October 6th, 2015 by nicklavitz

Forty Signs of Rain (Science in the Capital Trilogy, Book 1)

The science fiction in Forty Signs of Rain is subtle, permeating the book through little snippets such as wrist-mounted screens and small technological improvements to the devices we already have. This is a very far cry from the omnipresent enhanced reality of Charles Stross’ books or any other number of interpretations of how technology will change our future.

In fact, this is a book about the intersect between global warming and politics, or perhaps the lack of an intersect where one ought to be. It’s near future setting looks forward to a gradually worsening environment, rather than new technological marvels.

We are presented with the problem of global warming from the point of view of individuals who do not need to be convinced of the truth of its impact, who can understand and even to a certain extent predict both the timing and the consequences of what a shift in climate is going to do to the world, but who find themselves powerless to do anything about it despite their position as some of the most influential individuals in the field, in the most powerful country in the world.

Without pointing a finger at it, naming it or bemoaning it directly, political apathy and institutionalised immobility are omnipresent in the book, seen through the eyes of people who are seeking, each in their own way, to advance an agenda that will lead to a change in environmental policy. Their efforts are real and tangible, their eventual impact less so.

The main characters include senior scientists at the National Science Foundation, both a director and a visionary scientist on a temporary assignment in her organisation. Also the director’s husband, who is science advisor to an influential senator and devoted to passing a bill, sponsored by his senator, that represents a big step in the direction of reduced emissions and other measures to mitigate climate change.

Instead of presenting their efforts as a mission or a quest, each has exposure to the environmental issues as a core part of their job. Their knowledge and conscience lead them to seek change in the context of their daily work, and they are motivated by their own personal belief systems. In this the book is very realistic – change is effected by individuals such as these, not often by crusading heroes tearing down old paradigms. Unfortunately, their collective effort is insufficient to cause any real change in policy or on the environment.  In the real world, they would undoubtedly fail also, how could they not, given the vastness of what they must achieve to have even the most subtle impact.

So as we see them each apply pressure to the system in their own way, we also see the deteriorating environment as a general backdrop to the novel. Catastrophic changes in salinity and sea temperature are mere pages away from meetings with the president’s chief scientist in which it becomes obvious that no amount of statistics, reason or argument will move the policy needle. I was strangely reminded of the resistance to gun control during this scene in which logic was happily brushed to one side in favour of doubt, votes and the avoidance of cost. The country, as embodied by its leaders, finds it easier to ignore the problem than  deal with it.

Woven into the story are small hints at things greater than ourselves most obviously in some interesting interactions between main characters and some Tibetan monks who are the catalyst to major changes in the way a scientist, Frank, perceives his role and the role of science in the world. This provides Robinson with the opportunity to theorise how it is not cold science alone that will change things, because it takes energy and passion to overcome societal inertia.

As the environment gradually slips into catastrophe and sea levels rise inexorably, the discussion continues, and the book culminates with a flood in Washington DC, the monuments surrounded by water, the zoo animals running wild, and a sense, more or less unspoken, that even this will not be enough to instigate any meaningful change.

I found the book a little depressing in that our main characters are revealed to be somewhat impotent in the conflict they are a part of. This is contrary to what we often seek in a story – we want the protagonist to overcome the obstacles and demonstrate strength while being changed for the better by the effort of reaching his goals. Perhaps to a certain extent this is true of Frank, but the goals seem unattainable.

The typical heroic narrative is abandoned here perhaps to serve the larger goal of getting a message across. This eminently readable book is holding up a mirror, and perhaps a few people will look long enough and with eyes open enough to see a reflection of society that they didn’t expect. I have no problem believing that the events portrayed are totally realistic and even likely to occur, and that we will soon be facing exactly the problems described, and that we will have done no better than the fictional nations in Forty Signs of Rain to compensate for a warming climate, rising oceans and more violent weather by the time these phenomena are too advanced to address with preventative measures. As a message, this book works well, and I hope it is widely read, although if it is right in its diagnosis of the root of our apathy and denial, it won’t make a difference, because perhaps nothing can.

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July 30th, 2015 by nicklavitz

So I’m less than one paragraph, not even a full line into Rule 34 and I read, “…and you’re coming to the end of your shift on the West End control desk”. I bite down on a sudden surge of frustration that threatens to overwhelm me.

The thing I disliked the most about the previous book by Charles Stross, Halting State, was the use of the second person perspective. “You’re” is the seventh word in this novel. A quick scan of the rest of the book seems to indicate the entire thing is written from my own point of view. I lose a fraction of a millimetre of enamel as my molars grind against each other in an involuntary expression of irritation, then I wrestle control of those muscles back from my subconscious.

I unclench. This is Stross’s second book in this universe, maybe he got better at using the second person and somehow it’s going to feel a little less like someone’s scratching the surface of my brain and then smearing tabasco on it.

What is Rule 34, anyway? Is there a rule 33? Turns out that Rule 34 is an internet meme, so we’re going to need to know what one of those is too. Rule 34, or the 34th rule of the internet, states that pornography or sexually-related material exists for every conceivable content, somewhere. In Stross’s universe, the Rule 34 police unit trawls and monitors the most disgusting things on the internet in an attempt to police the overspill of the aforementioned imaginative horrors into the real world.

Given that the world itself seems replete with filth of every conceivable kind, the unit is somewhat overtaxed, all the more so since it’s considered a not-very-good-place to be assigned, so it’s long on deliverables and short on talent.

The local police force (because we’re in Edinburgh, in an independent Scotland), is suddenly dealing with a very twisted and somewhat revolting death caused – it would seem – by foul dealings of a very technologically sophisticated kind, and this death turns out to be the small and phallically-protruding tip of an iceberg of mammoth proportions.

By the time I’ve understood all this, my subconscious has more or less made peace with the second person perspective, but every time I put the book down and pick it up again, the shock of (self?) recognition causes my sense of style to grumble indignantly and I’m running the risk of a premature enamel shortage.

I find the book hard going. The Scottish dialect is deliberately kicking the glass house of story immersion and reminding me I’m turning the (virtual) pages of a (digital) book. As cracks appear in my acceptance of Stross’s reality, only a lifetime of polite upbringing prevents me from cursing the author by name for his love affair with phonetic spellings of accents that hail from beyond Hadrian’s wall. Nevertheless, I soldier on.

Somehow, two thirds of the way through the book, I find that I am closer to the end than I thought, and that I am anticipating the dénouement. A short period of life spent in Glasgow many years ago perhaps makes the style more approachable for me than some, and the interaction between new technology and the people in Stross’s universe is, after all, very well thought through.  Oh God, am I actually enjoying this now?

I’m almost bitter that I’ve been tricked into liking a book written in the second person (actually a great variety of second persons that get quite confusing at times, you might want to dial it down a bit next time). I’m also, to my immense distaste, accepting the fact that some of the characters would have been impossible to understand had we not been put into their heads (thankfully with some editing-out of the more repulsive thoughts). Therefore the use of the second person does – am I actually agreeing with this? – serve a real purpose here.

The final page flickers briefly across my eReader as I swipe from right to left and I’m presented with a list of other books by Charles Stross. What? That’s how it ends? Also: steady on, I’ve bought two of his books already, one thing at a time. But here’s the thing: while I had a hard time with it to start, and it clearly required more effort than many books to get into, against all expectations, I actually enjoyed this. Despite some story elements that are – to say the least – quite disturbing.

The story doesn’t end so much as fall off the edge of a cliff, with a deus-ex-machina-esque wrap-up that’s almost as sudden and unexplained as Don Juan taking the statue’s hand for a one-way trip to hell. I realise I’m not sure what the motivation of some of the characters really is, or that I have fully understood what happened, or even if I have enough information to attempt a full understanding.

But this doesn’t matter, because the story was actually less important than the people who inhabit it. The mystery we’re following is too convoluted to lend itself to a casual understanding, and too much is left unexplained (especially to a financially-trained person) for it to hang together nicely, but by the end, I was in it for the scenery, I wanted to know what happened to the characters, and I was just enjoying the descriptions of how the technology changes our interactions with the world around us, and with each other.

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July 7th, 2015 by nicklavitz

Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War

I don’t usually get my speculative fiction reading suggestions from The Economist, but I found a recommendation for Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War in the reviews section of the June 27th edition, and since I trust the Economist not to (at least in general) provide positive recommendations for weak writing or unintelligent prose, I figured it was a pretty safe bet that the book would be a good read.

My trust, I am happy to report, proved well-placed. The book is a well-told near future story driven by a large cast of believable (if not particularly lovable) characters. The style straddles the gap between the Tom Clancy combat narrative style and a Pentagon policy paper on future defence strategies. Given the author’s credentials in the latter respect, the novel benefits from believability, depth and a knowledge of the subject matter that’s not a regular feature of my reading. At least in the SF genre.

This is most obvious when referring to the copious footnotes, an exercise that was a lesson in itself because much of what I initially assumed was speculative was, in fact, not speculative at all. The authors applied their imagination to what might be done with the current bleeding edge of technological development, and pushed technology only a little into the future. How do these capabilities affect geopolitics, naval warfare, communications vulnerabilities and so on, that is where the initial thrust of the book is directed, before we get to the action.

The book is also unashamedly military in its approach – much of the near-future geopolitical ideas I have read focus on tropes like a hacker in one country making nuclear power plants go critical in another. It is perhaps because this risk is so often talked about – and therefore mitigated – that the authors focus elsewhere, with direct “hack attacks” taking only a supporting role in the development and execution of their war.

The story starts with energy shortages, in the form of diminishing oil and natural gas reserves – the consequence of a previous conflict that enveloped the Middle East and clearly left its traces on the international political landscape. China’s communist government has collapsed, replaced by a balanced coalition of Chinese military and corporate interests, and this new “Directorate”, has a far colder and more ruthless view of the world’s future energy and power balance than does the West.

A discovery of a vast gas field under the Pacific leads the Chinese government to launch an all-out coordinated assault to secure global domination and thereby ensure that the new energy reserves are theirs and theirs alone. Supported by years of planning and infiltration, their plan is extremely effective, and all the more frightening for how simple and believable it is.

There closes the opening act, and from here on we will see how the rest of the world responds, how old and new technology must be repurposed, harnessed and adapted to recover from an initial strike so effective it almost wins this unexpected war in a single act.

We follow the action from a great many viewpoints, including policy-making sessions in both China and the US, the decks of warships, the computer terminals of Chinese hackers, the astronauts participating from orbit and the resistance fighters on Chinese-occupied Hawaii, to name but a few. The writing is fluid – even though the viewpoint changes a little too frequently for my personal tastes – and there is a strong sense of the authors having worked (or having been worked) very very hard in order to reach the clipped and comprehensible prose that the book deploys with great success.

While this will not satisfy those who seek true science fictional weaponry or technology, let alone aliens or faster-than-light travel, the novel is a very satisfying bridge between where we are today, the technology of tomorrow, and the forces that will decide how these get used.

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July 2nd, 2015 by nicklavitz

Halting State

A multi-viewpoint novel that manages to weave several  threads at once to make a story, Halting State takes us into a future where information, interaction and games have to a large extent blended with the real world through the near ubiquitous use of augmented reality overlays.

I had a very hard time deciding if I liked this book or not.

On the one hand, the vision of the future is extremely well-pitched, with augmented reality providing different layers of information overlaid onto the real world through the use of glasses that are more or less ubiquitous. The police see the Copspace overlay, army see Milspace, and the technology has allowed gaming to step out of the realm of 100% simulation and into the real world. At the same time, massively multiplayer online gaming has reached a stage where so much value is at stake that specialised financial companies are contracted to manage the in-game economies by taking control of the central bank. The games run on compatible platforms, which results in borders and passages from one game to another, and games compete for players through the aggressive management of “fun”.

These technologies, valuable though they are, provide numerous new ways to compromise national security and corporate secrecy, and this is not lost on the various secret services and terrorist groups, who have all been creative in their use of the virtual and semi-virtual environments.

What we then have is a detective story that begins with the robbery of the central bank of a major online game. This is the thread that our main characters pull on, which begins to unravel a much larger series of interlocking conspiracies that rapidly spill over into the real world.

Despite the very promising melange, somewhat reminiscent of Neal Stephenson (the master of this particular art), we have a narrative that doesn’t quite know what it wants to do, and therefore tries to do too much.

A short way into the book I began wondering why I was being beaten over the head with a narrative written in the second person. That is a very strange point of view to adopt, and a very unusual literary device. Had there been a specific point to adopting it I might have found it interesting, but instead it was just jarring, and combined with the rapid jumps between three different main characters – each with their own point of view – made the book heavy going. I had such a hard time getting used to the narrative style that I put the book down, re-read Snow Crash to remember how this kind of world can be properly portrayed, and then came back to it.

The narrative also doesn’t entirely decide whether it wants to be a bit funny or more serious. The technology and its implications are very interesting and have the potential for much storytelling and analysis, but while we’re reading about the very real theft of tens of thousands of dollars worth of merchandise in a virtual environment, we get descriptions of orcs and dragons that appear to serve no purpose, all narrated by a confused Scottish police officer which means we’re in for lots of “Aye, Reet” and “Ye dinna have tae take ma wurd fer it, I’ll text you a photie“, in order to get the point across that her accent is unintelligible.

I’ve lived in Scotland, briefly, so it doesn’t bother me too much, it’s even charming in small doses, but I can’t imagine it going down easily for a US audience, for example.

I feel like there’s a lot of potential here, but I keep thinking of Stephenson and the way he gets so much more into the story than just a detective story – the interesting world-building is just that, it doesn’t go further, making any points about how this world affects people, how it might affect the balance of power between government and people, rich and poor, first world and third world, or whatever. It doesn’t go into much depth about the relative importance to people of the online world versus the offline world, and how people’s habits might change, and what felt like a world quickly becomes window-dressing for a detective story.

Given the potential of the vision, I’ve already bought the next book in the series and it’s on my virtual “to-read” shelf, and I’m hoping Charles Stross is more ambitious next time. I think this could lead to something great.

In short, I enjoyed the book, but was left with the feeling that I’d been sold a full meal and realised at the end of it that I’d been put on a diet without getting told first.

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