or heroine--medical body alteration of all kinds is feasible, and transsexuality is simple, complete, and relatively routine), Hildy* is a reporter, well versed in the differences between what people consume and what matters. She (let's go with "she," accurate for about 2/3 of the book) is a character who loves life, but who also observes life, and after a long run, that dichotomy has been dragging her down from cynicism into real depression.**

There are kludges in this world of course, and the big one is that shit works, but by and large, the technology (at least at the beginning of the novel), while extrapolated to near-perfection, is nothing we wouldn't recognize today. To keep track of the mind-boggling details of it all, a computing system was implemented and has since evolved to the level of ubiquity and benevolent control that a whole society perching on the cusp of the airless void would need to actually function. The central computer is often a character in these stories, and generally a good one, which (since its archicture, purpose, and learning modes were originally engineered by humans) succeeds in being human-like in its thought and manner, while still being computer-like in it's thoroughness, precision, and scope. He's both more complicated and more capable than your typical emotionless robot, convincingly so.

I really enjoyed Hildy's narrative style (and if it's very similar to Sparky Valentine's in the sequel, The Golden Globe, it's entertaining enough to forgive). It's full of wit, exagerration and what seems like an unintentional honesty, the voice of the loveable wiseass. Her observations appear to belie technical and philosophical grounding on the author's part too--unreliable narrators can be used to imply a lot more than they show--and Varley gets tagged as a "hard" science fiction writer sometimes, but what I find much more important, is that the perspective is less about providing the answers than it is naturally rich in observation, and in Hildy's case, observational humor.

And when you get to the thematic meat of the book, the light tone helps. There's a lot going on in the novel (and this is already a long review), but the recurring thing is that Hildy has gone down past jaded. There have been suicide attempts, one obvious complication of a long, safe life. When everything is solved, what do you live for? The idea that we might need risk is thrown around, or some sense of living life with consequences maybe, but the undiscussed truth about Lunar society is that it's a fragile bulwark against an environment perfectly inimical to life, maintained by something complicated enough to go wrong. Which is damned depressing in a different sense. And what happens if the enormous mind running everything starts sizing up the hose against the exhaust pipe as well?

I don't know if this situation can have any satisfying resolution. Varley gives us some good closure at least, appropriate to his imagined setting. [Note: spoilers follow--you may not want to me to kill 450 pages of buildup here.] Hildy comes off (and is) a bit selfish in her fickle will to live, but she makes it through. She learns loss from several angles, and redisovers the preciousness of her own life. The central computer, however doesn't fare as well. It's explicit in some sections, but Varley runs some rather clever parallels with the computer's mood and Hildy's. The computer ("he") is faced with an intimate knowledge of, and, since the population is in no small sense himself, love for humanity, even with all its nasty streaks, much as Hildy goes on about it below. That love is bumping up against his more analytical sense of justice (which so far as the locals is his application of the law, and in the reach of the CC's many governing arms) and duty (which is to keep the species, and himself, alive for the long haul), and he reacts badly to these conflicts. His growing suicidal urge results in negative attention (observed by some, including Hildy), and by injuring himself. And he goes through with the suicide, or lobotomizes himself anyway (at least in a monster-movie fashion***), letting the autonomous functions continue. Ex-Deus Machina as it were, and damn if there wasn't some real pathos in those moments. That broken symmetry of fate betwen the two characters is one literary twist, but there's more: for the computer, death really was the solution, it was a sacrifice for the species, no matter how his mind felt about it all. The absence of his gentle authority gives humans some sense of the survival challenge they're really living, and the collective spark they need to realize it matters. And it may also doom them all.

*Something of a scholar, the character Hildy Johnson named herself from the movie His Girl Friday, which was an ancient movie by then. Looking this up, I was pleased to learn that the character in the movie had undergone a sex change as well, from a man in the original play. Clever reference.

**A quote I particularly enjoyed, in its context, and a little long for up there. I hope the author doesn't mind me excerpting a couple paragraphs:

"And that's the thing really, I can't imagine [killing myself]. You know me; I get depresed. I have been since I was ...oh, forty or fifty. Callie says I was a moody child. I was probably a discontented fetus, lord love us, kicking out at every little thing. I complain. I'm unhappy with the lack of purpose of human life, or with the fact that so far I'le been unable to discover a purpose. I envy the Christians, the Bahais, the Zens and Zoroastirans and Astrologers and Flackites because they have answers they believe in. even if they're the wrong answers, it must be comforting to believe in them. […] I'm generally pissed off at the entirely sorry existential state of affairs of the universe, the human condition, rampant injustice, and unpunished crimes and unrewarded goodness, and the way my mouth feels when I get up in the morning before I brush my teeth. […]"

"[But] by and large, I find life sweet. […] I keep living for the same reasons I think so many of us do. I'm curious about what happens next. What will tomorrow hold? Even if it's much like yesterday, it's still worth finding out. My pleasures may not be as many or as joyous as I'd wish them to be in a perfect world, but I accept that, and it makes the times I do feel happy all the more treasured. Again, just to make sure you understand me ...I like life. Not all the time and not completely, but enough to want to live it. And there's a third reason too. I'm afraid to die. I don't want to die. I suspect that nothing comes after life, and that's too foreign a concept for me to accept. I don't want to experience it. I don't want to go away, to cease. I'm important to me. Who would there be to make unkind, snide comments to myself about everything in life if I wasn't around to tackle the job? Who would appreciate my internal jokes?"

***His complete loss is unlikely. And he shows up in later version of this universe (which has shitty continuity by the author's own admission. Some of the computer's sins were unethical--in his own eyes--experiments to accurately transcribe memories of a conscious being.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Review: Teranesia, by Greg Egan

I read Diaspora by Greg Egan ten years ago, which was filled with the sort of speculative geometry (if you can believe such a thing--from low-dimensional thinking beings to the challenges of navigating a universe with a few extra directions in which to move) that would have been a fine followup Feynman's real-life physics of geometrical transformations. I dug through the shelves and came up with what looked like the next-best thing, another Egan novel that I bought at the same time, but Teranesia, I soon discovered, gets down with speculative biological juju instead of funny math, doesn't really follow the physicist at all. And so I've been forced to change this month's reading theme to "books with insects on the covers." It's not like it's an exact science.

The plot of Teranesia is half discovery, and half family story. We are introduced to a nine-year-old Prabir Suresh as he accompanies his parents and baby sister to live on a remote Indonesian island (to which Prabir has felt compelled to claim some ownership, naming it Teranesia) to research a recently-discovered species of butterfly. Although the family is isolated, their existence is known through contact with the closest inhabited island, and Prabir's (foolish) online correspondences. The local revolutionary politics catches up to them just enough for tragedy, and Prabir spends the middle of the book escaping from the island, from a refugee camp, from idiot relatives, protecting his sister from these environments, and generally cultivating a bounty of shame and guilt. It's a decade later, and also quite late in the book, when his sister decides to return to Teranesia to chase some more recent biological finds, and Prabir chases after her, coming to grips with his own past, as well as rooting out the mysteries his parents were just beginning to uncover.

Egan's scientific ideas are out there (it's fiction!), almost certainly extending past the plausible, but characteristically for this author, they're based on some of the loopier ideas in actual science. In Teranesia, Egan imagines some accelerated evolutionary mechanism at play that goes beyond the slow, generational processes of natural selection. The butterflies and other organisms, Prabir hypothesizes, have somehow begun selectively expressing ancient genes, long buried in their junk DNA, to best adapt to their new (and changing) environment. (Prabir has become a banker, a quant naturally, but has remained remarkably well-read in the normal family trade. In the islands, he latches onto an independent biologist, who, the reader must assume, is doing most of the investigative brain-work.) With a speed of progress that only happens in plot devices, a rogue protein is soon discovered by another research team, which interferes in the transcription process in normal cell reproduction. The going theory by novel's end is that the protein is somehow implicating DNA in quantum computation, sampling eigenstates for an optimum biological reality before wave function collapse. The various scientist characters have the good grace to find this frustrating.

This faster evolution doesn't treat Prabir very well, but he complains often enough about the limits of evolutionary reality that we can call it something of a theme. Prabir is depressed about his mere genetic destiny, and digs up some rationalizations about even the biological utility of a Darwinian conscientious objector, depressing him further. Egan (who is Australian) makes a fair stab at political reality, both in terms of Indonesian politics, the operations of a diffused war, and in Australia's lackluster support for the refugee community. The brief highlight of the Indian Rationalists Association is mildly interesting and doesn't threaten any American sensibilities. By the time the story does get to North America, however, he has made up a gang of liberal (as in "arts") academics that is just irritating. It's not that you can't make fun of the jargon-babbling lit-crit and gender studies crowd, but you need things like humor and accuracy if you're going to pull that sort of thing off. Beating on straw people isn't classy.

And here's the thing: it's hard to write well. I get that Egan's an idea man, a computer scientist before he was a writer, and that's fine, but the failures here are primarily artistic ones. His storytelling aspires to competence, which sets him way ahead of Diaspora (though behind some of his short fiction), and certainly ahead of any hypothetical novel I could churn out, but if all he had here was Prabir's chase scenes and character development, I'd have a hard time finding anything to say about it at all. Whenever I have read this guy, only his scientist characters ever manage to approach a third dimension, and then, only when they're working. His prose and pacing are adequate, but with the occasional abrupt breaks, leaden metaphors, and general awkwardness of an adolescent stylist. As creative writing, it's solidly okay, in other words, and maybe under the circumstances, he could find better villains than people who study the arts. Maybe he should be listening to them.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Review: Six Not-So-Easy Pieces, by Richard P. Feynman

I have, over the years, spent a lot of time on the internet, and the sort of argument styles you find online have started to grate after awhile. Not to say it's surprising, you'll meet ten people a day whose self estimation exceeds their capability, but the digital fields have propagated a certain strain, the self-styled Vulcans or the Slans finally given their opportunity to shine in a purely intellectual medium, and okay, a few of them do shine, even in political arenas, but I'm increasingly convinced that quality thinking is a rare flower even among the Comic Book Guy set, that intelligence and a penchant for declarative sentences may not be sufficient to overcome the various self-deceptions, inappropriate generalizations, faulty logic, bad weighting of counterargument, inability to distinguish hindsight from foresight, and all the rest of the bestiary of cognitive curlicues that obstruct most minds from grasping the nature of things in a broad but generally accurate and consistent sense.* Now and then, a great or even exceptional thinker will emerge, and rarer still will that thinker be able to communicate with accuracy, humor, and humility. Feynman was a gem.

Of course, one of the side effects of reading Feynman is that once that high of uncut understanding wears off, your own brain feels a little muddier afterwards. I think that the audience that evolved to love this guy is primarily composed of scientists looking for deeper meaning into what they already know. (I suppose I could put myself into this group, although without doubt, relativity isn't something I already know in a meaningful way.) These lectures were great at communicating insight, but they're actually lean on facts. I not at all certain that I'd have wanted to learn freshman physics from this guy. I wouldn't have been left with the tools to do the problem sets.

What I didn't realize when I picked this up, is that they're six connected pieces. The progression here, examining the laws of physics through geometrical transformations, holds together cleverly and proceeds naturally to relativity. I further appreciated the discussion of the contemporary setting of Einstein's theories, what he was specifically trying to address with them, and that the Lorentz transformations (which in special relativity, Einstein explained the validity of) had already been thrown out there as fudge factors to explain the discrepancies between predictions of Maxwell's equations (where it falls out as a constant in the simplest EM wave equation) and what's expected by conventional expectations of relative motion, as well as the confusing experiments that were going on when the great man was busy theorizing. The context makes relativity seem a lot less weird, frankly.

I recall reading that one of Einstein's proudest achievments was his index notation for vectors. Basically, he simplified the math symbols so that you don't have to write big brackets, or unit vectors, or summations. It's pretty intuitive and handy, occasionally adopted formally by fluid mechanics nerds (which Einstein dabbled in), and frequently informally by any hack engineer who's tried his** hand at primitive excuses for number crunching. If you ask a mechanics guy and a computer guy, both inclined to use index notation, what's the meaning of a "vector," you'll probably get two different answers, and thinking this way, I'd have rather seen Feynman move down from the general, in which a vector is a column of numbers of arbitrary length, which is merely limited to three when it needs to describe Euclidian space, or, presumably, four when describing Minkowski space. (How dare he present this subject forty years ago!) It's not immediately clear that the innovation couldn't have been constrained to new algebraic operations specified to describe relativistic effects in 4-D space, rather than specifying a new sort of space in which the fourth dimension has separate properties. I will say that the geometrical analyses that Feynman described struck me as very clever. ("Clever." I mean it's Einstein here--this is like a mosquito calling a jetliner sort of large.) I suppose I'd have to do problem sets to get the real scoop on it all (and I've no interest in that).

In one of the lectures, Feynman had a great bit about using measurement as a tool for explaining the universe, and took an entertaining poke at fly-by know-it-alls who'd pretend it's intuitive (he's favoring empiricism over pure rationalism I guess, but he didn't frame it that way). That discussion of how the geometry of space time could be deduced from within the system was the most animated, and, I think the most successful application of his grand insight, and it occurs to me I've seen a dozen explanations along the same lines (usually with graphics of marbles making dimples in a computer-generated 2-D grid) that, unlike Feynman's analogies, were not terribly intelligible at all. I've caught the bug's-eye thing before too and the jumpy speaking style too (I don't usually "hear" when I read, but I could feel Feynman speaking in this one), and it occured to me that many of my professors were among the generation of (inevitably lesser) Feynman copycats.

* Alternate theory: I'm projecting.
** For a possible theory about my use of gendered pronouns, see note 1.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Review: Fragile Things, by Neil Gaiman

I don't completely know what to make of Neil Gaiman. I like his stories, and I appreciate his eye, and certainly he's got sort of a flashlight-under-the-covers charm about most of his efforts, but I keep wondering when he's going to turn out anything that really feels essential. Fragile Things includes some author's commentary, and Gaiman reveals that many of the shorts were written by invitation, on an assigned theme more or less, which is very good and all, but it also feels like they were written to cultivate someone else's idea. Very few of the shorts felt like they really needed to be written, like there was very much internal drive to their creation. (And it's no surprise that the exceptions were very much the better stories.)

Take A Study in Emerald. It's the first story, the one I picked up the anthology for (hi twif), and which won Gaiman a Hugo award. It's a hybrid of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and H. P. Lovecraft, written on request for an anthology. Gaiman did spin some gold out of the concept, basically fusing the two universes, putting the Old Ones into the political sphere and letting the people go on with their lives (while they can), and, playing coy with naming some of the characters, packs in some clever twists and revelations (the detective, of course, is not Holmes), but the story lacked a certain potency. What's missing from it is some awareness of the fact that Doyle and Lovecraft do fit naturally together. God knows that the styles are similarly pulpy and overwritten, but more than that, both authors traded heavily in rationalism. Lovecraft's world is unnatural but explainable, and his protagonists are always scientists and skeptics, if particularly histrionic ones and inevitably out of their league. Putting Sherlock Holmes against a Lovecraft horror is an elemental battle, pitting an irresistable force against an unstoppable object, and a brilliant idea with a lot of inherent power in it. That Gaiman told another good story with it was both highly enjoyable and frustrating.

I got a similar head-scratching vibe from Monarch of the Glen, the longest of the collection, and the closer. Actually, the problems bled over from the novel that preceded it (American Gods), namely that I can't make the sense out of it that Gaiman is trying to convey. It's a clever (if not rare) idea of giving life to gods by the will of their believers, but Gaiman has now let them emigrate, taking on some character of new lands along with their people, and, uh, reincarnating themselves or something. Whatever it is that brings them to being is a little inconsistent, as what they are still doing here and what releases them, and there are plenty of curious omissions, which, to be fair, feels less egregious in a novella than it did in the novel (and finding misty natural backwaters on the Scottish coast feels natural enough, and it helps that I don't really know how much he's muffing the cultural history). On the other hand, there's great stuff in it--a fine protagonist in Shadow (and now Mr Boy-Under-the-Mountain has let us see his birth certificate), dangerous villains that are nearly likeable (Gaiman does wonderful villains--Mr Smith has his own short too), and a really great take on the Beowulf myth. There is a love for the old stories that comes through, and in this case, Grendel's mother is outstanding. If only I could make more sense of her context.

The ghost stories were really the best of the bunch (and "Bitter Grounds" about Haitian coffee girls, and "Closing Time" about what might have been a passage were the best of the best). Gaiman is good at finding the places where everyday life meets Spookyville, and finding some beauty and humor in the contact between those worlds. I liked his short-shorts too. There is an art in making a story in just a few paragraphs (and to his credit, Gaiman doesn't overwrite anything), and if the poetry wasn't high art, it was pleasant enough. There was a bomb or two, but what do you want from an anthology, and I was reassured in the notes that the author agreed with me on at least one of them. The Problem of Susan works in the general milieu, but deserves a special mention for just being so unsettling. For anyone who ever loved Narnia: did Susan get a fair break being, basically, damned for being a girl? What kind of God picks favorites and tortures the rest (and never mind the sexism)? As the author notes, it was meant to be as fundamentally unsatisfying as Narnia ultimately was, and it succeeds.

In all, I like Gaiman's brushwork and use of color and shadow, and the composition seems to be almost there. Now when's he going to give us the masterpiece?

Monday, July 06, 2009

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

(Or at least my first one.)

Hey New Englanders, just think: it could have been worse. Last week could have been your long-planned summer vacation. Back on Friday, the predictions of mere afternoon thunderstorms could have been optimistically read to imply the hopes of morning sun, with nothing more unpleasant in store than the usual sort of oppressive humidity that makes the beaches of the east coast seem like a good destination. But as mere threats of showers turned into the reality of a week-long deluge, those hopes sputtered like the incessant sizzle of rain on a gray sidewalk, a not-uncommon view from the front door of our rented cottage, as three sodden generations of eyes stared hopefully for a sufficient break to make one of our doleful processions to the seawall, in which we could descend to the lonely beach in a line, like the bedraggled priests and priestesses of some lugubrious god*.

Hampton Beach in New Hampshire is an attractive little strip of sand across the street from a seedy midway (complete with a selection of junk souvenir shops and inedible food), but it dies out pretty quickly. North of the beach, and past a little settled outcrop, there's a long stretch of concrete barrier behind which lies an expanse of shore that is only beachy at low tide, and, on the other side of the road, summer cottages, where we rented a place with the kids and the parents. The cottages comprise a much nicer neighborhood than the tourist trap, and winding still further north along the shore finds you some lovely state parks and the homes of the really rich. In the North Hampton stretch, where we were, the waves at high tide sometimes crash up over the jersey wall, which is an impressive sight, but they can also strike incautious pedestrians, which isn't so great when you've only brought one sweatshirt. Along the upper reaches of the beach, below the wall, rough-cut granite obelisks have been dumped unceremoniously everywhere, to prevent erosion I imagine, lying at all angles in a bed of rocks, which are weathered like river stones. (So the erosion prevention is temporary--gotta be rough on the concrete.) As the waves retreat, the gravel sounds an immense and satisfying clatter like a blues man riffing on a gigantic washboard. As the tide ebbs, a beach is revealed below this, with firm, dense sand that is great for walking and throwing a football around, which we did infrequently last week. I have no idea what it's like when it's crowded.

It wasn't just rainy, but also cold. On July 1, we went out to a restaurant and asked to sit near the roaring fireplace. The first night, I walked down to the beach with my wife (perhaps thereupon to investigate one of these long romantic walks of which I've heard mention), and nearly went into teeth-chattering convulsions. It feels like the temperature drops about 20 degrees when you go past the wall, and for much of the week, mist picked up from the ocean and blew across the strand in great billowing sheets. It was a great scene, and quite eerie. With only 50 yards of visibility or so, you could look three ways and pretend that you were the only person on earth. (I did actually snap a triptych like that, and intended to post it with some other photos, but that will require my mother solving enough digital mysteries to extract the photos from her camera and email them to me. Might be a while.)

Fortunately, nerds can keep themselves occupied without a lot of fresh air and exercise. The kids had their own loft, which eased the awful space constraints, and we revved up our family jug band once a day or so, playing the same five songs all of us know until we couldn't stand it anymore (or until the booze made us too clumsy). And we broke off into shopping parties, and for a cultured night out or two. What beachgoers there were were almost exclusively surfers, and that might have been an outlet for my wife and me (there was a rental place up the street), but we were intimidated by a distinct lack of thirtysomething pudge threatening the seams of all the wetsuits.

On the Friday we headed out, the weather--it's been about a month of rain here--finally broke into a beautiful, dry, post-card of a summer day. So we stuck around and did beachy things in the still-frigid water, and laid about to dry on the scattered monoliths. About long enough for me to get a fine crop of sunburn on all that virgin expanse of forehead, as it happens. We packed up under threatening thunderheads (and also big rain clouds), and were thrilled to come back to the dull comforts of home, where at least I have enough sweatshirts.

Which I guess is what vacations are for.

*it's been done.