Tag Archives: sci-fi

Reading: Part 3 – Slaughterhouse-Five

I must make a confession: I read this book in one go from start to finish, and I’m fairly convinced that it’s a triumph. So I’m making a note here. Great success? </lameportaljoke>

The novel follows Billy Pilgrim, an optometrist and former (well, sort of, you’ll see) prisoner of war who has become unstuck in time. His consciousness flicks about through his life, from his experiences being captured at the Battle of the Bulge through to the firebombing of Dresden, his abduction by aliens, the moment of his death, and every moment in-between.

It’s also semi-autobiographical, as Vonnegut makes a point of mentioning that he was also present during the war, and many of the details of Billy’s life match the author’s own biography.

The book is a meditation on death, time, war, of the correlations between moments “stuck in amber”. It’s such a great book that I feel inadequate to be reviewing it, because I don’t have the tools to fully appreciate what has been done.

The little touches are incredible – the book follows the story of Billy Pilgrim’s experience in the war, interrupted by the random splinters of the rest of his life, and it’s filled with echoes of other moments, phrases repeated, evocative symmetries.

Every time someone dies, or death is mentioned, the phrase “so it goes” is repeated, focusing your mind on the death itself. The book enumerates the cruelties of the war, men glorifying and justifying the firebombing, or soap and candles made from the fat of dead Jews and gays and gypsies.

It is at once a condemnation of war and an admission that war is inevitable, that death will be dealt by natural causes, or an act of revenge, by atomic bomb or by firebomb, but that death will always be there, waiting at the end of our allotted years, our single thread spun out across eternity; we just have to think of the nice parts of the thread.

I feel almost compelled to compare this book with Illium; partly because they are at least nominally in the same genre. There is honestly no comparison. Illium wears its literary pretensions on its sleeve as a badge of honour; Slaughterhouse-Five is a work of literature in its own right, not a trashy space-opera with illusions of grandeur.

Reading: Part 1 – Illium

Absolutely ages ago I picked up a copy of Dan Simmonds’ Illium and I’ve finally actually read the thing.

I’ve previously read two other books by the same author, Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion so by this point I’ve rather thoroughly clocked the tics that he, like all writers, possesses.

For instance, it’s likely that Charlie Brooker will swear his way through a Guardian article, or Arthur C. Clarke is going to have plausible science, or Richard Dawkins will probably decry the evils of religion while simultaneously demonstrating the intellectual advantages of evolution. They’ve all got  their thing.

For Simmonds, his peculiar tic is to be absolutely obsessed with other writers. The Hyperion books were basically one massive hard-on for the works of Keats, and for poetry in general, to the point at which it started to get ridiculous. One character was, indeed, essentially a cyborg reincarnation of Keats himself; I shit you not.  This didn’t sit terribly well with me in general, because personally I think Keats is kind of a twat; saying Newton had destroyed the beauty of the rainbow by explaining it is one of the most utterly backward things I can imagine. The structure of the first book also liberally borrowed from The Canterbury Tales. At times it feels less than science fiction and more like a literary love-in.

I digress somewhat. The point is that these same tics form almost the very structure of Illium. The plot falls into multiple threads; one the story of a “scholic” observer, in service to the Muse, of what appears to be the Trojan war at the time of the Illiad. Another has a group of sentient robots from the moons of Jupiter sent on a mission to Mars, and another has a group of far-future humans on a quest for truth in their strangely altered Earth society.

The tics reappear fairly immediately; the “scholic” thread consists of a hi-tech twist on scenes from the Iliad, with the gods explained as beings equipped with high technology. Scene after scene of this is incredibly reminiscent of what it’s like to read the Illiad, a thousand different ways of saying “X killed Y with spear”. The sentient robots (called “moravecs” after Hans Moravec) fill their time on the way to Mars engaged in discussions of literary criticism, comparing and contrasting the works of Shakespeare (especially his sonnets) and the work of Marcel Proust, including quotations from À la recherche du temps perdu. This is before it’s then implied, in another classic trick, that Internet became self-aware and decided to call itself Prospero. It’s all really very silly, but it’s taken very seriously.

The other major fault he has is that despite Illium being a really very thick book, it is very consciously only half the story. I mean half in a very literal sense, all the plot threads are left dangling, and there is hardly any proper resolution. This is a fault it shares very strongly with Hyperion.

This isn’t to say it’s a bad book, necessarily. It’s well written, and it’s curiously imaginative, and you keep on reading and reading. Well, maybe I do, but then I even persevered to finish the Dan Brown abortion Angels & Demons, so maybe I can bring myself to finish anything. I’m just not sure that Dan Simmonds’ brand of literary space opera is really worth committing one’s time to a book of such length, especially when you’re lucky if the plot makes even a lick of sense, even before it’s arbitrarily truncated. This is a book in which it would make barely any difference if the explanations used the word “magic” instead of “quantum” or “nano” because they’re stripped of their ordinary meanings by being associated with nonsense.

It stands as a striking contrast to a book like The Songs of Distant Earth by Arthur C. Clarke, which manages to pull lovely human stories of love and loss and jealousy out of a plausible scientific scenario; a single, clear idea, beautifully elucidated. It’s also a much thinner book, but I managed to draw a lot more enjoyment and refreshment from it than from Illium.

In a couple of days (hopefully) I aim to return with Part 2 – Bertrand Russell’s Why I am not a Christian and then, if I’m really lucky and the wind is blowing the right way, Part 3 – Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5, which I actually haven’t read yet.

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

My God, It’s full of stars…

Arthur C Clarke was one of the best science fiction writers who has ever lived, and possibly ever will live. He was visionary like few people are; his vision of the future of humanity is one we can all aspire to; where men and women have reached out into the solar system, and our inventiveness and curiosity know no bounds, where science and reason and technology can take us further than any magic or superstition.

The big three of sci-fi (Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke) are all dead now. I hope the next generation of writers can take up the mantle.