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The Children of the Sky by Vernor Vinge

May 24, 2012 4 comments

Well, here we go with my incipient Alzheimer’s again. As you no doubt tire of my reminding you, I am of an ancient vintage and remember reading Golden Age books like The Star Beast by Robert Heinlein shortly after it came out in the 1950s. Not that I was then a “juvenile” (although I was increasingly delinquent) but I just read science fiction regardless of the label. For those who have not met this early Heinlein, it’s about a boy and his strange pet. Well, now we come forward to 2011 and The Children of the Sky by Vernor Vinge (TOR). Let’s try to capture a sense of what this book is about in two sentences: “This group of kids has been isolated on a planet where they find a mediaeval culture formed by packs of telepathic doggy creatures. To defend all from an external threat, the local aliens have to be uplifted into a technological age except their politics gets in the way.” Frankly, I thought I had escaped juvenile or, as it is now dignified, YA fiction, but the ageing Vernor Vinge is obviously entering his second childhood and wants to share the experience with us.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say this is unreadable as prose. I struggled to finish it, but if you can look beyond the leaden sentences and flat dialogue, and find the ideas sufficiently interesting, you might be drawn through to the end with minimal effort. But, frankly, the use of language is embarrassingly bad and, to my jaded mind, many of the ideas explored are offensive. As an example, let’s take the first major action sequence of the book. One of the problems of the world as we have it today is that a number of advanced societies act like beacons to the desperately poor who live in third world countries. This leads to the phenomenon of the boat people. Australia and other supposedly moral countries have blotted their reputations by failing to prevent thousands from dying as they try to sail to their shores. When the few survivors straggle onshore, they are promptly interned and often returned to the countries they came from. This emergent alien civilisation has a policy of killing as many immigrants as possible before they can land and then paying the few survivors to go on with their sea journey to find a more welcoming country, i.e. sending them off to die somewhere else. The human children are trying to improve matters by advocating internment (like that’s a real step forward). When one child fails to get her way, she shows the internees how to break out of the camp and lets them loose on the local population.

Vernor Vinge looking like every other old guy

This is the worst of the American attitude to immigrants from Mexico and refugees from Cuba. Erect a fence to keep the people in the desert where they will die of thirst or hope the sea will kill those trying to sneak in from Cuba. In the border states, harass all people who look foreign and check their immigration status. Ship back any who don’t have the right documentation. Australia interns the boat people on Nauru where they are routinely abused and punished. The idea is for this imprisonment to act as a deterrent yet, when most of those interned on Nauru are eventually given refugee status, all it does is inflict misery as the price of admission. Well Vernor Vinge’s civilised aliens are not into welcoming refugees from the Topical Zone. Indeed, he finds every way of telling us the feckless individuals and loose groups which arrive by boat are like animals without a proper “brain” to share between them.

We have a similar debate with our humans advocating a policy of caring for older pack members whereas these primitive and godless aliens have a practical policy of death with dignity, killing off the older members who would slow down the pack and adding new blood to build strength. The elements are symptoms of a more general and painful ideology being thrust down the throats of these poor aliens. It’s being suggested that the only way they can survive the probable conflict with the Blighter Fleet is by becoming more American in the right-wing, libertarian, evangelical sense of the word. Except, of course, the aliens don’t know or understand the external threat. Indeed, the children themselves are not completely convinced the threat is real. After all, the ships are thirty light years away without a working FTL drive. So the actual way in which the children relate to their doggy aliens is like unaccountable Americans telling the primitive third-worlders what to do. This is not altruism in action to protect these poor creatures from extermination by the Blight. The humans are only interested in their own immediate well-being and see the aliens as a means to that end.

This is not to deny there are some interesting elements in the way the story develops. The implications of the Tropical Choir, for example, would be worth exploring in more detail but, overall, The Children of the Sky remains a hard grind. So, as the third in this remarkably spread-out series, we’re left with A Fire Upon the Deep which was and remains a wonderful book. You have to look back with affection because the rump of humanity is saved by a vegetable. Only joking, of course. But instead of waiting twenty years to write a sequel, Vernor Vinge should have left this epic in his head. Unless, that is, you’re an incurable fan of the man and will read everything he writes regardless.

For the record, The Children of the Sky was shortlisted for the 2012 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel.

Blue Remembered Earth by Alastair Reynolds

Blue Remembered Earth by Alastair Reynolds (Gollancz, 2012) is the first in the Poseidon’s Children trilogy and, on the face of it, offers answers to the now relatively familiar question of what would happen to humanity if we wrecked the planet through global warming, then slowly remade the Earth and expanded into the solar system. For this purpose, we assume significant technological advancement with genetic engineering extending life span and producing a new aquatic civilisation in the seas, while computers augment the lives of those who have survived and provide the ultimate Big Brother system for keeping order. In theory, this is a utopian society. Apart from the Descrutinised Zone on the Moon and other places where the surveillance technology cannot reach, the majority of conventional humans have little chance to misbehave. Yet, of course, a certain rebelliousness does remain. You can’t conveniently program minds to be conventional. But apart from the usual imperative to maximise earnings, there seems very little incentive for humanity to progress in any meaningful way. For the “ordinary” people, it’s a relatively quiet life.

Before looking beyond this simple assessment, we need to think about the author. Alastair Reynolds is currently carrying the Olympic torch for “new” space opera or perhaps this is an example of postmodernist space opera. Whatever label you want to apply, we’re introduced to the dangers of old military hardware still dotting the landscape in Africa. Then we visit the Moon and have a run-in with the Chinese who continue to think they should hide behind a Wall and have nothing to do with the rest of us. Then it’s off to Mars and, by the time we’re finished, we’ve had a whistle-stop tour of the highlights of the solar system (not forgetting those folk under the sea, of course). Except the tone of the book lacks that breathless sense of wonder underlying brainless action that characterised “old” space opera. You probably remember those early books used to plunge into the first meeting with hostile forces, showing immediately how they were a real threat. Then the forces of good gathered, mustered and confronted the threat. Those were the days! Yet this book deliberately avoids older plotting conventions.

Things are looking up for Alastair Reynolds

At its heart, Blue Remembered Earth is a remarkably gentle meditation on cognition. It considers both the process through which information is gathered and processed so that it’s understood and may form the basis of voluntary acts and omissions, and the process of accountability where people take responsibility for what they think and, therefore, how they act. Alastair Reynolds addresses the theme at three different levels. Starting with human beings, we have the ultimate panopticon with the “thought police” allowed a window into everyone’s head. Immediately the monitor detects the decision to bash the living daylights out of another sentient being, it zaps the brain of the offender in motion before the blow can land. This instant sanction has a chilling effect on violent impulses. Except it’s less than foolproof. To achieve their desired results, those who aspire to badness are simply devious, never appearing to be doing anything terrible but actually achieving the result indirectly. All the technology does is turn down the heat and pace of anything potentially operatic. Instead of some great villain coming onstage and blasting out an aria to shake the chandeliers, it must all be whispered conspiracies in physical places where the surveillance is weak or nonexistent. Those who have violent tendencies have machines fight each other — the experience of violence delivers a kind of vicarious catharsis. As a world, this is more dystopian than utopian. Although the environment is physically recovering after humanity’s collective failure to act, the price to be paid is a kind of enforced passivity. If we were not rational enough to prevent ecological disaster, then we must be controlled until we demonstrate enough maturity to be allowed to live freely again. Except who decides on the definition of maturity and how is it to be measured?

The second strand of this debate is found in the work of Geoffrey. He’s an obsessive autodidact scientist who studies elephants in the wild. Well that needs a little qualification. These elephants are a form of walking experiment with enough electronics implanted in their heads to power very high levels of communication. Indeed, Geoffrey is slowly building up a cognitive bridge which will enable him to experience the world as an elephant and, because bridges can carry traffic in both directions, allow the elephant to sample human thought. This is a slightly different version of the system monitoring human impulses because the intention is to allow full sensory identification between the human and host elephant. A more interesting question will be how the elephant will react to thoughts from the human mind. Although Geoffrey is studying the behaviour of the animals both as individuals and within the herd structure, this is both a simple model of human society, and it opens the door to the possibility of improving on the elephant’s level of cognition, i.e. achieving some degree of intellectual uplift.

The third strand of the theme lies in machine-based intelligence. Because both humans and animals have interfaces with advanced technology, there are rules about the extent to which machines may develop their own artificial intelligence and so become independent beings, and the extent to which machines may actually control human or animal behaviour. At this point, we touch on technological singularity. Throughout the book we are shown how technology can augment the human mind, but there’s a strong resistance against any move to allow machines to develop a level of intelligence greater than humanity. With the exception of the use of technology to suppress violence, Alastair Reynolds assumes the mass of humanity prefer to dawdle along rather passively. Having just survived what could have been an extinction event, leaders prefer not to take too many risks until everyone has grown up a little and can take responsibility for their own actions again.

So that’s the set-up in a longish book which quietly explains what has been happening and then shows how the death of a grandmother can suddenly destabilise the lives of her grandchildren and force them to take decisions about what kind of people they want to be. Yes, there are the occasional trappings of space opera as we try to break into a space station that prefers not to be disturbed and meet a few homicidal robots living wild and evolving into who knows what. But the real strength of the book lies in the conversations as we watch people react to the changing circumstances. It’s not gripping, wow-factor space opera, but rather a meticulously constructed adventure story in the quest mode as our two main characters try to follow the clues left behind by their grandmother. This makes Blue Earth Remembered a fascinating read and it should be picked up by anyone with an interest in thoughtful science fiction in which the future of the solar system hangs in the balance — I guess that makes it space opera.

For a review of an excellent collection by Alastair Reynolds, see Deep Navigation, and two impressive novellas: The Six Directions of Space and Troika.

Ashes of Candesce by Karl Schroeder

February 28, 2012 Leave a comment

Ashes of Candesce by Karl Schroeder (TOR/Forge, 2012) is the fifth and final volume in the Virga series. It’s been quite a long ride since Sun of Suns first appeared from TOR in 2006 as a packaged version of the story serialised in Analog in 2005/6 — the serialisation actually continued with The Queen of Candesce. The main point of interest in this cycle of five books has been the opportunity to explore the environment. In this, it’s a bit like Larry Niven’s Ringworld or Arthur C Clarke’s Rama. This time, we’re inside a fullerine balloon floating in space. That makes it free of gravity so our resourceful inhabitants create their own living cylinders that rotate — ah, the wonders of centrifugal force. Each of these environments is a city state with its own political structures. The main questions to be resolved are how this rather curious habitat came to be built and why there’s a suppressor field limiting the operation of technology within the balloon. This means everything depends on very primitive machinery, operating at a mediaeval level with wooden ships sailing the air currents and quite a lot of piracy.

Our understanding of how old this place is starts to become clearer in The Queen of Cenadesce as we get our first sight of those representing Artificial Nature. This “enemy” not unnaturally wants the limit on technology removed, but the main focus remains on the political infighting between the city states. The Pirate Sun finally explains something of the relationship between human society inside the balloon and the post-human civilisation outside, but the action is slowing down. The Sunless Countries moves us closer to the wall of the balloon so we’re further away from the artificial suns that provide the light and nearer points where visitors might come in from outside. It’s here the Home Guard patrols in its largely unacknowledged efforts to keep the inhabitants safe. Although this is interesting in explaining how people survive with even less technology, we move into a more political dimension with an emerging group demanding faith rather than science. The idea of determining truth through a democratic vote gives a new spin on current moves toward the cloud-sourcing of news. Because the main character in this book, Leal Maspeth, is an historian we get more information about what may be going on but, by this point, my interest had begun to flag. There’s still a wow factor in the exploration of the balloon, but the action is more muted. Frankly we’re into the fourth volume and it’s taking too long to solve the essential puzzle of the balloon habitat. You can only derive interest from apparently endless disputes between multiple fictional micro-states for so long. For the same reason, arguments about the uses and abuses of technology grow tiresome after a while.

Karl Schroeder getting a grip on his other half

So, four books later, we come straight in where The Sunless Countries cliffhanger left us. Leal and the surviving members of the team are struggling on, still dogged by the revenant of John Tarvey who’s survived drowning to become the walking embodiment of immortality. The humans are rescued from an avalanche by Keir Chen, an enigmatic but inherently interesting character from the appropriately named Revelation (now relocated to a point they call Renaissance) who’s going through a process called de-indexing. As a being dependent on a sophisticated neural computer support, his wife decided to switch off the machine. Or perhaps that’s a myth. Perhaps he did it to himself. Whoever was responsible, he’s no longer able to access his memories through the electronic index. He must make his own memory links or forget his past. He will, of course, continue to experience life and file memories the human way. It will just all be slower. And the reason for this somewhat dramatic loss of identity? Their computer system was hacked? That’s certainly one possible explanation. . . and he does seem to be getting physically younger as well. In other news, Hayden Griffen is rescued, Admiral Chaison Fanning is still in charge of military matters despite Vanera’s best efforts to make him redundant through her network of spies, and Jacoby Sarto and his more vicious sister Inshiri Ferance continue their sibling rivalry.

Now don’t get me wrong. I like post-Singularity fiction and, more importantly, enjoy puzzle-solving. But this pentalogy squeezed the juice out of the ideas about halfway through The Sunless Countries and left us with this husk. There are set pieces of action in the opening sections and, not surprisingly, there’s a big fight at the end. But in the central sections, there’s just far too much discussion of what technology is and, by implication, how dependent we have become on it. The complex political structure also grows more tedious as the different factions dispute among themselves as to who has the “right” answers. It’s obvious there has to be some degree of unity or else a deus ex machina group will emerge and save everyone regardless of their beliefs.

So what does it come down to when the dust has settled? The virtual world was dehumanised because it was not embodied. Karl Schroeder argues people stop caring what happens to them if they are not tied to a particular body, in a particular time and place. So the emotionless virtuals find the existence of a place where their technology does not work a threat to their belief system. They lose the sense of their own perfection in the face of this barrier to their presence. Hence the need for a war to destroy this human habitat. And the converse? In a Shakespearean spirit, this few, this happy few, this band of human brothers and sisters decide they don’t want the immortality of the virtual world. They want their lives to have meaning through their mortality, and who can blame them.

Stephen Martiniere produces a rather beautiful piece of "old" real estate

So, if you enjoyed the four that went before, you need to read Ashes of Candesce to see how it all turns out. If you have no idea who anyone is when you start, you will have even less idea when you finish. This is not something to read as a standalone. If you want to start with the best, read Sun of Suns. It was and remains an excellent adventure novel. For me, this final episode is just going through the motions.

The cover art by Stephan Martiniere is rather beautiful.

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

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