Tag Archives: Science Fiction – Hard Science Fiction

House of Suns

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews House of Suns [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Alastair Reynolds.

Reynolds House of Suns

I hadn’t previously read anything by the successful contemporary sf author Alastair Reynolds, and rather than start with any of the series books for which he is perhaps better known, I read the standalone House of Suns. This doorstop novel is a far-future space opera centered on a “shatterling line,” i.e. a star-faring community of immortal clones, capable of stellar engineering, who explore the galaxy individually and rejoin to pool their knowledge and memories at intervals of many thousands of years.

(Reynolds is about my age, and I wondered at one point in this book if it had been partly inspired by a childhood reception of the mysterious allusions to the ‘Clone Wars’ in the 1977 Star Wars film, before those were fleshed out into the typically disappointing fare of the later development of that franchise.)

There are three characters with narration duties. At the start, and at wide intervals throughout, a much earlier story is told by Abigail Gentian, founder and clone parent of the House of Flowers, or Gentian Line of shatterlings. Otherwise, the narrative voice alternates chapter-by-chapter between a pair of incestuous Gentians in a “present” setting millions of years later.

Important to the plot and the setting of the book are a race of autonomous “Machine People” who vastly surpass humans in physical and mental capabilities at the individual level. I thought it a little odd that these were often referred to as “robots” as if the term were not pejorative. There are allusions early in the book to an interstellar human faction (“human” is used to include a wide range of post- and trans- humanity) called the Disavowers, who are antagonistic to the Machine People, but this notion is never fully developed.

In reviews and commentary on this book, I have seen it characterized as “hard” science fiction. Reynolds certainly has the scientific chops to write hard sf, but this story is set amidst technology so very advanced beyond our immediate ambitions, and so speculative, that it read as fairly fantastic to me. Only the willingness to take seriously the relativistic limitations on interstellar polity seemed “hard.” The stasis technology used for “abeyance” and “chronomesh” time drugs in particular seemed almost as hand-wavy as superluminal jump drives.

In its galactic scope and range of humanity-stretching concepts, this novel most reminded me of two other space operas, Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep and MacLeod’s Engine City. I did enjoy it, but it didn’t deliver an itch to seek out and read more of Reynolds’ work immediately.

Fugitive Telemetry

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Fugitive Telemetry [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Martha Wells, book 6 of the Murderbot Diaries series.

Wells Fugitive Telemetry

“I guess the feed isn’t adequate for all forms of communication, particularly those that involve a lot of glaring.” (13)

And I’m all caught up on Murderbot. In this most recent book, it looks as if there might be a significant shift from considering Murderbot someone who commits murders to someone who solves them. The action is restricted to the orbital station of the world Preservation, and begins with fresh corpse, unidentified and clearly murdered.

Jacket copy describes this volume as a “standalone adventure in the … series,” which is intended to hearten anyone who hasn’t read the other five books, I guess. But this one didn’t seem too heavy with orienting exposition, or notably any more independent of the series than any of the other books. While it does document a possible pivot in Murderbot’s professional career, its contribution to the overall character arc and plot development of the series is in fact negligible.

If future Murderbot stories do consolidate the character as a sort of space opera Sherlock Holmes, then this book will probably become an ideal point of entry to the series. In any case, it was interesting to see Pin-Lee in the Mycroft role, and Indah made a good Lestrade. The Watson part went to — Ratthi?

As usual, it was a fast read. I wasn’t planning to read it in a single sitting, but I did.

Network Effect

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Network Effect [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Martha Wells, book 5 of the Murderbot Diaries series.

Wells Network Effect

After the four prior novellas (to be fair, the last two really were full novels, if short ones), this fifth Murderbot diary is about twice the length of any of the ones to precede it. The story makes for reading just as compulsive as the others. In many ways, this one is Artificial Condition 2.0, revisiting and expanding on the protagonist’s relationship with the intimidating research starship AI who had been introduced in the second book.

The functional ways in which sf readers can identify with Murderbot really jumped out at me this time, even though most of them had been present through the earlier stories. In particular, the construct’s appetite for “entertainment media” distractions (like mine for the book I was reading) and its ability to attend to coded inputs outside of direct sensory experience (like mine to the book I was reading) provide a vertiginous mirroring for the reader. The resonance of the Corporation Rim interstellar governance with US-imperial neoliberal nightmare was increasingly vivid, this time amplified with a focus on the dynamics of settler colonialism and its cruelty to the colonists, let alone any indigenes.

One interlude offered a little reflection on Murderbot’s unwillingness to use the proper name of the bond company that originally owned (and presumably built) it. I have been wondering if a future book will include a revelation that explicitly identifies that malefic corporation with some actual 21st-century commercial or political entity.

There were a couple of clever twists, but the plot was pretty well determined and predictable prior to the action climax, which thus had a little premature feeling of denouement. Still, I did enjoy the book all the way to the end. As usual, the AI characters were better defined and more compelling than the humans, but as Murderbot has come to understand itself better, affections and motivations regarding humans in the story have become clearer and more interesting. The arc of the relationship between Murderbot and Mensah’s daughter Amena was a highlight.

2001: A Space Odyssey

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews 2001: A Space Odyssey [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Arthur C Clarke, book 1 of the Space Odyssey series.

Clarke 2001 A Space Odyssey

This read of 2001: A Space Odyssey was my first, and I last watched the film over thirty years ago. The edition in hand is the 1999 “millennium” pocket paperback, with retrospective front matter by Arthur C. Clarke discussing the authorial process. In light of that introduction, I’m a little surprised that Stanley Kubrick didn’t get a byline on the novel as a co-author. The book was plotted as a stage of the development of the screenplay, drawing on earlier stories by Clarke and incorporating Kubrick’s ideas and ambitions for the film. Then the two parallel media products were completed in dialog with each other. In the end there are some significant differences between the novel and the movie, but the book certainly exposes and clarifies many of the ideas behind the film.

Clarke wrote “hard” sf, with an effort to maintain scientific and social plausibility. So, with the passage of time, his projected world of “2001” now set a generation in our past has come to represent an alternate history, and it’s one that makes me nostalgic for turns not taken in our cultural and technological paths. Clarke’s 2001 has a manned moon base, and in general space exploration has progressed in preference to the technologies of simulation and social control that have come to dominate our 21st century to this point. He imagined a better diversion of the military-industrial complex into the work of peaceful extraterrestrial inquiry than we have been able to achieve. His geopolitical scenario failed to foresee the collapse of the USSR, but credibly made the USA and USSR allies in tension with China, as the USA and Russia arguably were in our actual 2001.

It was interesting to reflect that one of the conceits of this novel has come to dominate a lot of 21st-century sf: a “first contact” with extra-solar intelligence that is mediated by some sort of archaeological remains. I see this trope in a lot of recent space opera, including MacLeod’s Newton’s Wake, Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract books, the Expanse series, and even Wells’ Murderbot books. I wonder if my library catalog needs an “exo-archaeology” tag to tie these works together.

Another notable feature was the epistemological feint in Chapter 15, where . . SPOILER hover over to reveal . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . This passage stands as a foil for the protagonist’s later alien-curated experiences in the final section of the book, and together they offer a sfnal interrogation of human subjectivity that is not quite phildickian but still savory.

2001 has very short chapters; I usually read three or more in a sitting. These in turn are grouped into six parts: Primeval Night, TMA-1, Between Planets, Abyss, The Moons of Saturn, and Through the Star Gate. The structure suggests an initiatory ascent according to the symbol systems of modern Hermetic Kabbala: Malkuth/Earth (Neophyte), path of tav to Yesod/Luna (Zelator), path of samekh to Tiphareth/Sol (Adeptus Minor), path of gimel and Da’ath (Babe of the Abyss), Binah/Saturn (Magister Templi), and Chokmah/Zodiac (Magus). The initiand in this case would be humanity as a whole, and the viewpoint characters differ from section to section in the first half of the book.

The relationship of Clarke and Kubrick’s 2001 to Homer’s original Odyssey is not fully obvious. It seems to have been widely understood merely in the sense of episodic adventure over a journey, but my reading of the novel reassured me that the more specific sense of a homeward journey was intended, and this gist is consistent with the mystical progression that I inferred from the divisions of the text. . . SPOILER hover over to reveal . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . I plan to read further in Clarke’s “Odyssey Sequence,” and I am curious to see whether the esoteric themes are perpetuated in the later books.

Exit Strategy

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Exit Strategy [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Martha Wells, book 4 of the Murderbot Diaries series.

Wells Exit Strategy

“Possibly I was overthinking this. I do that; it’s the anxiety that comes with being a part-organic murderbot. The upside was paranoid attention to detail. The downside was also paranoid attention to detail.” (14)

As I had hoped, the fourth Murderbot Diaries volume did break the hardening pattern of the previous books. It is not a matter of the SecUnit adopting a new “family” and protecting them from malefactors. Instead, it concerns Murderbot taking up unresolved relations with humans it knew before, and trying to address a crisis it knows itself to have helped create in the first place.

Although it was a little bit longer than the earlier books, it read even faster, and I basically tore through this one in a single, lightly-interrupted sitting.

Rogue Protocol

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Rogue Protocol [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Martha Wells, part of the Murderbot Diaries series.

Wells Rogue Protocol

In this installment of its diaries, Murderbot continues to provide evidence that its vocation isn’t really dependent on its governor module. This third repetition of the series’ charm seems to demonstrate the entrenchment of a formula, except for the pivot promised in the penultimate paragraph (pardon the passel of plosives). As at the finish of the previous book, the “conclusion” to this one implied a discovery by Murderbot not yet shared with the reader–and the earlier one has been deferred as well. Call it a protracted epistemological cliffhanger?

Of the three books so far, this slightly longer one had pacing most like a Hollywood movie, complete with a bunch of explosions, double-crosses, and a heroic sacrifice. But of course it relied on the characterization and setting established in the previous volumes, and I can hardly imagine how most of this would be communicated cinematically, since the multiplex inhuman sensorium of the construct is one of the important ingredients of the narrative.

I’m still enjoying the series, but it needs to break form in the next book to keep my attention.

Artificial Condition

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Artificial Condition [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Martha Wells, book 2 of the Murderbot Diaries series.

Wells Artificial Condition

This second of the Murderbot Diaries is about the same length and scope as the first, continuing events directly from before. A significant new non-human character is introduced, but this ART (“Asshole Research Transport”) doesn’t seem to be an abiding presence for the next volume. Artificial Condition completes a “contract”-sized plot arc, but the murderbot–who assumes the name Eden in this segment–has entered into a character arc that clearly spans the whole series and reaches no point of resolution here.

The story continues to be fast-moving and entertaining. I read each of the first two novellas in two sittings, and I would probably binge my way through all six books (published so far) in under a week if my pace weren’t moderated by the process of requesting and borrowing them from the public library individually. I assume that there will be an omnibus edition once Wells has finished the series.

All Systems Red

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews All Systems Red [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Martha Wells, book 1 of the Murderbot Diaries series.

Wells All Systems Red

This first of the Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells is a fast and engaging read. The tale is told by the eponymous “construct”: a security unit android, something like a synthetic rent-a-cop for exoplanet missions. Murderbot has hacked its own governor module and become autonomous, and is mostly interested in consuming the Sanctuary Moon soap opera rather than doing assigned tasks. When a crisis arises to threaten the entire expedition, the self-hacked SecUnit exhibits surprising competencies while trying to conceal its liberated condition.

The best part of this book is the narrating voice of Murderbot, who is profoundly uncomfortable with social interaction, although fascinated by it, as demonstrated by the chosen diet of entertainment programming. Despite some difficulties, the humans of the crew have a much easier time treating Murderbot as a person than Murderbot does in behaving like one. A human describes Murderbot as “shy,” but that radically understates the difference of the construct’s perspective and alienation from human interaction. For all that, Murderbot’s professed laziness and apathy are endearing, as is its resentment for the incompetence of the avaricious corporation that has leased it to the crew.

I read this longish novella in two sittings. It sets up a longer series, but fully completes a plot arc within this first story.