Tag Archives: Books

There’s More to Sci-Fi Than Star Trek

I’ve recently been reading World War Z by Max Brooks, and it made me realise that science fiction, or speculative fiction, is often really underrated as a literary or cultural art-form. While things like Star Trek or Stargate are more often identified with science fiction today, they’re really not – strictly speaking they’re more like space opera: soap opera, but in space, or cheap action-adventure thrills with a loose sprinkling of pseudo-scientific nonsense sprinkled on top.

A real work of science fiction takes a big, but vaguely plausible, extrapolation into the future, and then from that draws the possible consequences it will have on society, on people’s lives. The aim of the endeavour is to make you sit up and think, explore the boundaries and parameters of human existence. In a way I get a similar feeling from history – people biologically almost identical to ourselves, but living under vastly different conditions. The circuses of the Roman Empire for instance are unthinkable today, but they’re the product of their time, and we can get an insight into true human nature by stripping away the ephemeral layers of our society.

One book I think did this wonderfully is The Light of Other Days by the late great Sir Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter, where the central idea is that a technology is invented for creating wormholes between any two points in space, allowing the instant transfer of light from one to the other; it’s quickly realised that the other end of the wormhole can just as easily be in the past, making it possible to see any point in history exactly as it occurred. The book maps the effects this has on judicial trials, politics, personal privacy, etc. and the ramifications the resulting changes in society have on the characters.

I could type forever listing the books that contain similarly wonderful ideas, but it’s already getting late, alas. Some of them include: a branch of mathematics that can predict the behaviour of large human populations, and its application to restoring a fallen civilisation; creating human beings designed from conception to be happy and fulfilled in a particular social role; what if you could immediately fabricate any item, given just any kind of matter as the raw material?

Bonus points if anyone can identify the books those come from.

Meanwhile, on Stargate Atlantis, a heat-sink that’s connected to an alternate universe by a space-time bridge puts the lives of a conference full of scientists in peril when it malfunctions, causing them to be trapped (by also malfunctioning plasma shields) in a  facility rapidly cooling to below freezing. Oh, and one of the characters declares her love for another, mere moments after she was legally dead from hypothermia. Oh, and then, they joined the Mile High Club.

Seriously. Not making that up.


I’ll properly review World War Z in maybe a couple of days when I can do it justice.

Now the exams have let up a little…

Finally getting on top of things. I only have one more exam, Applications of Quantum mechanics and Electrons in Solids on Thursday morning, then I’m free, free like a bird! So far I think the exams have gone pretty well, but we’ll see how things stack up in the summer!

The Steven Moffat-penned Doctor Who two-parter was as good as his previous work would suggest i.e. excellent, so I’m really happy with the fact he’s going to be in charge of the show for series 5. Shame that won’t be until the year after next! I do wonder what he has lined up for River Song in future – the fact that she’s a character the Doctor will know in his own personal future suggests we’ll see her again down the line.

I recently picked up Buffy Season 8 #15, and it’s possibly one of the best issues yet! Mecha-Dawn vs. Giant Dawn on the streets of Tokyo; can you really ask for more?

I also picked up (at the same time, oddly enough) Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, and Charles Stross’ Singularity Sky, the latter of which has a sequel, Iron Sunrise, that I’ve already read, courtesy of my sister buying it for me as a birthday present. So far I’m really enjoying both of them – the best sci fi doesn’t just have character and plot, it has wonderful ideas around which those plots and characters can wind until you have a rich world that at once is both fantastic and believable.

Snow Crash follows the fantastically named Hiro Protagonist: hacker, sword-fighter, pizza delivery boy, in a wonderfully neo-corporate future where a computer technology called the Metaverse allows you to walk around in a virtual-reality version of the Internet. I can’t quite believe it was written in 1992, as some of the ideas contained within are actually starting to come true in parts. The technological vision in here seems like an inspired extrapolation in the Internet-saturated world of today; from 1992, it’s visionary. This is of course one of the other functions of science fiction – to serve as a technological prophet of things to come.

Singularity Sky is different again – set in a future where a hyper-intelligent AI, the Eschaton, has bootstrapped itself into sentience on the Internet, and then distributed humanity across 3000 light-years of space, sending them back in time one year for each light year out, so the civilisations at the edge are 3000 years older than those in the centre. One of the most brilliant things is that real physical ideas are found in abundance – faster than light travel exists, but it’s also a means of time-travel, as such a thing would also be in the real world. Relativity is a fact, not something ignored as too complex to include.

However time travel is not unrestricted; any attempts to violate causality (the principle that events must occur after whatever causes them) are thwarted by the intervention of the Eschaton, which preserves causality for its own ends. This is just the thin end of the idea-wedge in here! The others include mediations on a post-scarcity society, and further ideas on post-human intelligences. Great stuff.

In a public service announcement, you can hear the whole new Coldplay album here: http://www.myspace.com/387267497 Alas, you have to sign up for that insidious hive, MySpace. I’m not sure what I think right now – it’s certainly growing on me, and some songs on here are instant classics, like Lost, and Violet Hill.

Right now I’m also trying to work out what I’m going to do with my time over the summer. I have a handful of ideas, including giving this site the overhaul it’s needed for a while now, and possibly figuring out some way of skewing a satellite map of London so that it matches the distortion of the Tube map. And possibly a good way of managing music. I’m not sure yet…

I’ll leave you with one of the works of the excellent Team Roomba. Best keep your volume turned down…

TF2 Karaoke: Bohemian Rhapsody from FLOOR MASTER on Vimeo

The Catcher in the Rye

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

Cover of Catcher in the Rye Studied it in English for GCSE a few years back and it’s one of those books that really made an impression on me, so much so that I bought my own copy. Not sure where it went, so I put it into my Amazon shopping basket and forgot about it for a while. Until I was making an order a few days ago and I decided to actually get round to pulling it out of the “Saved for later” section into the order.

It’s one of those books that I think everyone should read at least once in their life, preferably when you’re 16/17/18, around the same age as the protagonist of the book, Holden Caulfield. It was written in 1945/1946, but it’s as applicable to modern life as it ever was, and it was extremely controversial when it was first published and still is to this day; the protagonist swears, talks about sex, drinks underage, etc. as he spends a few days by himself in New York after being kicked out of his boarding school.

It’s a novel with a lot of complex themes and meanings and it would do you a disservice if I started trying to explain them out of context.

I know in my life I’ve felt a lot like Holden, I’d imagine an awful lot of people have. It’s a book that’s really about that turning point in your life when you’re becoming an adult, and the loss of innocence and the pain that comes with it, trapped between the purity of childhood and the insincerity and “phoniness” of the adult world.

If you haven’t read it, I really would urge you to. It’s one of those books that, like 1984 and others, has informed our collective culture. The mythology surrounding it is pretty crazy, the guy who shot John Lennon for instance was obsessed with Catcher in the Rye, he even read extracts from it at the trial.

Anyways, in other news, I’m headed to Barcelona later today, and I may not be back for some time. Well, a week.

So I will see you beautiful people around!