Review: The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

I live on a farm, and a lot of my spare time is spent simply maintaining the property. When we moved out there so many years ago, I had grand plans for all of the land: an orchard over here, a hedge maze over there, and wonderful garden near the kitchen.

Then reality set in and it’s all I can do to keep the place from getting overrun with weeds. Luckily, nature gives me a bit of a respite with winter, but now that it is over I can look forward to the majority of my weekends being taken up outside. Not that I really mind, to be honest, but it doesn’t leave a tremendous amount of time for other pursuits I love, such as reading.

Last weekend was an exception. I decided to spend it reading (and watching NCAA basketball, but that’s church) and managed to read two really good novels.

One, The Fifth Season I have already reviewed, which was loaned to me by Ben. The second was The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi.

I picked this book up last week at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill where Scalzi was appearing on a book tour promoting the novel. If you bought a copy there you could get it signed, so I went, along with Ben and his bride Cynthia.

If you get a chance to see Scalzi speak, I highly recommend it (here is a link to his tour dates). He does a really good job and I found the hour entertaining. He moved the talk along without ignoring the audience, which was loaded with your usual assortment of Sci-Fi nerds and people who just love books (for example, a group of us. some strangers, played the mobile version of Exploding Kittens on our phones while waiting for the talk to begin).

Afterward, we lined up for a few minutes with the man himself. Ben and Cynthia are “Sea Monkeys”, otherwise known as people who take the annual JoCo Cruise, and they had seen Scalzi speak a month ago on the boat. They were ahead of me in the signing line and bonded a bit with Scalzi over that shared experience.

Everyone who knows me knows I love to talk, especially with interesting people, but I knew I wouldn’t have much time with him. I did want to talk about something cool, and I brought up a memory triggered by his talk.

He didn’t read from The Collapsing Empire, instead he talked about the upcoming book in his Lock In series. In that universe, 1% of the world’s population suffers from a condition known as “Lock In” when they are fully awake yet fully paralyzed (similar to the end-stage effects of Lou Gehrig’s disease and other causes of Locked-in Syndrome). Technology comes to the rescue allowing those who suffer from this condition to pilot and interact through android bodies, called “Threeps” after the character C-3PO.

I got to thinking about what it would be like to interact with one or more people in such a body, and it reminded me of an incident that happened with our telepresence robot at the office. We have a device made by Double Robotics that you can think of as an iPad on a Segway. People can connect to it and drive it around. At my office we have a number of people who work remotely, some in other countries, so we got this robot to make it easier for them to feel part of the team.

One time I knew that Ronny, who lives in Germany, was on the robot talking to Jessica (our graphic designer) in her office about a new web site design. Even though I communicate with him often via instant messenger or a Hangout, when I realized I needed to ask him a question I unconsciously got up, left my office and went to talk with him in her office. It only struck me how odd that was after I returned to my desk and noticed my chat window. Thus, I think it would be very easy for such androids to assimilate into our culture without some sort of Future Shock.

We chatted about this for a minute, and then I offered my hand for a handshake. I immediately felt foolish, because I know a number of people who interact with lots of strangers tend to shy away from contact, but he shook my hand without hesitation. I did notice him grab the Purell right afterward and had to laugh. I like to think I’m on the high end of the geek hygiene scale but having suffered for nearly two months with some crud I picked up in Brussels at FOSDEM, I totally understood.

Anyway, back to the book. I always like to stress that I am not a professional book reviewer (I write these more to capture my own thoughts than for general consumption) and I try to stay away from spoilers. This is easier with a book I like, like this one, so minimal spoilers ahead but if you are sensitive to such things don’t continue on. If you want better reviews, check out Goodreads.

The Collapsing Empire Cover

The first thing I noticed about the novel is that it felt slim. At 329 pages it was a lot smaller than the last two speculative fiction (SF) novels I read (The Fifth Season at 512 pages and Babylon’s Ashes at 544 pages). But then Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane was a scant 181 pages. Scalzi even addressed this on his blog, and from my own experience it read like a novel so no complaints there.

For some reason SF stories tend to span multiple volumes. Since I fully understand the author’s need to eat I know why they are released over time, but it can be frustrating for the fan. Some of my favorite authors are also notoriously slow writers. In some cases it doesn’t matter. For example, Neal Stephenson puts out huge books but for the most part they stand alone (the Baroque Cycle being the exception). I know as a reader that once I get to the end of it there will be some sense of closure. Other authors tell epic stories that don’t end with that last page, and it can be a bit frustrating waiting for the next part of the tale. Now I’m not one of those fans who are all “Write me a book, bitch,” it is art after all and art doesn’t follow schedules or deadlines, but I understand the sentiment.

My point (and yes, there is a point here) is that I really don’t care about the length of a book as long as the story is solid, and I don’t care if it spans multiple volumes as long as those come out on a regular basis. The two authors I mentioned above, Jemisin and Corey, are pretty good about releasing a new book once a year, and that once every one or two years works for me. I read so much that if it goes on much past that I end up having to re-read the original books, and quite often I don’t have the time.

Scalzi is pretty good about his output, although he did mention in the “Acknowledgments” that he was frustrated by the time it took to finish The Collapsing Empire.

Yes, there is a book review in here somewhere. I’m getting to it.

The Collapsing Empire takes place several centuries in the future of the Earth, and humankind has spread out to other star systems. One thing that all SF writers who include interstellar travel have to deal with is that pesky issue of the speed of light.

In our current understanding of the universe, nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. As one approaches the speed of light, time, length and momentum change by an amount called the Lorentz factor, often represented by the variable gamma. Here is an equation for gamma:

Lorentz Factor Gamma Equation

Note that it looks kind of scary, but it becomes much easier if you represent velocity, v, as a percentage of the speed of light.

For example, at one-tenth the speed of light, 0.10c or roughly 30,000 km/s, the denominator becomes the square root of (1 – 0.01) or 0.99499 which divided into one results in a gamma of 1.005. This means that at one-tenth the speed of light, time will appear to be half a percent slower, length will appear half a percent shorter and momentum will be half a percent greater.

Just to note that one of the fastest things I know about, the Voyager 1 spacecraft, is only moving about 17 km/sec, and if you plug that into the gamma equation the difference is negligible. This is why Newtonian physics gets the job done in most situations.

As you get closer to the speed of light, gamma gets larger. At 0.9c gamma is 2.29 and at 0.999c it’s 22.4. At the speed of light the denominator becomes 0 so gamma becomes infinite. This demonstrates why faster than light travel is not possible. With a Lorentz factor of near infinity it would take an infinite amount of energy to go faster.

Note that the speed of light is a limit with the caveat “for now”. The light speed limitation applies to everything, including information, but there is some evidence that it may be possible to send information faster than the speed of light.

Anyway, since the nearest star to Earth, the red dwarf Proxima Centauri, is 4.25 light years away, interstellar travel is problematic. Let’s say the bad guy in the story hops in his starship, cranks it up to a whopping one-tenth the speed of light, and heads out for the nearest star. The plot would have to pick up with his offspring something like 40 years into the future, assuming they survive. Not very exciting.

So it is up to SF authors to come up with some way around this speed limit. In Star Trek it was “warp speed” and in Star Wars it was “hyperspace”. In the past Scalzi came up with a rather unique way of addressing this by using multiple universes. In quantum theory, at microscopic levels it becomes impossible to know the exact location and the exact momentum of a particle at the same time. Thus the particle’s state is defined by a series of possibilities, describe by something called a “wave function”. When a measurement is made, the wave function is said to collapse into one of the possible states. One interpretation of this is that there are actually an infinite number of universes, real close to one another and representing all possibilities, and when the wave function collapses it is our consciousness, through the measurement, deciding in which one it wants to be.

Pretty heady stuff.

In Scalzi’s system, the way to travel to another star is to simply pick the alternative universe that is the same in every way as the one you are in, with the exception that you are there and not here.

While it is dangerous to apply quantum theory to macroscopic things, such as a cat, I thought Scalzi’s use of it was pretty original and cool.

With that prologue (sigh) let’s get back to The Collapsing Empire. In this universe Scalzi invents a new method for faster than light travel. Humans have discovered a part of the physical world called “The Flow”. It is, to paraphrase Ted Stevens, quite literally a series of (one way) tubes. While the physics of The Flow is pretty abstract (and not really relevant to the story), ships are able to enter a particular Flow at an entry point called a Shoal. Then, after some amount of time, they will exit the Flow at some distant location. This has enabled humans to colonize a number of star systems, although for the most part the places they live are underground in constructed habitats, as Earth-like worlds are hard to come by.

The main seat of civilization is one such habitat called The Hub, because it is located near a large number of entry and exit points to various Flows. Travel within a flow is not instantaneous, and the farthest system, End, is over nine months of Flow travel away from Hub.

The actual physics of The Flow is unimportant because this story is much more about plotting and intrigue than space travel. With all of these far-flung outposts of humanity, society had to be structured in such a way that they didn’t go to war with each other. The solution chosen was called the Interdependency. Resources were parceled out under control of guilds, which in turn were controlled by dynastic houses. Guilds received a monopoly on various products, and since these were scattered out among the various habitats it required them to work together in order to survive. One such house, the House of Wu, was powerful enough to install an emperor, called in the book by the gender-neutral term emperox, who stands at the top of society’s hierarchy.

The book takes place when two big events are happening to the Interdependency. One is that the emperox is dying, and we pick up with the first days of the new emperox. The second is that The Flow, which was considered stable, is now entering a time of great flux. In a very short period of time these “tubes” between various outposts of humanity are going to close forever, and thus the Interdependency is about to collapse. In fact, the Flow to (and I assume, from) Earth disappeared centuries earlier, as did one to another settlement, but those were considered outliers to The Flow’s innate stability.

Against this backdrop we get a healthy dose of court politics and backstabbing. Certain parties have more accurate information than others, and since these changes to The Flow mean, basically, the Interdependency is finished, people are angling to be in the best position when it goes away. As usual in such situations, some people are more concerned for their own well-being than those of society as a whole. It is a lot of fun to uncover the various plots and to see just how far people are willing to go to achieve their ambitions.

One of the coolest things he introduces is a perk of being an emperox. An interface is inserted into your neck which then records everything you think and experience. When you die this information is added to the “Memory Room” where the next emperox can come in and talk to those who held the position in the past. Scalzi makes use of this throughout the story, but what I liked about it is that the constructs of those who were emperox in the past are without ego, so they talk without any filters. I think it would be so interesting to be able to talk with certain people who lived in the past and get access to their unvarnished thoughts.

All of this is done in the prose for which Scalzi is known. I had to look up some new words, such as “squicked”, and toward the end he refers to one house as the House of Jemisin, which is an obvious nod to the author N.K. Jemisin.

It was a fun read, and I really look forward to the rest of the series. It looks like his next book, Head On will continue the story started in Lock In so I guess we can expect the next one in this series, The Last Emperox in late 2018 or early 2019. Despite that, I wouldn’t wait to read The Collapsing Empire, as it is really good on its own.

Review: The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

Over the weekend I read the excellent The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin. I always feel the need to justify negative reviews with examples, but since I liked it expect this review to be light on spoilers. However, if you are sensitive to such things, read the book and then come back. As usual, this post will be meandering and contain a lot of digressions, so you might want to just go check out Goodreads.

The Fifth Season Cover

This book won the best novel Hugo Award last year. I have a strange relationship with the Hugos, brought on mainly through my acquaintance with Ursula Vernon.

I live outside of the small town of Pittsboro, North Carolina. It is rare that we have any sort of celebrity here (well, unless I bring them) and outside of a brief handshake with Al Roker, it’s not often I’ve met anyone even quasi-famous.

Through my work with open source software, I met a man named Kevin and eventually I was introduced to his partner, Ursula. She had written a number of things, most notably a web comic called “Digger”. Digger is a wombat who has, shall we say, adventures. Wonderful adventures. It’s delightful and was successful enough to be turned into books.

In 2012 those books were nominated for a Hugo. This is a Big Thing™ especially for someone I actually know.

So, me being me, I set out to find out how I could vote in the Hugo awards. I figured someone has to, so why can’t I?

The awards are given out by the World Science Fiction Society at the annual WorldCon convention. In 2012 you could become a supporting member for $50, and that let you nominate and vote for works in the various award categories. Not only that, but it also included digital copies of all of the nominated works (which are a lot). It was definitely worth it.

I joined specifically to vote for Ursula, but, me being me, I felt I couldn’t vote on the other categories unless I was familiar with the nominees, so familiar I became. I read everything they allowed me to, including all of the novels.

Of course, the hands down winner for best novel of 2012 was Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey (now a television series on the SyFy network). Of course, it didn’t win.

The winning novel, Among Others by Jo Walton, was good, but I felt that it pandered a little too much to the nostalgia of speculative fiction. Ironically, I was reminded of the film Hugo which was in part about the history of film making, much as Among Others reflected on the golden age of science fiction and fantasy. I saw this as a bias in the process, although understandable and not like one that would soon grow into a controversy on its own right.

Ursula Vernon at the Hugos

Even though my preferred novel didn’t win, Ursula did (and she was up against some strong competition). Read about it in her own words. I love this picture of her on stage, she’s on the left with Neil Gaiman on the right. She has since won a Nebula for her short story “Jackalope Wives”, and I’m trying to angle an invitation to “Kevin and Ursula Eat Cheap” where they eat weird things and drink a lot. When I do, I plan to drink and then fondle both awards.

Anyway, what does this have to do with The Fifth Season? Well, it won the Hugo which means it was probably pretty good, but it made me wonder, did it “win win” or just “win”?

Of the other nominated works, I had only read Seveneves which I reviewed here. I’ve read the first of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary series and quite liked it, but I haven’t read Ancillary Mercy. The other nominated author I’m familiar with is Jim Butcher, and while I haven’t read The Aeronaut’s Windlass I love his other work so I’d probably like this as well (I just realized how behind I’ve gotten on my reading).

When Ben loaned me The Fifth Season and I saw “Hugo Winner” right on the cover, I was a little skeptical. I knew it had to be good, rarely have I found a Hugo nominated work I didn’t like, but I wondered how much was talent and how much was hype?

After reading it, I’m convinced it is talent. While it is hard to compare a book like this, which is heavy on character development and interaction, with a saga like Seveneves, which is set in space and is heavy on technology and science, I think she earned the honor.

The story takes place on Earth (or a planet very Earth-like) several millennia in the future. All of the continents have come together in sort of a “Pangaea” and a number of civilizations have come and gone, including the one we live in now. While a number of “deadciv” artifacts are still about, including some orbiting obelisks, the current level of technology seems to be stuck around the Middle Ages, with a few modern conveniences thrown in for the rich. The land is called the “Stillness” which is ironic, since the world is constantly subject to various tectonic issues. Every few hundred years something happens, usually a huge volcanic eruption, that creates a “Season” (or a fifth season in addition to the usual four). The resulting earthquakes and ash radically disrupt the normal flow of things, which causes hardships for the people living in the Stillness.

To prepare for this, society has organized itself into “comms” or communities. These are groups of people who have banded together to guard against a potential Season. Most people are identified by three names: their given name, their use-caste, and their comm. For example, a politician would be in the Leadership use-caste, so someone like North Carolina governor Roy Cooper might be known as Roy Leadership Carolina, or some such. There are twenty such use names, with the most common being things like Strongback, Resistant, and Innovator.

Now this wouldn’t be a fantasy novel without a fantasy element. In this case certain humans, called orogenes, have a magical affinity for the Earth. They can use this power to still possible quakes and tremors, and trained orogenes can further manipulate matter in very magical ways.

And that’s the problem. Untrained orogenes can actually cause a lot of damage. In deference to a number of magical systems (the one that comes to mind is the “sympathy” of Patrick Rothfuss) the energy to do those manipulations has to come from somewhere, and in some cases it can be from surrounding human beings. As you can imagine, removing energy from your body, mainly in the form of heat, is not a healthy idea. Mistakes get made and people die.

This causes a lot of superstition and suspicion. In fact, most of the non-orogene “stills” refer to them by the derogatory term “rogga” which is similar to “nigger” in our society.

To help deal with this, the rulers of this society have created a place called “The Fulcrum” where orogenes can be trained to use their powers. New recruits, almost always children, are called “grits” and as they master their abilities they can gain rings (from one to ten corresponding to each finger). The more rings you have earned the higher your status in orogene society. Since those orogenes with many rings can be quite powerful, and even grits can kill, they are watched over by “Guardians” who have the ability to block the orogenes’ power with a power of their own.

Against this backdrop, Jemisin weaves three story lines that ultimately come together. In one she uses the second person, thus “you” do certain things. I’ve read a number of novels written in the second person, such as Bright Lights, Big City, and while I like the device it almost always becomes tedious. Jemisin avoids this by only using it for part of the book.

And that is one of the reasons I think this book earned the Hugo. There are a number of great storytellers out there, but few can use things like second person and multiple story lines and still keep the attention of the reader. I strongly recommend any fan of speculative fiction check it out. I’m very eager to read the next one in the series, The Obelisk Gate once Ben is finished with it. (grin)

Review: The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

I forgot how I got introduced to Paolo Bacigalupi. I do remember that the first book I read by him was The Windup Girl. I loved it. In the universe he creates, the world is post Peak Oil and depends on bioengineering, among other things, to provide the functions that used to come from petroleum. For example, vehicles run on springs, special nanotechnology springs that can store a tremendous amount of energy. They are wound by huge animals called meglodonts that walk on treadmills to generate power.

Cool, huh?

I followed that book with the short story collection Pump Six and Other Stories that I enjoyed as well, especially since many of the stories occur in the Windup Girl universe.

His next two books, however, were aimed at young adults. Look, considering the amount of money made from stories aimed at the YA market set in a distopian future, preferably with a female protagonist caught in a love triangle, I can’t blame him. They were good but not as enjoyable as his other work.

When I heard he had a new adult novel out, called The Water Knife, I immediately ordered it on Amazon.

This book is definitely aimed at adults. It is set in our current universe, perhaps ten to twenty years in the future, and concerns the issue of water in the American southwest.

The story references a real book called Cadillac Desert. I haven’t read it (it’s on my wishlist) but it apparently warns that current water management policy in the western United States is doomed to fail. Considering the large population of people who live in that part of the country, the disappearance of water would have a huge impact.

The Water Knife is mainly set in a future Phoenix, Arizon, and follows three main characters: Angel, hired muscle to enforce water rights (or “water knife), Lucy, an idealistic Pulitzer-prize winning author, and Maria, a Texas refugee who fled to Phoenix when the water gave out in her home state.

Bacigalupi brings together these three people against a backdrop of violence and a murder mystery as they search for something that could greatly change the distribution of water in the region. The characters are fully developed, the writing is tight and I found it hard to put the book down. His writing reminded me of a younger, hipper William Gibson.

Reading the book was very straightforward, or I might have compared him to Neal Stephenson. Mainly because I didn’t much care for the book’s ending, and Stephenson is renown for not ending books well. He’s also known for requiring a bit of work to get into his stories, but this one was much easier to read. The more I’ve thought about the ending, the more I’m okay with it, but it is hard to say more without spoiling it.

Speaking of spoilers, I have more to say but as usual, the more sensitive of my three readers may want to stop now and just go get the book. If you like Gibson and Stephenson, you’ll like this. If you liked The Windup Girl you might be disappointed, as I was, that this story wasn’t set in that universe, but I still enjoyed the book.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Okay, so a little more detail about the story. The current system of water in the west has collapsed. Texas went dry, causing a mass exodus of people to the surrounding states. This caused a fracturing that saw these states to independently set up and police their borders, becoming more like small countries. They are still part of the USA, but Washington, DC, is a long way away.

As I mentioned above, Angel is a Mexican ex-con who works for a woman named Catherine Case, “The Queen of the Columbia”. Case makes her money building self-contained buildings in Las Vegas. All of the water and moisture is captured and recycled within the structures, and many of the wealthy citizens have bought into her buildings. She was able to build her empire by exercising tough control over water rights within Nevada.

Nevada is constantly competing with other states in the area, such as Arizona and California, for water. Case pulled Angel out of prison to become a “water knife” – a sometimes violent enforcer of her water rights. The book opens up with a military operation to destroy the pumping capacity of an Arizona border city that lost a lawsuit against Case. As part of his compensation, Angel lives in one of Case’s buildings, drives a Tesla, and is much more affluent than many around him.

We are also introduced to Lucy. She lives in Phoenix, which is struggling to stay alive after they lost access to water. While they are also building self-contained buildings for the affluent, the city is heavily populated with refugees from Texas. As with any situation with such suffering, the criminal element has taken root as well, and combined with a “Zoner” hatred of the influx of Texans, there is a lot of violence. She is documenting life in the city in the hope of finding some answers, and she makes her living publishing those stories. So while she is far from affluent, she can support herself and, unlike others, has the option to leave.

Finally, we meet Maria. She is a Texas refugee who came to Phoenix with her father, who was working to help build one of the self-contained buildings. He died in an accident and she was left without many options. Her story is that of the struggle the refugees face living day to day and wondering when and how they will get water.

As a reporter, Lucy often rushes to scenes of violence within the city. On one such trip she discovers the body of friend of hers, and he had been horribly tortured before his death. She knew that he had discovered something about water rights, rights that could drastically change the balance of power in the region, and it had gotten him killed.

Case has also heard that something is up in Phoenix, and she sends Angel to investigate. He and Lucy first meet when she is at the morgue to learn more about her friend’s death.

If anyone has any doubts about Bacigalupi’s return to adult fiction, the account he writes about what happened to that body will remove them, along with your ability to sleep at night. It describes, in cold and clinical detail, one of the most horrible acts of torture ever conceived. I thought about quoting it here, but I can’t bring myself to type it in.

Anyway, the paths of Angel and Lucy cross a number of times until they become partners of sorts. Lucy is trying to uncover the news story of a lifetime, and Angel is trying to execute his job for Case. Eventually, their paths cross with Maria.

I should stress, this is not a happy book. What happens to these three characters is not good. Water is life, and without it life is “nasty, brutish and short”. I won’t, and actually can’t, say if the ending is happy or not, but if you’re looking for “they lived happily ever” read Harry Potter.

If you are interested in a take on how the beginning of the end will start, check out this book. You’ll be glad you did.

Review: Slabscape: Dammit by S. Spencer Baker

The second book in the Slabscape series, Slabscape: Dammit takes place immediately after the events in Slabscape: Reset. Once again we join Louie Drago in his various incarnations on a spaceship called The Slab (that is the size of California) on its 20,000 year journey.

That seems like a long time, and it is. This second book is very much about time.

We follow the story through the eyes of our protagonists, the “reset” Dielle who is in Louie Drago’s rejuvenated body, as he strives to find purpose and understand his new home, and a holographic recording of Louie Drago himself, who has managed to place himself in a position of power within the Slab’s government system. This is a system which is not a democracy. As my home country struggles with its own democracy, I really liked the following quote from the book:

Democracy is a flawed and highly ineffectual form of government that relies on the majority of the enfranchised being capable of understanding all of the implications of highly complex and interdependent situations. An empowered electorate must not only be able to fully comprehend all of the information they are given and be capable of making accurate analysis, which few are, they must also be motivated and willing to be completely engaged in the process, which even fewer are, and they must also accept responsibility for their decisions, which virtually no one does. Democracy is open to manipulation by clandestine information controllers and by the mass media who have their own commercially dictated agendas. Voters are too easily influenced and are vulnerable to the fear-mongering and short-term whims of the self-interested and the self-destructive.”

Poetry.

As in the previous novel, the Slab is beset with a danger that it must overcome, and Louie plays a big role in this. We also follow Dielle’s journey of personal growth through a variety of very comic situations. I enjoyed this book a lot, and I think SSB has avoided the sophomore slump.

I have more to say that I’ll try to keep spoiler-free, but if stuff like that bothers you, just stop now and go read the book.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

The Slab is traveling at close to the speed of light. That causes all kinds of funky things to happen. For example, compared to someone remaining on Earth, time would appear to move much more slowly on The Slab. Those whiz-bang smart kids I went to school with can even calculate the exact factor by which time would slow down. It’s called gamma, and there is even a nifty little calculator to determine what it is. For example, if you are traveling at 97% of the speed of light, gamma would be a little over 4. This means that for every year of subjective time you experience, a person in a reference frame stationary to yours (i.e. think back on Earth) would experience four years. At 99% of the speed of light, that jumps to 7. A speed of 99.9% makes it 22, and 99.99% comes out to 71.

So if the Slab was traveling at .9999c for 300 years, over two millennia will have passed on Earth.

Now, the physics of Slabscape are similar to our own, and thus the Slab is having issues trying to accelerate. From a stationary reference point, gamma also affects mass (well, not really, it affects momentum but let’s pretend it affects mass). If you are at 99.99% of the speed of light you would appear to have 71 times the mass. Since the energy needed to accelerate an object is proportional to its mass, it takes a lot more energy to accelerate a relativistic object a small amount than it would at lower speeds. Since nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, the theory goes, it will take more and more energy for smaller and smaller gains until it takes an infinite amount of energy to try to reach light speed.

That is, if nothing can travel faster than the speed of light.

Einstein, the guy who thought most of this up, stated that not even information can travel faster than the speed of light. But then he and two buddies named Podolsky and Rosen came up with a thought experiment, referred to as the EPR Paradox, that seems to cast doubt on that.

The idea is pretty simple. There are “entangled” particles that have to share certain known characteristics. For example, spin. If one particle has a spin of “up”, the other must have a spin of “down”. The kicker is that spin is pretty arbitrary. During the measurement I choose what is “up” is, but with entangled pairs, the moment I say one particle is “up” the other one automatically becomes “down”, even though the values of “up” and “down” didn’t exist before the measurement.

So, the EPR guys thought, what happens if I have an entangled pair and I send each particle off in opposite directions at close to the speed of light. I then wait awhile (milliseconds is enough at these speeds) and then measure one particle as “up”. The second one must instantaneously know to be “down”, but the only way that is possible is if the information travels faster than the speed of light.

Fascinating, huh?

Anyway, this theory plays a role in a plot point in Slabscape: Dammit as we finally find out how Louie got his start. Louie, currently a being of pure data, ends up getting himself duplicated again, and each of those “selves” have a fun run in with time.

In the meantime, our horny, naive hero, Dielle, is busy making friends and questioning his relationship with his manager/girlfriend Kiki. At one point she refuses to let him join her shopping because he is a heterosexual male, and, also being a heterosexual male who has been married for over 20 years, I loved this explanation of the female shopping experience:

Statistical analysis of time spent shopping by typical female Slabcitizen: 40% trying on things they already know they won’t like, 40% deciding not to try on things they know they would like but are too similar to something they already own and 20% complaining about the lack of suitable choice. Although 85% of shopping results in zero acquisition, 90% of shopping activity produces feelings of satisfaction in the shopper, 65% of acquisitions are never worn, 30% of acquisitions are worn once only, 4% are worn more than once but never when the same people are involved in the same social situation, and 1% are worn until they wear out, then lamented over despite the fact that identical replacements are available.

Anyway, he joins a band called “The Garlic Farts” (a wonderful name by Slab standards) and takes the stage name of Blood, and yes, Blood Dielle took me a lot longer to get than I care to admit.

One of his band mates, Fencer, is a character that I identify with pretty strongly. If I had unlimited time and fairly unlimited resources I’d be out making things, and that is what Fencer does (in addition to playing mad drum solos on a virtual reality drum kit). He is the one who figures out how to use quantum entanglement to send information back into the past.

We also get to learn about other cultures on The Slab. For the most part we’ve been spending time with the “famous for being famous” set, those people who make modern day TV shows with the words “Real” or “Shore” in their titles popular. But there is a huge set of “gamers” on The Slab who spend their entire lives isolated and immersed in a virtual reality. If all of your bodily functions could be maintained automatically, wouldn’t that be tempting? Some people isolate themselves to a similar extent on modern day Earth – in Japan there is even a term for it: Hikikomori.

There are also the Unkos, or “uncooperatives”. These are people who do not wish to be attached to the SlabWide Integrated System (Sis) and have thus withdrawn to areas of the Slab Sis is not allowed to monitor. This doesn’t mean they have gone primitive, as many use localized versions of the tech Sis manages, but those who do are called Naturalists. Naturalists tend to grow their own food and make their own tools and shelter, as well as doing other things in a more natural fashion that would spoil a funny part of the Slabscape mythos if I told you about it.

As I mentioned above, SSB is really finding his stride in this second novel, and it made me hunger for the third book, Slabscape: Reboot. Since the first one came out in 2011 and the second in 2015, we may have to wait until 2019 for it, but at least he writes faster than George R.R. Martin.

Review: Slabscape: Reset by S. Spencer Baker

When I was last in the UK, I made a friend named Bill. We share a lot of things in common, especially a taste for a certain breed of science fiction. He recommended that I read the Slabscape series by S. Spencer Baker, so, moist robot that I am, I immediately ordered it on Amazon.

The first book in the series (whose number currently stands at two) is Slabscape: Reset. I quite enjoyed it, once I got over the author’s initial attempts to channel Douglas Adams.

For geeks of a certain age, Douglas Adams holds a special place in both our pantheon of authors and our hearts. There was no one like him. When I started the book I felt that SSB was trying a little too hard to write like Adams. Now, granted, he did a pretty darn good job of it but I still found myself recoiling slightly every time I hit a paragraph that was especially Adams-esque.

Luckily, that didn’t last. The author finds his own voice and spins out a yarn that only echoes the whimsy of Adams without co-opting it entire. Part of the similarities could be that they are both British and about the same generation, but beyond that I wasn’t able to find out much about him. There wasn’t even a Wikipedia entry, so I had to go off and make one (I’m a little embarrassed about my own).

The TL;DR is that if you like science fiction along the lines of Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett, you’ll probably like this.

As usual, I try to be spoiler free when doing reviews, but purists may want to skip the rest of this.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Okay, Slabscape: Reset. The book focuses on the point of view of two characters, who are, in a sense, one. Louie Drago was once one of the wealthiest people on the planet. In his old age he has himself frozen and he buys a one-way ticket on a huge interstellar spaceship with instructions to revive him when the technology has advanced enough to do so. The start of the book details this revival as Louie comes back as a “reset”. His body has been reset to that of a 27 year old male, and while he remembers things such language he doesn’t remember much of his previous life.

He finds himself on the “Slab”, a spaceship that is 1024 km long, 455 km wide and 114 km high, currently holding nearly 32 million humans. Most of those humans are neurally connected to an artificial intelligence called the SlabWide Integrated System, or Sis. As a reset he can choose his own name, and at the suggestion of his nurse, Kiki, he chooses Dielle (from Row D, Column L, where his frozen body was stored).

Turns out Kiki is not normally a nurse. She wanted to be the first to meet Dielle because most of the revenue generated on Slab is from entertainment, and at 325 years Dielle is the oldest reset ever and thus a source of great interest to the Slab population. She is a media specialist who becomes his partner and love interest, and a lot of the early plot and humor comes from Dielle’s attempts to understand and assimilate into this new culture.

Part of that is dealing with meeting himself. The original Louie Drago is still around in the form of a hologram, and soon after Dielle turns him on he manages to gain autonomy. He quickly adapts to his new situation and becomes quite a player within the Slab community. One of my favorite quotes from the book is a description of Louie’s past self:

… he was pornographically wealthy, had traveled to all the parts of the Earth he had any desire to visit, had experienced as many risky and thrilling experiences as he could reasonably endure and had variously drunk, eaten or inhaled as many legal, semi-legal or wildly illegal substances as his robust constitution could tolerate. He’d been there, seen it, done it and stubbornly refused to buy any T-shirts, postcards or anything that would ever require dusting …

If I was planning on having a tombstone, I’d love to be able to put that on it.

The Slab is on a 20,000 year mission to a specific part of the galaxy. Scholars on Earth, trying to determine the existence of a soul, had discovered that when people die some energy heads off toward one particular point in space. The people on the Slab refer to this place as Home, and even though the Slab is traveling at a significant portion of the speed of light it will still take a very long time to get there (this story is set approximately 300 years after departure). Technology has advanced so that the Slab’s engines are “gravity drives” that collect mass to provide building materials and propel the ship forward. There are zones of the ship that are always in daylight, some that are always in darkness, and various combinations of sunlight and weather throughout the vessel. Drago had made most of his fortune through the discovery by his business partner of “matter transmitters,” or “emties,” that can instantaneously move matter from once place to another. They play a key role in life on the Slab.

The mission, however, is not a key part of this book. It is much more about discovering the world that SSB has created. In a place where everything necessary for survival is provided for you, human endeavor turns to creating things: art, music, entertainment, etc. How this society deals with issues of intellectual property, privacy and human interaction is interesting and at times quite funny.

Against this backdrop, a threat to the slab is discovered. Louie ends up playing a key part in addressing it. While emties can move matter around, they do not work on living things. Louie, being a hologram, isn’t covered by this limitation. Being pure data, he also ends up getting copied a number of times, so we end up with more points of view that are all still Louie in some form or another.

As with any good tale, adversity is overcome and the characters experience personal growth. I really enjoyed his portrayal of the consumer culture on the Slab. Think about it, what would you do if all your spare time could be focused on making things? While there are characters who take advantage of that, most of what is consumed on the Slab is the same banal entertainment that populates our culture and this book is something of an indictment of it.

It was a very enjoyable book and made me eager for the next one.

Review: Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson and I have a simple relationship: He writes books; I buy his books.

Such was the case with his latest, Seveneves (pronounced Seven-Eves, the second word like the wife of Adam). When I learned about it I immediately bought it on Amazon.

TL;DR; Stephenson’s writing for me is like pizza: when it is good it is really good, and when it is bad, it is still pretty good. I am not calling Seveneves bad, and I enjoyed reading it (at times I couldn’t put it down) but he tries to cram in too much into an already long book. Considering how much I like his other work, I’d have to place this one toward the bottom of the list.

Note: What I’m about to describe will be considered spoilers by many, so if you are sensitive to such things and plan to read the book, you might want to skip it. I listened to Stuart Langridge’s review on Bad Voltage and while it was pretty much spoiler free, I almost wish I hadn’t until I’d finished the book. I’ll add some carriage returns here in case you want to leave.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Okay, Seveneves is divided in to three parts.

Part One

The book starts out with the moon being broken into seven pieces. Stephenson never explains why this happened, and even the characters in the novel just refer to the cause as “The Agent”. I am more than okay with this. My favorite type of hard science fiction is when something happens or something changes suddenly that might remain unexplained, but then what follows is a coherent chain of events that can be explained by the science we know. So, the moon blowing up is a given, and now what happens next?

One of the first major characters we are introduced to is a popular scientist named Dubois Jerome Xavier Harris, or “Doc Dubois”. As many people have pointed out, he is strongly based on Neil deGrasse Tyson. Due to orbital mechanics, the remaining seven large pieces of the moon stay pretty close together (The Agent, by whatever method used to fracture the moon, wasn’t energetic enough to send the pieces far away from each other). When, after awhile, two of the large pieces collide to make eight, Dubois realizes that this process will continue for some time, making smaller and smaller pieces, and eventually all of those pieces will be captured by the Earth’s gravity.

This will not be a good thing. The moon is massive enough that this “Hard Rain” of debris will fall for approximately 5000 years and destroy all life on the planet. There is about two years before this will start.

The world’s population reacts by creating a “Cloud Ark”. The International Space Station (ISS) in this universe has been tethered to a captured asteroid called Amalthea. The idea is to group lots and lots of survival pods, called “arklets”, behind Amalthea to provide a shield from the debris, and all of the world’s infrastructure is put into action making the arklets and solving issues such as food production.

Stephenson does a good job in describing a world where almost all of population realizes it will die. The process is surprisingly orderly, due in part to the idea that through a method called “the casting of lots” the members of the Cloud Ark will be chosen from the population as a whole, usually consisting of a young man and young woman from various regions of the planet.

I especially liked a scene where Dubois visits Bhutan to collect the two people chosen for the Ark from that area. Stephenson has a fetish for the idea of seeing what happens when members of a population, usually scientific or philosophic, decide to separate themselves from the rest of society. It was a key plot point to Anathem.

On this side of the river the ground rose almost vertically. The mountain barrier was cleft by a steep-sided valley that zigzagged up and away from them; the road leaped up into it and switchbacked up a stone cliff, fringed here and there with clusters of hardy evergreens that had found toeholds in crevices. Tendrils and torn veils of mist drifted across the face of the rock, providing occasional glimpses of a white tower, high above them, that had somehow been constructed on the precipice. It was one of those buildings, like some monasteries in Greece and Spain, whose whole point was to proclaim to those below, “This is how far we will go to achieve separation from the world.”

Lovely.

In any case, this part is focused on introducing us to the characters, setting the stage and describing, sometimes in great detail, the orbital mechanics of the whole thing. For a Stephenson novel is was surprisingly easy to get into the story (usually it takes me 100 pages or so to get into the groove). We learn about the people already on the ISS, the people who go up to make things ready for the “Akies” and how they plan to spend the 5000 years in space until the Earth is habitable again. Many of the characters are women, which becomes important later.

Dubois becomes one of the last people to leave Earth, which brings us to …

Part Two

Not far into the second part, the Hard Rain falls and fries the planet. The ~1500 humans still alive are spread out in the Cloud Ark, all with differing agendas, backgrounds and experience. Stuart refers to this as the Lord of the Flies part and he isn’t too far off.

In my mind, this is the weakest of the three parts but it was also the one I couldn’t put down. I thought it was weak because the characters were very stereotypical. There was the politico who uses social media and rhetoric instead of science and bad things happen. There is a tech billionaire who puts his life at risk to try and capture part of a comet to use for water. Interspersed throughout is lots and lots of science of “how things work”, which I both loved and found frustrating. From robotics to life in zero-g, Stephenson just throws so much at you, sometimes just enough to pique your interest before he moves on to something else.

But as I said, I couldn’t put it down.

At the end, what’s left of civilization is pretty safe. At the end, what’s left of civilization is eight women, one who is past menopause. Hence the name “Seven Eves”.

It’s a death toll to make George R. R. Martin proud.

One of the remaining “Eves”, Moira, is a geneticist, and she offers each of the remaining women the option of tweaking her genome. These are the women who will seed the next generations of the human race (and thus I assume it is not a coincidence that the moon originally broke into seven pieces), which will, in fact, create seven new races of human beings.

I almost wish that the book ended here. Stephenson could have fleshed out more of the story (for example, the survivors split into two factions and we learn little of one of them) and then done the next part as a separate volume.

But he didn’t, so on to …

Part Three

It is now 5000 years later. The Earth has cooled and been terraformed. The human population is around three billion and they live in an orbital ring around the planet, divided in groups based on which “Eve” was their ancestor. Several of the “Eves” have segregated themselves away from the rest of the population (going back to Stephenson’s isolationist theme), thus dividing humanity into two groups, the Red and the Blue (this was based on color coding used by Moira when doing her genetic modifications).

I really enjoyed this part, but it was very different from the first two, hence my suggestion that this would have been better served as a stand-alone book. The science here includes more orbital mechanics (such as space elevators) plus a lot about genetics. There is also a strong sociological thread as Stephenson discusses how the seven races interact. He introduces characters that I really wish could had had more development and background, such as Ty the bartender, but since the book runs over 850 pages, by this part Stephenson seemed to be in a rush to get to the end.

And like many of his novels, the ending isn’t great. I thought it ended better than I was expecting from earlier reviews, but it was a little too pat and somewhat predictable.

Conclusion

If you like Stephenson, you’ll like this book. I doubt it will be your favorite, but you won’t feel like you wasted your time or your money. I both enjoyed it and found it frustrating. He throws so much at you science-wise you want to scream “too much” but then there are parts of the story you wish he would explore in more depth.

If you have never read Stephenson, don’t start with this book. Start with Snow Crash, although it is a bit dated. He’s worth the investment.

Review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

I’m not sure where the recommendation for Station Eleven originated, but it did cause me to add it to my wishlist and I got it as a gift. I’m glad I did.

This novel is a National Book Award finalist set in a post-apocalyptic North America. I’m a fan of “what if” stories about what happens when our technology fails us, because I think we are totally unprepared.

For example, I moved out to the farm in the fall of 1999. Due to infrequent but often lengthy power outages, I needed to invest in a generator. Unlike city-folk, our water comes out of the ground and without electricity that doesn’t happen. Hard to live without water.

Unfortunately, with the Year 2000 on the horizon people were buying generators like crazy and driving the prices up. Seriously? Even with a decent store of gasoline you’ll get, what, a month, tops, out of a generator when everything else fails.

I like to think about either what I would want to have with me in a post-apocalyptic world or what I would take if I could go back into the past. Antibiotics for sure, but how does one make penicillin? If you took a weapon, what is the most powerful tech you could use that you could find a way to reload? Heck, I even had to look up how to make bread. Sure, I’ve made bread from scratch before, but not from scratch. You’d need to find wheat, grow it, harvest it, mill it, and then you still need to deal with things like making yeast.

Fun times.

Anyway, back to the book. I don’t know what I was expecting, but this wasn’t it. In the small blurb I read, it was described as the adventures of a travelling troupe of players who play music and perform Shakespeare. I was kind of expecting something like Brin’s Postman, where the unifying theme is some semblance of normality in a world no longer normal. Or, as one character in Station Eleven put it, all of the stories they read about the time after the collapse of modern civilization involved zombies.

Instead, the book is a character study. If there is a unifying factor it is the character of Arthur Leander. He is a moderately famous actor who has returned to his native Canada to perform King Lear in Toronto. His last performance is the night before the Georgian Flu arrives in the city, and it eventually kills 99.99% of the world’s population. The book follows the lives of several people brought together through their interaction with Leander – some relationships spanning years and others moments.

The book gets its title from a graphic novel created by Leander’s first wife, Miranda. She self published a few copies and gave one to her now ex-husband, who in turn gave it to a little girl in the cast named Kirsten. The story starts off on the night of that last performance, and then flashes backward and forward as we are introduced to more and more characters from Arthur’s life and how they end up interacting. A lot of the plot involves Arthur and his three wives, mainly Miranda, as well as Kirsten’s future as a player in the aforementioned Travelling Symphony, twenty years on.

I read Station Eleven in pretty much one sitting. I don’t read too many female authors, so I don’t want to sound to stereotypical when I point out that the novel is much more about the interpersonal relationships of the characters versus survival, but very little time is spent on the actual logistics of surviving in such a world and more about the thoughts, feelings, regrets and dreams of its characters. Basically: Arthur is introduced, the flu arrives, people die, civilization collapses and we pick up 20 years in the future.

So I missed out on a couple of things I like about such books. My favorite part of The Stand is the first 2000 or so pages which discuss the pandemic and how the main characters deal with surviving it. When the main plot kicks in over the remaining 4000 pages I start to lose interest. In Station Eleven she pretty much skips over that part and focuses on the story. This is not a bad thing, it’s just not what I was expecting.

If I had to nit-pick, the way the author handles the pandemic is a little too tidy. Instead of having some sort of natural immunity, it is implied that most of the survivors just got lucky and missed the infection. Considering that they spend a lot of time poking around in the ruins of the past I would think there would be occasional flare ups of the flu in the future, but perhaps that could be explained away by lack of hosts.

But, as I said, that is a small issue with an otherwise solid book. You care about these characters and it is cool to see how she ties up all the loose ends by the end of the story. While I wouldn’t say that I couldn’t put it down, the combination of bad weather and holiday fatigue lent itself well to curling up with a good book, and this one was perfect for the purpose.

Review: The Peripheral by William Gibson

Note: I try to be spoiler-free but as everyone has a different tolerance for such things, spoilage may ensue.

I just finished The Peripheral by William Gibson, although I got it weeks ago. I’ve been traveling, and since I refuse to buy digital books encumbered with DRM, it is hard to take such a large book with me. I so wish the book industry would get its act together and either include a digital copy with a hardback or allow me to buy one for a small upcharge.

Enough of that. I got to see Gibson a few weeks ago and as part of the admission fee I got a copy of the book. I would have bought it anyway, but the chance to see the man himself was draw enough, not to mention “free book”.

Gibson has written three trilogies, and the first book in each always had a bit of a learning curve as you try to grasp the language. Imagine talking to someone 50 years ago about the Internet or an iPhone. Something as simple as “Hey, could you post that photo and link on Facebook” would have been totally indecipherable. He consciously chooses not to hold your hand, which in my case adds to the fun and makes his work interesting to re-read.

The story starts out at some point in a future United States. Things are not great. There is a mega-chain store called Hefty Mart where most people shop, although a lot of things are “fabbed” – fabricated using 3D printers. There aren’t a lot of options for making money outside of manufacturing drugs, and our protagonists seem to be living at close to subsistence levels.

We are introduced to Flynne, who works at one of the local fabrication shops, and her brother Burton, who is an ex-soldier. Burton, post service, doesn’t seem to have a job but he managed to land a gig helping a company called Milagro Coldiron beta test a video game. The job doesn’t entail much more than remotely controlling a drone in the game that spends its time doing surveillance on a large building, but it pays really well. One night he asks Flynne to substitute for him, and she witnesses something horrific, but writes it off as just another aspect of a weird computer game.

It turns out that it isn’t a game. The world Burton and Flynne visit is London, seventy years in the future. In that time, someone has figured out a way to communicate with the past. No one can physically travel between times, but information can be exchanged, and this is key to the plot where people in both time periods attempt to understand what Flynne witnessed.

As a reader, we get a double dose of Gibson’s prognostication abilities. First he imagines a future that could be as little at 20 years away, and then another one 70 years beyond that. The latter takes place after an event called “The Jackpot” where a lot of the world’s population die. Both worlds are richly detailed as only Gibson can do, and he has a nifty way of sidestepping the whole “go back in time and kill your grandfather” scenario that plagues time travel tales.

The technology that enables the future to talk to the past occurs in multiple instances. Each instance is called a “stub”, and the moment the first contact it made, the future of that stub changes. While all of the action in the book takes place in the stub in which Flynne and Burton live, there are references made to other stubs, sometimes put to terrible uses. But since the “future” for the stub is different than the future in which the stub was created, you neatly avoid paradox.

It also introduces an interesting time travel concept. Seventy years is not a terribly large amount of time, so some people in the future were alive at the same time as Flynne and Burton. What would you do if you had a way to talk to the past, a past in which you had lived? Would there be any wrongs you would try to correct? Any retribution to deliver?

I really liked this book. It is probably my favorite since Virtual Light, although I really liked Pattern Recognition as well. You care about the characters, and once you get over the hump of the language learning curve, the futures described sound plausible.

My only real disappointment was in the ending. The book is a little over 480 pages long, and at page 450 I’m still wondering how he is going to wrap up the plot. I think it could have used another 100-200 pages to really flesh out the back story, although this is more of a character study than an action thriller. I felt a little let down and for once in a Gibson novel it was pretty easy to figure out who the bad guys were going to be.

Despite that, it was a fun read. He claimed in his talk that this wasn’t the start of a new series, and there are aspects of the story that would make it hard to write a follow up. But if he changes his mind I wouldn’t mind revisiting this world.

William Gibson

At lunch on Thursday, Seth casually mentioned that William Gibson was going to be in Durham on Friday night.

What?!?

I was getting ready to graduate from high school when Gibson’s Neuromancer was published. It was amazing. Instead of focusing on space ships and aliens or knights and wizards, here was speculative fiction that was truly speculative. Set on Earth in a future probably fifty to sixty years away, he introduced the term “cyberspace” and described an interconnected world that we are well on our way toward creating. While his characters “logged on” via biometric interfaces, which isn’t quite a reality, a lot of the topics he explored are relevant in today’s world.

Neuromancer was the first in a group of three related books, and this was followed by Virtual Light. This was set maybe ten years from now and about thirty years from when it was published, and again, introduced things we take for granted, such as augmented reality. It too, was the first in a series of three connected books. His most recent fiction work started with Pattern Recognition which was pretty much set in modern times, and yes, the world he created spanned three books.

Gibson was in town to promote his latest novel, The Peripheral. Sponsored by the area’s largest independent bookstore, The Regulator, the cost to attend the event was $30 but included a copy of the book, so it was basically free. I bought a ticket as soon as we got back from lunch and eagerly awaited the talk.

It was held at the Motorco Theatre in Durham, which is in a newly gentrified area of town and across the street from the Fullsteam Brewery. I like the area because a number of really good food trucks tend to congregate there, but this time we decided to eat at the Motorco, which has a “Parts&Labor” bar area that serves some pretty nice small plates (we had veggie samosas and artichoke beignets). I was eager to get a seat so I wolfed mine down and then found a place in the front row. While I didn’t think there would be a lot of people from the number of chairs they had put out, the place was standing room only by the time he went on.

The first thing that struck me about the man is that, while he looked like I expected, he is now 66 years old. While he looks young for his age you have to remember that I started reading his work 30 years ago and I still think of myself pretty much as I did then. Too bad everyone else is getting older.

He is soft spoken and to my ear his voice still has a twinge of southern drawl (he was born in South Carolina) although he has moved around a lot and now lives in Canada. The evening started out with him reading from The Peripheral, and at first his voice sounded weak, but that was fixed when they swapped out his microphone. After that his voice, although still soft, was clear and full of emotion as he read the dialog he had written.

If you have ever read Gibson you know that he kind of throws the reader into the deep in the pool and it is up to you to swim. It takes me about 75 to 100 pages to start to understand the world he is creating, so there really aren’t that many spoilers to be had from hearing an early chapter or two.

The Peripheral is a time travel book, apparently, crossing between a time possibly not too far in our future to a time 70 to 80 years beyond that. He read from a long-ish chapter from the earlier time period, and as usual his dialog was well written and at times funny. Then he read from a short chapter set in the future time frame. You didn’t get much out of the content but it was cool to hear the man himself read his work, and as I have already started the book I’ll review it soon.

That took about 30 minutes, and then he opened the floor for questions. Being the shy and withdrawn person that I am, I got to ask the first one, which was “You seem to like trilogies, is this new book Book One?”.

This earned me an eye-roll as he explained that he doesn’t write sequels, he write a “loosely connected series of books” that just tend to number three. When he was starting out, his social group of fiction writers had a disdain for sequels since they viewed it as one book that was made into three in order to sell more of them. The term “novel” means “new” and each book is supposed to be different. It is the greatest “genre-cheese” to spread a story out over multiple books, and he tries to avoid it.

He then acknowledged, almost with a wink, that he had kids to feed and so sometimes setting a “totally and completely different” story in the same world can make producing another book easier, and that there is a strong temptation to write sequels. He added the last line in Neuromancer (“And he never saw Molly again”) in pen on the final galleys to make sure he wasn’t tempted. When he writes, he told us, his job is to “keep the cheese out.”

He took questions for another 30 minutes or so. One was a slightly different take on “where do you get your ideas?” but along the lines of does he start with the characters or the world. He said he actually starts with a particular object, in the case of The Peripheral it was a 1977 Airstream trailer covered in spray-on insulation foam, and the characters and world build out from there.

Gibson was also one of the first speculative fiction authors to write about Japan, so one person asked where he would recommend going on their first trip to Tokyo. He admitted that he hadn’t been to Japan in a long time, since before the tsunami, so a lot may have changed but he would recommend the Golden Gai. This is a series of very narrow alleys that feature lots of tiny bars. It provides a look into Tokyo’s past, and while it looks run down it is not a cheap place to drink. The real estate is very valuable and so it may not be around in a few years. While I was in Shinjiku, I did not see this on my trip to Japan.

He ended the session with a comment that he was losing his voice on this book tour, and if he was to have anything left it was probably best if he started signing books. There was a bit of a mob so I decided not to get my book signed, but I did end up finding Seth in line (he showed up late). As I was waiting for my ride I decided to grab a beer and people watch, and when it was time to leave about 30 minutes later Seth hadn’t moved much. He was in the middle of a line that reached back to the door. I’ll ask him how it went on Monday.

It was a fun evening and while I’m only one chapter into the book, I like it. Thanks to the Regulator for organizing it and Seth for letting me know.

Review: The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss

I have yet to decide whether or not Patrick Rothfuss is an asshole.

I know that sounds like a mean thing to say, but I have my reasons which I’ll get to soon.

I was introduced to Rothfuss through his first novel, The Name of the Wind. Since that can get tedious to type, allow me to abbreviate it TNotW.

TNotW is the first book in a trilogy. It concerns a near mythical figure named Kvothe, and it is one of the best novels ever written in the fantasy genre, or any genre for that matter.

In TNotW Rothfuss introduces his magic system. In the best fantasy there are rules that both empower and limit the characters, and I really like his. Called “sympathy”, magic in his world requires three things: a link, a source of energy and strength of will.

For example, suppose you wanted to move an iron skillet off of a fire through magic. First you would need some way to link what you wanted to move with something you could easily manipulate. In this case the best thing would be a small piece of the skillet itself. That would form a very strong link. Barring that, you could use any piece of iron, but that link would be weaker. Weaker still would be a non-ferrous metal, etc.

So let’s assume you have a small chip of the skillet in your hand. You would then need a source of energy. The bigger the magic, the more energy you need (i.e. rules). In this case you could probably use the heat from the fire itself.

Finally, you would need strength of will to connect your piece of the skillet to the whole thing. This is the hard part, as you basically have to imagine, with the full weight of reality, that the small part of the skillet you hold is the skillet itself, so when you move your piece, the skillet will move.

I’m oversimplifying but you get the gist. In TNotW Kovthe starts to learn about sympathy and is admitted to The University, a place where its principals are studied and taught. Out of them comes a form of engineering, a form of medicine, a form of chemistry, etc.

However, in addition to this sympathetic magic, there is a more primal, raw form of magic based on names. It is a common theme in fantasy that by knowing a thing’s “true name” one can control it. Names are powerful, which is why I obsess over them more than most people. In the world that Rothfuss creates, the pursuit of “Naming” is magic in its truest sense, but it is also the most dangerous. One of my favorite characters in his stories is Master Elodin, the Master Namer, who is quite bent.

In any case, Rothfuss is the rare author who inspires a certain type of rabid fandom. Anything he posts on his blog is almost always met by a chorus of fawning comments. It’s not that he isn’t talented, quite the contrary, but this type of fandom ends up rubber stamping everything he does as “great”.

For example, the second book in the series, The Wise Man’s Fear, did not resonate with me like the first. I came close to actually disliking it upon a first reading.

Now, granted, once I set it on the shelf for awhile and then took it down and re-read it, I liked it more, but still, it didn’t affect me like the first book. I look on it like Tolkien’s The Two Towers where “things happen that must happen” but it acts like a bridge between the first and last books of a trilogy. I eagerly await the third book, tentatively titled Doors of Stone to see if he can pull off the magic of TNotW.

And this is where the asshole part comes in. I have some friends who have met Rothfuss and spent some time with him and some of their comments tip the meter toward “asshole”. Some of the stuff that he writes on his blog rub me the wrong way, thus re-enforcing the thought. But I guess I am mainly upset because I just want him to work on that third book instead of all the other stuff he does. This is very selfish of me, because some of the stuff he does is very worthwhile and makes the world a better place, but at this point I am emotionally invested in the story of Kvothe and I want to know how it ends.

Which brings me to a sobering point: I know almost nothing about Patrick Rothfuss. One of the fallacies of the Internet is this illusion of intimacy. The thought that I can read a blog or a twitter feed or an interview and think that really gives me insight into who the person is is ludicrous. To paraphrase Silent Bob, what I don’t know about Patrick Rothfuss could just about squeeze into the Grand Canyon.

But I do know one thing without a doubt: he loves words.

I like words. I like my ten cent words and my five dollar words. But to me they are a means to an end. I like how a certain word can convey just the right feeling or evoke a particular response. But I don’t love words.

Rothfuss loves words almost as much as his family (which, if you read his blog, he loves a lot). He dotes on them. He caresses them. And I’m almost certain that he stays up nights obsessing over finding the right word.

Which brings me to his latest book, The Slow Regard of Silent Things.

This is a tiny book, around 150 pages. It’s even shorter than Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. He warns on both his blog and in the forward that many people won’t like this book. Heck, it only has one character in it, Auri, the mysterious girl befriended by Kvothe in TNotW.

I loved it.

This is a love song to words. He uses them to paint pictures and to compose symphonies. It is a three ringed circus of adjectives and adverbs, nouns and verbs all coalescing to create an experience if not exactly a narrative.

Auri is a woman of unknown age. She is very small, about the size of a child. She lives in a complex of tunnels and forgotten rooms called “The Underthing” that exists beneath the grounds of The University. While Rothfuss has never told us straight up her history, I’ve always imagined that she was a great student at The University who studied Naming and went crazy. She decided to “make herself small” and hid herself away. It is one of the characteristics of Kvothe that he was able to befriend her. He even gave her the name “Auri” which inspired Master Elodin to instruct Kvothe in Naming. But don’t expect to see those characters in The Slow Regard of Silent Things. It is all about Auri and can stand alone from the rest of the series.

If you haven’t read any of his books, then you won’t know what I’m talking about. Heck, I’m not even sure I know what I’m talking about. All I know is that I feel like a better person from having read it.

It covers several days in the life of Auri. And that’s about it. Pretty easy not to spoil. She has good days and bad days but to her they are just “days”. The narrative focuses a lot on her drive to put things in their proper places and in some cases, give them names.

One of the world philosophies that I strongly identify with is Taoism. Now I’m certain that a true scholar of the Tao will be horrified, if that is possible, over how I’m about to describe it, so my apologies in advance.

The Tao is all things and how they are connected. There is no “good” or “evil”, there is just the natural cycle of things. When one lives in tune with the Tao, this we call happiness. When one struggles against the Tao, sadness ensues. It stresses a very low impact existence and an acceptance of the way things are, but still manages to get a lot of stuff done, which sounds a little like an oxymoron.

One of the best books on the subject is The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff. In it he demonstrates the principals of Taoism through the stories about Winnie the Pooh. It works, and it is one of my favorite books. It sits next to me at my desk in case I’m having a rough day and I need a reminder.

As I was reading The Slow Regard of Silent Things I couldn’t help but think that Auri was a Taoist master. Here is a quote from toward the end of the book:

That meant you could move smoothly through the world without upsetting every applecart you came across. And if you were careful, if you were the proper part of things, then you could help. You mended what was cracked. You tended to the things you found askew. And you trusted that the world in turn would brush you up against the chance to eat. It was the only graceful way to move. All else was vanity and pride.

Seems very Taoist to me.

I once saw Kurt Vonnegut give a lecture. He was talking about “the shape of stories” and the normal Western narrative and how it has these huge swings in mood. The example he used was Cinderella. It starts off pretty bad. Her parents have died and she’s living with her evil stepmother. Then it gets really good. She gets to go to the ball and she meets the Prince. Then the clock hits midnight and things are bad again. Then the Prince finds her and all is well. He drew this on a white board in the form of a big sine wave that swung from bad to good.

He compared that to Native American stories. Usually the mood is very flat. We walked in the woods. We saw a deer. We caught some fish. We ate. We went to sleep. That sort of thing. There really isn’t this whole process that we expect from our stories. On his white board he drew a straight line, pretty much neutral between good and bad.

Then he examined Hamlet. Hamlet is not a happy story. Things start of bad and remain that way. As Vonnegut talked through the plot he drew another straight line. Granted, this was firmly on the “bad” side of the chart but it had a lot more in common with a Native American narrative than a traditional one, and Hamlet is one of the greatest stories ever told.

Heh – I just decided to take a stab at the premise that “everything is on the Internet” and I found a page talking about this very thing.

I don’t think that The Slow Regard of Silent Things is one of the greatest stories ever told, but it is a very good one. It, too, has a flat narrative arc. I will reread it a number of times. While I think a lot of his fans will be put off by it, and he knows this, but the fact that he created it and felt strong enough to see it through to publication moves the needle, at least for me, back firmly into the “not asshole” side of the meter.