What I’ve Been Reading

Vancouver Noir by Diane Purvey and John Belshaw.  This caught my eye while I was on a bookstore crawl and I bought it on impulse, mainly because it seemed to have some nice historical photos of Vancouver.

It’s pretty interesting – Vancouver has a somewhat seedy history that I was completely unaware of, but now that I’ve read it I can sort of see why some areas of the city are they way they are today.  It was interesting to learn some historic events involving hotels that still stand today, and watch the evolution and motion of the downtown core.

One thing really annoyed me about this book – an apparent lack of editorial oversight.  The words “discrete” and “discreet” were consistently confused in the few places they were used, and I have a feeling there were some past/present tense flip-flops going on though I didn’t pay close enough attention to explicitly note them.

Overall it was a fascinating read though, and the pictures are indeed interesting.


Greg Egan: Axiomatic and Luminous

Being two short story collections, the first collected in 1995 and the second in 1998.  I’ve liked all of Egan’s novels so far, but my biggest comment about these short stories is that they seem awfully formulaic.  A lot of them follow the pattern of establishing a character who has some interest in the nature of mind, will or identity, then introducing a plot device that allows exploration of one of these themes, and then ending with some sort of ironic or otherwise revelatory twist that results.  To be fair, this is partially symptomatic of the short story format, and since the stories were probably originally published at different times and in different fora, the similarities would not have been so apparent until they were collected.

There were a lot of good plot device concepts, such as a biofeedback device that would let you visualize your brain activity in real time, or a brain replacement that learns to be you by successive approximation over the course of decades.

There were also some bad plot devices – things that I could let slide as a concept to be explored as a story, but otherwise were pretty bad science.  Like predicting the future by looking at a time-reversed image of the galaxy through a telescope.  Or the claim that a simulated person could have experience during the construction of the simulation, before it was actually run – that’s just plain impossible, and the way it was written it almost seemed to be begging the existence of a supernatural “soul”.

A few of the endings were a bit predictable too, like where buying cheap knockoff products gives not quite the desired result.  A couple of the stories were incomprehensible to me – I just didn’t get the point at the end – presumably because they were ones that touched on religious themes.

Some of the stories were good, and the common theme of exploring the nature of self and mind is very appealing to me, but overall I prefer Egan’s full-length novels.


L.E. Modesitt, Jr.: The Eternity Artifact – Chosen because it sounded like exactly the sort of story I felt like reading at the time.  Space opera with mysterious deserted alien cities to be explored and artifacts to be found and human enemies to be outwitted.  The ending was not what I expected, but it wasn’t disappointing.  Pretty decent read.

Modesitt chose to create a familiar political climate for this far-future story by creating a back-story involving a diaspora from Earth at a time when there were still strong national and religious groupings, so the major types of religions and political systems tended to end up controlling groups of proximate solar systems and then warring with each other the same way they did when they lived in countries instead of on entire worlds.

The author casts the descendants of Christian-like and roughly-Islamic groups as the major villain-groups of the story, which was a pleasing surprise.  The secular protagonist civilization is questing after the first alien relics ever discovered, which are clearly from a much more advanced civilization, and the religious groups really don’t want this to happen, because either the relics are one of the biblical superweapons left by God or Satan, in which case they must either be secured by the righteous or sealed away forever, or they’re not, in which case Man is not God’s foremost creation – which is an idea is a major threat to the core beliefs of the pseudo-Christians especially.


Robert L. Forward: Martian Rainbow – Seldom have I been so disappointed in a hard SF story.  This one is unusually shallow and contrived, even for Forward, who has a tendency to produce what I call “tech demo” stories – hard SF that is even harder on the speculation and thinner on the characterization than usual.  This is not to say that kind of writing is always bad – I’ve enjoyed most of Forward’s other books.

The story here is: Earth conquered by madman, Martian bases left to fend for themselves with insufficient resources, madman threatens survival of human race, Martians find self-replicating nanofactories left by original inhabitants of Mars, use them to save day for everyone and terraform Mars too.

The madman’s conquest of Earth through a cult of personality reinforced by masterful religious propaganda and political manipulation was way, way too fast and easy to be believable.  Also the fact that the PR and technical wizards that enabled his rise to power were so fatally blind to his insanity.  It basically boils down to “everyone loves the war hero and believes him when he says he’s God and lets him become dictator of Earth.”

The other side of it is the Martian tech that saves the day.  These are mobile machines (initially mistaken for organisms) that can eat anything and manufacture almost anything, including diamond in any size and shape you want, while producing no harmful waste products.  They can also produce more of themselves as needed, and multiply their computing power by linking up in a chain, and do so in order to learn human language overnight.  How awfully convenient if your survival requires rapid terraforming of Mars and you also need to pull a miracle out of your ass to save Earth from destruction.  But all this isn’t the part that bugs me.  Many of Forward’s stories are contrived around biological or technological oddities.  What bugs me is there’s no back story here.  The interaction between the humans and Martians machines amounts to:

  • Humans: “Here’s our language files.”
  • Martians:  “Hi. Excuse us while we get back to tending our plants.”
  • Humans: “Hey, if you don’t mind, we could really use a hand converting your planet into something we can live on.”
  • Martians: “OK.”
  • Humans: “Just like that? Won’t this affect you?”
  • Martians: “It’s unthinkable for us to refuse any request or interfere with your survival, and your request doesn’t contradict our masters’ orders.”
  • Humans: “Where are your masters?”
  • Martians: “They went away, and we’re not allowed to tell you anything about them.”
  • Humans: “OK. Get to work.”
  • (time passes)
  • Humans: “Hey, that bunch of Martians is going to get themselves killed! We don’t want any of you dying for us!”
  • Martians: “Even though we’re obviously intelligent and autonomous, we’re machines and not alive so it’s OK.”
  • Humans: “Oh, carry on then.”

So basically there’s a tantalizing mention that some aliens built these extremely capable machines and then left them behind to do menial tasks, but there’s absolutely no attempt by the humans to weasel out more information about the aliens or find it by other means.  There are just token gestures as to how humans are awfully nice and considerate even when in dire straits, and then the alien machines are used to bludgeon into the reader how powerful the concepts of exponential growth and molecular manufacturing are.

The ideas here could have gotten a better treatment if the book were twice as long, but it would still need these rough edges filed off.

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