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Neptune’s Brood by Charles Stross

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To understand this review properly, you need to rehearse a little of what you know about the history of science fiction. There have been several people deemed one of the “greats”. Perhaps the one getting the most votes would be Robert A Heinlein (alongside Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke, and others). In a way this reflects a number of features about what he wrote. Most importantly, he was a “thinker”, not particularly committed to any particular point of view and prepared to express unpopular opinions about a wide variety of different social phenomena, e.g. on racism. If anything, he was a man of evolving opinions, starting off as anti-communist, pro-military and “conservative”, and ending up more committed to the notion of freedom, in the widest sense of the word including, not uncontroversially, sexual freedom. Secondly, he wrote in a very accessible style so that, whether he was actually intending his readership to be adult or juvenile, almost everyone could grok what he was talking about. Interestingly, many of his books feature strong female characters which tended to make his books more widely read across the gender divide. In short, he popularised science fiction. Moving down the pecking order of popularity, we come to Mack Reynolds who carved out a niche for himself by exploring the economics of the future. If Heinlein was thinking about who was going to be important in the future, e.g. the heroic Johnny Rico in Starship Troopers is Filipino, Reynolds was doing the grunt work in calculating out who was going to be paying for it all. He was wonderfully sceptical about the notion of utopia with many books and stories looking at what’s most likely to go wrong and what might follow the collapse of an apparently ideal society.

 

All of which brings me to Neptune’s Brood by Charles Stross (Penguin/Berkley, 2013), a sequel to Saturn’s Children. At so many different levels, this book blends the interests of Heinlein and Reynolds, producing a particularly pleasing package. This is not the first time Stross has walked down this road. The Merchant Princes series examines the differences in culture emerging on parallel Earths. Obviously, the trading options depend on reconciling technological imbalances and political outlooks. He’s answering questions like what an essentially late mediaeval or Victorian world would have to trade with our contemporary world and vice versa. This book is exploring how any civilisation could finance slower than light colonisation. The answer is completely unexpected and absolutely captivating. Let’s just pause for a moment. If we assume the colony world accepts it is indebted to the “mother” planetary system, how would it pay off the debt if it takes a century to fly from one to the other? The answer comes in the development of slow money. The problem with cash is that it’s inherently volatile. Markets boom and bust, the values of currencies fluctuate. Such mediums of exchange are inadequate for debt that may have to span several centuries. Even adopting commodities like gold may not have the requisite quality of longevity because who’s to say the commodity we consider valuable today will retain that value in five hundred years time when the debt might fall due? So an upper tier of money for transactions between star systems is necessary and most elegantly explored in this book.

Charles Stross welcomes book critics

Charles Stross welcomes book critics

 

Of course economic development never occurs in a vacuum. There has to be a supportive cultural context and it must be resilient enough to withstand attacks from both within and without. Take the phenomenon of crime as an example. Where there’s money, there are people who covet it and seek to possess it. Some may resort to violence. Other may prefer more subtle means. As we scale up to relations between countries and, in due course, between sovereign planetary systems, we can get into the grey areas of piracy as opposed to a privateer operating under letters of marque issued by a sovereign body. Of course, in the scenario we have here, planetary systems might be indebted to banks and it would be such organisations who might assume the power to issue letters of marque, particularly if the planets were in default on their loans. Indeed, privateers might have to assume the role of accountants or auditors if they are to calculate the amounts of money owing and what value might replace it.

 

When you put all this together, you have one of the most appealing set-ups of the last decade. Our heroine is a forensic accountant and historian who’s taken a particular interest in old frauds. She’s on her slow way between planets, studying and researching as she goes, when she gets a message from her sister, alerting her to possible danger. Since they have been collaborating on trying to track down a particularly interesting old debt instrument, it’s likely one of the fraudulent parties involved may be out to stop them from making progress in the investigation. This forces her to change her flight plans and hop on a Church on its way to the next system. When the Church is hailed by “pirates”, it rapidly becomes clear our heroine is attracting trouble. Were she to be human, she would be alarmed and not a little paranoid. As a post-human robot (the humans keep dying out only to be resurrected by the robots), she takes a more phlegmatic view of the world, causality and the passage of time. Such beings can afford to take the longer view, particularly when their chips can be backed up and installed in new bodies.

 

Overall, this makes Neptune’s Brood a delightful way of exploring human obsessions about money and property through this everyday story of robot folk and their conquest of the stars. This is one of the best books by Stross for years.

 

For reviews of other books by Charles Stross, see:
The Apocalypse Codex
The Fuller Memorandum
The Revolution Business
Rule 34
The Trade of Queens
Wireless

 

The Night Sessions by Ken Macleod

June 2, 2012 7 comments

I’m again obliged to begin a review with the disclosure that I’m an atheist. This will give all readers a basis on which to judge the fairness of what I’m about to say about The Night Sessions by Ken Macleod (PYR, 2012). No world can ever be captured in a few words. This gives the writers of contemporary fiction a distinct advantage because readers can be assumed to know a reasonable amount about current reality. The author therefore only needs to use a few words to set the context and the action can begin. In historical novels, the author’s job becomes more challenging. A balance must be struck between exposition and narrative. The more detail required to establish the setting, the longer it is before the action can begin. Yet this is still manageable because the majority of people who read historical fiction probably already have a background interest in the relevant period or events, so hints, nudges and allusions are all that are required to get things moving. But when we come to science fiction, all that changes. Readers cannot assume anything they are familiar with in our world is relevant to understanding the fictional world they are about to enter. As genres, science fiction and fantasy require a significant amount of authorial effort to explain how each new world works, potentially requiring major infodumps and exposition to set the scene. Except, even with major infodumps, many of which are likely to be dry and potentially boring, the author can only scratch the surface. Worlds are complicated places and no single volume can hope to capture anything more than a few simplified cultural norms and offer sufficient basic descriptions to get the story moving.

So the version of Earth created by Ken Macleod has the benefit of major scientific advances. There are two space elevators. More significantly, the design of robots has become very sophisticated and many are self-aware. The technology exists to create androids but cultural barriers to their acceptance have not been overcome. Sadly, this world also has suffered a major religious conflict. Some elect to call this the Oil Wars, others the Faith Wars. The warped scientific view of the extreme Evangelical survivors is represented by John Richard Campbell who, appropriately enough, maintains the animatronics and robots in the (in)appropriately named Waimangu Science Park, a Creationist display based in New Zealand. As an example of his beliefs, he rejects the idea of there being real stars comprising distant galaxies. He prefers the simple view that God broadcasts beams of light. It completes the creative seven-day process by giving us a night-time display in the sky. That some secularist scientists choose to interpret the parallax of the lights as proving they are stars is a delusion. Needless to say, large areas of the Earth are left radioactive after the Wars, and the rump of countries that have survived are now secular. This does not, of itself, deny the practice of religion. But it leaves the issue in a kind of cultural limbo where no official cognisance is accorded practitioners. In a way, it’s as if all those who wish to believe in any religion have been sent to Coventry. Not unnaturally, a significant amount of time must have passed for this cultural norm to emerge and become the foundation of behaviour in everyday life, including government and policing procedures.

Ken Macleod finding a bridge, for once, over still waters

All this creates a major problem for Ken Macleod. Unless a sizeable part of the book is devoted to explaining how all this technology was developed and how the cultural norms evolved, the entire context for the action will be superficial. Yet, if he does spend the book describing the history and explaining how these people arrived in this situation, he has a completely different book to the one he hoped to write. Why have I spent so much time on this? The answer is that the trigger for the action is the murder of a Catholic priest. It falls to Detective Inspector Adam Ferguson, one of Scotland’s finest, and his leki (Law Enforcement Kinetic Intelligence) to investigate. A leki is a relatively self-aware robot designed for police work. The given name of Ferguson’s partner is Skullcrusher but, for PR purposes, it’s actually addressed as Skulk. So we come to the nub of all this. Ken Macleod does refer to events like Roberto Calvi’s death in 1982. But this can’t be our Roberto Calvi because, in the timeline suggested, we can’t develop all this technology, fight a nuclear world war and recover to this level of civilisation. So Ken Macleod is trying to use our history as a kind of shorthand to explain events in this fictional world. Needless to say, the result is unnecessary confusion. It would have been far better to begin with the murder, introduce some of the cultural context through the dialogue between the characters including the leki, and then have flashbacks to explain the wars and the secularisation process. Put another way, if an author is going to attack the notion of organised religion or suggest the secular culture following secularisation is somehow superior, he has to do rather better than this superficial farrago of half-explained historical facts and cultural implications.

Indeed, if this book was really about the exactitude of religious beliefs as represented by people like John Richard Campbell, it would fail because these characters would be so extreme, they would be comic caricatures. If you’re intending to do a hatchet job on extremism in religious belief, you don’t begin with someone whose beliefs are so far from the mainstream. You gently expose someone more obviously moderate and show the danger inherent in everyone. Rather this book is about the robots who are, not to put too fine a point on it, genuinely fascinating. Skulk, unlike his intuitively competent human partner, is shown in the best possible light — it even offers counselling sessions to a human veteran of the Wars. The essence of the plot is the effect of interaction between man and machine. As two of the many who interact with machine-based artificial intelligence, Campbell and Ferguson are programming the machines they talk with. Well, that’s rather begging the question, isn’t it. If the relevant machines are self-aware as a result of their survival in the Faith Wars, can they still be programmed in the sense of being given commands they must obey? Or is it all about persuasion and the choices self-aware “beings” make? Perhaps the humans who have the better belief systems make convincing arguments to the robots. Perhaps the robots, like the humans, have those whose experiences lead them to form certain beliefs while others become cynics. As an outcome, it’s always possible that humans and robots can independently choose to be fanatics.

I’m telling you all this because The Night Sessions is almost a wonderful book and the fact Ken Macleod fails to carry it off is deeply frustrating. Once we get into the second half, the pace picks up and everything in the police procedural and the broader techno-thriller modes come together to make a rousing ending. But the initial set-up is stodgy and, overall, there’s too much exposition crammed into slightly indigestible chunks. So here comes the pitch. When you look back, it’s actually very good. Everything you need to know is there to allow the plot to hang together convincingly. If you’re prepared to be patient, this book repays the effort with a genuinely fascinating story of how people and robots can make the wrong choices. But this is not a book for the impatient nor will those who take the Bible as literal truth find much to enjoy.

For my review of another novel by Ken Macleod, see The Restoration Game.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Real Steel (2011)

So you can understand my review of Real Steel, I need to explain a little about my reaction to one of the film genres. Well, perhaps genre is too strong a word. Subtype might be better. Let’s take the Hollywood view of most men. They are born emotionally stunted and, without the help of women, they are almost completely helpless except in the sex department. In that one area, male dominance is usually preserved. Now let’s cut to the chase. Sex usually produces children and, in that emotional area, man’s normal stuntedness is elevated to complete dysfunctionality. Put in simple terms, your normally inarticulate and pathetic human being falls to pieces when confronted by a mirror image of himself. Now we have the refinement which is the subject of this review. Man produces offspring. Man cannot cope with responsibility. Man runs off into the wild blue yonder. Years later, Mom dies and, guess what, there’s no-one else to look after junior. That requires us to sit through endless mush as father and son bond and, according to the script, both emerge better human beings. My reaction to this subtype of film? I find them vomit-inducing. Although I have yet to actually vomit in a cinema — I’m fundamentally too polite for such excessive behaviour — I leave feeling ill and urgently in need of alcohol to calm my shattered sensibilities.

Hugh Jackman and Evangeline Lilly test out their product placement skills

 

Well Real Steel is not just mawkishly sentimental. The director, Shawn Levy has, with the help of scriptwriter John Gatkins (borrowing from a short story by Richard Matheson which aired as an episode in The Twilight Zone in 1963), produced a real work of art. This is not just sentimental. Far from it. This takes sentimentality and amplifies it, and then reinforces it, and then makes it into a club and beats you over the head with it. Indeed, this film does for sentimentality what Ed Wood so valiantly did for science fiction. Namely, puts something on the screen that’s hilariously over the top in its attempts to manipulate the audience and so actually quite entertaining. Believe me when I tell you — I never expected to be able to write a review calling a father/son bonding film “entertaining”.

 

So here we go with what’s supposed to be the plot. In the not so distant future (it’s supposed to be science fiction, after all) human boxing has been replaced by robots panel-beating each other on the way to the great scrapyard in the sky. Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) was one of the last human boxers and, at his best, he was able to go twelve rounds with the contender for world champion. In the next fight, his opponent became world champion and was undefeated for three years, i.e. this good-looking hunk was a real fighter and almost the Cinderella Man (aka James Braddock channelled by Russell Crowe). But he ended up a loser in every sense of the word. Abandoning every shred of intelligence, he consigned himself to the scrapheap of life, living from moment to moment, no longer concerned he was a dead man walking.

 

Meanwhile, his son Max (Dakota Goyo) grows to the age of eleven. When the court officials contact Charlie, he’s at rock bottom, owing money to two sharks and without a robot left to fight with. Fortunately, his sister-in-law Debra (Hope Davis) and her husband Marvin (James Rebhorn) are rich, so Charlie sells his right to custody of the boy to them for $100,000 (half up front) which gives him enough to buy another robot. There’s just one catch. He has to look after the boy for the summer. Charlie does have a woman who loves him. This is the daughter of his ex-coach Bailey Tallet (Evangeline Lilly) who looks a little lost trying to keep the old gym going. This new, old robot gets decapitated and the father-son combo find an even older robot in a scrapyard (where else). It cleans up good and it shows it’s got empathy (they call it a shadow ability to match the exact movements of whatever it’s watching). Needless to say, the boy and this inarticulate metal hunk bond almost immediately. This gives him a father substitute while his human equivalent follows the script. Now the old punchy underdog begins to win matches. He works his way up the rankings. Even dead-from-the-neck-upward Dad gets interested enough to teach him how to box, human-style. Max names “him” Atom. When Atom beats a world-ranking robot, uppity son challenges the unbeaten world champion. Unfortunately, Dad is then beaten to a pulp by a bad-tempered creditor. Dad responds to this set-back by returning the boy to his Uncle and Aunt.

Dakota Goyo acting the role of a young boy in search of a father

 

However, after a monosyllabic discussion with Bailey, largely in subhuman grunts prefaced by a little mutual grooming, he decides to return to fight for his son (both literally and metaphorically). Incidentally, the world champion’s handlers are blackmailed by public opinion into giving the no-hope robot a shot at the title. Those of you who’ve seen the Cinderella Man will be following this plot with interest — arrogant champion, disliked by the public, fights underdog. However, the actual outcome follows the first Rocky, with our plucky robot emerging the People’s Champion. What makes all this really exciting is that, when the remote control fails, Charlie has to show the robot how to fight the champion. Yes, that’s right. Our magic robot can not only stand and take a beating that no other robot of steel could take without buckling, he can also keep both eyes firmly on Charlie and follow his every move. That way, Charlie gets back his self-respect as a fighter, wins the affection of his son by being a noble loser all over again, and confesses his love for Bailey who’s travelled all the way to New York just to watch the fight. There are other twists and turns that nail the sentimentality to the highest flagpole in the land but, by then, we’re just cheering Charlie and his magic robot on as they fight for the world title.

Atom, the robot with the heart of a lion

 

It’s a good ensemble piece with lots of familiar faces popping into view every now and again. Dakota Goyo is another of these precocious children who can just stand in front of a camera and not look embarrassed, while Hugh Jackman does quite well to keep a straight face while playing a good-hearted but essentially stupid man. The motion capture on the robots is impressive and the fights are pleasingly naturalistic. Put all this together and, as a Hollywood version of how fathers should try to win over their sons, it’s quite an amusing romp. As science fiction, it’s a complete failure. There’s no prospect we could build such sophisticated machines, even including an impressive verbal interface as well as complex joystick operations. Effectively, these are fully or semi-autonomous machines, with their complex electronics protected by apparently invulnerable metal sheeting reinforced with carbon-fibre or equivalent light-weight plating. It would cost billions of dollars to develop such machines and they could never take over human boxing in such a short time. It’s just not technically or economically feasible. So, shut down your critical faculties and prepare for the ride. Real Steel is a straight-line, fast-paced ride to sentimentality overload.

 

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