Category Archives: Syndicated

Re-Reading Some SF Classics

I just finished re-reading Dune for perhaps the fourth time, and am about two-thirds of the way through Footfall for I think only the second time. Both are good, of course, but they seem to have held up in different ways over the years.

I think the last time I read Dune was around 2003, and for whatever reason it seemed like a different telling of the same story this time around. I hadn’t noticed before that most of what seems to make Paul seem like a “super being” is the result of native intelligence and agility maximized through Bene Gesserit training. There is a Nietzschean element to it, of course, in the sense that twenty millennia of selective breeding seem to have re-centered the bell curve of native abilities a bit to the right among the elites (thus the recurring discussions over who is “human” or not). But what impresses is not some inborn advantage over the ordinary mass of humanity (talent or natural gift) but the various avenues through which they train themselves to apply the small statistical advantages they have (skill). Even when Paul obtains prescience, it seems to be more of a curse than a useful tool, and doesn’t really impress one with its exotic or godlike nature. It simply makes Paul fairly good at extrapolating where his actions in the present will lead in the future.

All of which actually makes the book just as interesting as the “superbeing brings corrupt galactic empire to its knees” story I had remembered reading – it’s more nuanced and sophisticated in this take, because unlike a cliche superbeing Paul can actually fail, and the story hinges on his application of understanding and skill rather than unlikely magic superpowers.

—–

I don’t think I’d re-read Footfall since I first read it in 1986 – the summer after Challenger, whose loss dated the book before I even got to read it. The story was published in 1985, and the bulk of the action appears to take place around 1994-1995, which means the world situation and technology are remarkably out of synch with what happened in reality over that span of time.

Rather than make it hopelessly dated, these things make the book an interesting window on how the world looked back in the mid-1980s. In the 1990s of the novel, the Soviet Union (and with it the Warsaw Pact, the Iron Curtain, etc.) was still seen as a permanent feature, having not disintegrated over the period 1989-1991 – yet concern over the loss of the satellite countries and buffer republics in the chaos of the invasion haunts the Soviet characters, and anticipates the disintegration that actually happened (albeit peacefully and under far different circumstances) in that period.

Computers were still at the IBM PC level, and the internet is not an (overt) element in the book at all – which is amusing, since even if they couldn’t be expected to foresee its privatization in 1993, the internet existed in 1985 among the very defense institutions featured prominently in the book, and was designed to survive the sort of communications disruptions inflicted on Earth by the Snouts.

What are particularly interesting, though, are the relationships between and actions of the various characters. One forgets when surrounded by the fruits (and nuts) of modern feminism and Progressive identity politics and such what fiction was like before those ideologies became ascendant in the late 1990s and early 2000s…and more to the point, before those ideologies corrupted so much of mainstream science fiction and turned it into a hackneyed propaganda mill grinding out politically-correct stock heroes and stock villains and box-checked tokens in place of realistic characters with realistic mixtures of virtue and fault who respond to the situations of the stories based on who they are (individual natures) rather than what they are (identity group membership).

Advanced Robotics

So, who thinks Carl and I were too sporty with the diggers and other robots in In the Shadow of Ares?

The humanoid robots are a little creepy in an uncanny valley way, but quite impressive for what they can do if even part of it is autonomous (it looks to me like the Petman demo involves someone driving the device in realtime, possibly by mean akin to motion capture, yet still with autonomous responses/reflexes at work in maintaining its balance). I found the robotic pack-mule the most impressive, probably because it (and the hexapod thing near the beginning) appears to be the most versatile and mature design – one can already imagine a production version being used in the field for a variety of applications (with or without cinder-block-tossing appendages). Or, imagine a future Mars “rover’ based on a similar platform, able to wander into more interesting areas of the planet’s surface than the current wheeled designs can reach.

The hexapod device really caught my attention, partly because Carl and I dreamed up a similar device a few months ago for Ghosts of Tharsis – more sophisticated of course, but something that is recognizable as a 40-year evolution of the device shown, augmented with the wholly-fictional (?) simulacrum intelligence technology. And if you thought the diggers were dangerous…

 

Mars on Iceland, v2.0

Thanks to a cheap promotional airfare and some friends willing to go on a weekend trip to the Arctic north, in the winter, on a lark, I now know what Iceland looks like in the dark.

Something like this…

Midnight at the Mars Colony

…which reminded me of the agricultural bubbles at the Green in In the Shadow of Ares.

In fact, they’re a set of agricultural greenhouses in the town of Hveragerði, and despite their size are each about a tenth as wide and about 1/15th as long as their fictional counterparts.

CLARIFICATION: No, we did not actually go to Iceland on a lark. We used an airplane.

 

Happy New Year

Did you get a Kindle or other e-reader-capable widget or gadget or whoosiwhatsit for Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or Festivus? Boy, do I have the perfect book for you!

A 2012 Prometheus Award finalist, now only $2.99! What a steal.

And yes, we continue to work on the sequel. One of the downsides to changing jobs in December (along with the holidays, travel, etc.) is that the ensuing chaos disrupted the good progress we had been making. Another two weeks and things should be getting back to normal.

We do now have a working title for it: Ghosts of Tharsis. I’m not entirely happy with this title yet given the resemblance to the title of the bad John Carpenter movie Ghosts of Mars, but it suits the storyline very well (no, there are no literal ghosts in the book; it’s used in this case as a metaphor for secrets similar to but less passive than “skeletons in the closet” — these secrets want out).

Killer Weeds, Pt. 2

I finished The Day of the Triffids on the flight to Krakow on Sunday, and I have to say that Wyndham managed to keep up the quality right until the end. The twist involving Josella should have been pretty obvious, in hindsight, but surprised me anyway given Bill’s fixation with finding the group from the university – it was a wholly effective bit of misdirection.

The ending was a bit of a let-down, in the sense that it just…ends. There’s no big set piece or climax to the story, the characters just ride off into the sunset. I was hoping to find that they’d developed a method of destroying the triffids, or that they’d discovered the truth about the plants’ ability to communicate and (apparently) reason, or the resolution of some of the many mysteries left unresolved. However, given that the story is presented as Bill’s in medias res memoir of the events of the disaster and it’s immediate aftermath, I suppose final answers weren’t to be expected in the time period covered by the story.

Some miscellaneous thoughts:

  • I found the response of the victims of the “meteor shower” to be both disgusting and interesting — most people just gave up and gave in, but as Bill himself sort-of observes at one point, this is a curiously British failing. They kept expecting “in Micawberesque fashion” that Americans would come and save the day again (remember this was written when WWII was still fresh in every adult’s mind), which encouraged in many of the blinded a mindset of dependence-bred passivity strongly reminiscent of people who ignored evacuation orders during Katrina on the assumption that “the government” would take care of them.
  • One glaring omission from his disaster scenario involved radio. Unless the “meteor shower” (in scare-quotes because there was substantial doubt as to the true nature of that event) somehow disrupted the ionosphere for 7-8 years or fried communications systems altogether (while leaving other electrical systems intact), there’s no reason why the protagonists shouldn’t have been in radio communications with others or have had some news of outside areas via those able to use radio communications (such as perhaps the university group in London). The story presumably takes place in the late 1950s or early 1960s, so radio communications would have been both pervasive and accessible even to laymen, and it was shown in the story that electrical power was available to the protagonists even 6 years into the disaster (in the form of electrified fences to keep the triffids out of their compounds). Bill mentions early on (within a day or two of the “meteor shower”) that radio and television frequencies are silent, but it’s hard to believe that that would have continued indefinitely in real life.
  • Wyndham handles the descent of London pretty well, I think. The decay is somewhat accelerated, given what we’ve seen with (say) areas like Detroit undergoing “re-wilding” through a couple decades (rather than years) of neglect, but one can pass that off as artistic license. The initial aftermath, with the confusion, chaos turning to tyranny, and finally epidemics of lethal sanitation-related disease, seems all too plausible (again, look at New Orleans after Katrina, and imagine how that situation would have played out without any outside assistance riding to the rescue, however belatedly).
  • He also handles Bill’s sense of isolation and loneliness well. It’s one thing to be off doing your own thing under normal conditions, but quite another when you don’t know whether you’ll ever see another living human being again. His relief at rescuing Susan is well done in this context.
  • Susan herself is rather amusingly handled. Given what Britain has become since the book was written, the image of a nine-year-old girl deftly handling a firearm and wreaking ruthless vengeance on the killer plants that wiped out her family is delightful.

All together, the book is a bit dated (given that it’s 50-odd years old, that’s to be expected), but is still a wholly worthwhile read as a post-apocalypse novel. No zombies, no preachy anti-human moralizing, no cliched premise – the book focuses more on the protagonists’ response to the events than the gee-whizzery of the disaster or the ensuing threats themselves.

Ambulatory Weeds that Spit Poison and Kill

Returning from a meeting in Cleveland on Thursday, I started reading John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids (yes, the source material for the movie).

I’m about halfway through it, and it is so far a pretty decent post-apocalypse novel – one with a very different premise from your usual nuclear holocausts or zombie free-for-alls. The premise of the book differs slightly from that of the film (such as I remember, having seen it almost thirty years ago now – yikes), in that the titular vegetation apparently originated from a Soviet biological engineering experiment gone awry and not from seeds which fell to Earth. The meteor shower which blinded most of humanity left people at the mercy of the triffids, and didn’t in fact (at least as has been revealed thus far) “activate” or “awaken” the plants and send them on a mindless genocidal feeding frenzy.

While some of the events and characters’ actions are a bit twee, a lot of what they do makes sense in the context of a sudden, universal calamity of unknown origin. Wyndham spends a bit of time reflecting (through narration or dialogue) about the fragility of civilization, the tendency of civilizations to collapse, and the wryness of it collapsing in the wholly unexpected way it does rather than through nuclear holocaust or one of the other methods people had been fretting about up until the meteor shower. It’s the kind of intelligence one typically doesn’t find in books like (say) Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

It’s also vastly superior in writing style to the other Wyndham work I read recently, The Midwich Cuckoos (the source material for Village of the Damned). That book was truly awful, filled with tedious asides and pointlessly overwrought descriptions of the bucolic scenery, as much a tour guidebook and ethnographic study of a small English country town as it was a science fiction/horror story. In the end, Wyndham’s treatment of the idea fell short of whatever potential it had — the movies are actually much creepier and better realized (even the Kirstie Alley/Christopher Reeve version). In contrast, Triffids is much more tightly written, shows a little more grittiness, and is far, far less twee, approaching at times a similar feel to Heinlein’s Puppet Masters.