Eon and π

One important spoiler! (Again, it’s a great book. Go read it.)

Another of my favorite SF books from the 80s and 90s is Greg Bear’s Eon. At one point it seemed to me that Greg Bear was looking through the SF pantheon for books with great ideas that never really went anywhere and started doing rewrites where he took some amazing concept off the shelf and wrote a story around it. Eon seemed to me to be taking the wonder and promise of Rendezvous with Rama and going beyond it in all respects.

One of the interesting things about Eon is that it was a book with a lot of Russian — or more accurately Soviet — characters written in the pre-Glaznost era. For those of you not familiar with the Cold War, our relationship with the USSR went through a rapid evolution from the early 70s, during which we signed a bunch of arms control agreements and fell in love with Eastern bloc gymnasts and things seemed to be improving, through to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the so-called “Star Wars” missile defense program where things got markedly worse, the death of Leonid Brezhnev which was followed by a quick succession of guys who were dying when they got to power, and then the appearance of Mikhael Gorbachev, who — with the help of Reagan and Thatcher — reduced tensions and eventually made the peaceful end of the Cold War possible in, shall we say, 1989.

Eon was published in 1985, which means it was probably written a year or two earlier — at the height of US-Soviet tensions, and it portrays both the Americans and their Russian counterparts as more doctrinaire, paranoid, and xenophobic than the reader is likely to be. Set around 2005, the Earth is significantly more advanced technologically than we now know it was at the time, but a lot of the timeline is ridiculously optimistic (and there are throwaway comments such as the US orbital missile defense platforms having been far more effective than anyone expected in the limited nuclear exchange of the 90s).

When I first read Eon, I can remember being on the cusp of giving up on it as the politics seemed so right-wing. The Russians were bad guys and the Americans were kind of idiotically blinkered. I made allowances for the fact that the setting included a historical nuclear exchange between Russia and the US which certainly would justify bad feelings, but which itself was predicated on the US and Russians being a lot more bone-headed than the real US and Russians seemed to be.

I should note that I read Eon shortly after it was published, and Gorky Park had been published five years earlier and adapted as a movie in 1983. So it’s not like there weren’t far more nuanced portrayals of Soviets citizens in mainstream popular culture despite increasing Cold War tensions and the invasion of Afghanistan.

The Wikipedia entry for Eon is pretty sparse, but claims that:

the concept of parallel universes, alternate timelines and the manipulation of space-time itself are major themes in the latter half of the novel.

Note: I don’t really think books have “themes”. I think it’s a post-hoc construction by literary critics that some writers (and film makers) have been fooled by.

It’s surprising to me then that something Greg Bear makes explicit and obvious not long into the novel is that the entire story takes place in an alternate universe. He actually compromises the science in what is a pretty hard SF novel to make the point clear: Patricia Vasquez (the main protagonist) is a mathematician tasked with understanding the physics of the seventh chamber. To do this she has technicians make her a “multimeter” that measures various mathematical and physical constants to make it possible to detect distortions in space-time — boundaries between universes. Upon receiving it, she immediately checks to see it is working and looks at the value of Pi, which is shown to be wrong.

Anyone with a solid background in Physics or Math will tell you that changing the value of π is just not possible without breaking Math. (The prominence of π in Carl Sagan’s Contact is slightly less annoying, since it is taken to be a message from The Creator. The implication being that The Creator exists outside Math, which is more mind-boggling than living outside Time, say.) It’s far more conceivable to mess with measured and — seemingly — arbitrary constants such as electro-permeability, the Planck constant, gravity, the charge on the electron, and so forth, and some of these are mentioned. But most people don’t know them to eight or ten places by heart and lack a ubiquitous device that will display them, so (I assume) Bear chose π.

My point is, once it’s clear and explicit that Eon is set in an alternate universe the question switches from “is Bear some kind of right-wing nut-job like so many otherwise excellent SF writers” (which he doesn’t seem to be, based on his other novels) to “does the universe he is describing make internal sense”? It also, I suspect, makes it harder to turn this novel into a commercially successful TV series or movie. Which is a damn shame.

Use of Weapons, Revisited

I just finished listening to Use of Weapons. I first read it shortly after it was published, and it remains my favorite book — well, maybe second to Excession — by Iain M. Banks (who is sorely missed), and one of my favorite SF novels ever.

Spoilers. Please, if you haven’t, go read the book.

First of all, after it finished and I had relistened to the last couple of chapters just to get them straight in my head, I immediately went looking for any essays about the end, and found this very nice one. What follows was intended to be a comment on this post, but WordPress.com wouldn’t cooperate so I’m posting it here.

I’d like to add my own thoughts which are a little counter to the writer of the referenced post’s wholly negative take on Elethiomel. First, he never tries to blurt out a justification for his actions to Livueta, despite many opportunities. Even in his own internal monologues he never tries to justify his own actions. Similarly, if anything Livueta remembers him more fondly than he remembers himself (at least before the chair). If he’s a psychopath, he’s remarkably wracked by conscience.

In an earlier flashback he wonders what it is he wants from her, and considers and (if I recall correctly) rejects forgiveness.

If we read between the lines, we might conclude that the regime to which the Zakalwes are loyal is actually pretty horrible. The strong implication is that Elethiomel’s family narrowly escapes annihilation only owing to their being sheltered by the Zakalwe’s. It has the feel of Tsarist Russia about it.

Elethiomel, for all his negative qualities seems naturally attracted to the nicer side in every scrap he ends up in. When he freelances in the early flashbacks, he’s not doing anything public, he’s quietly and secretly using his wealth and power to (crudely) attempt to do the kinds of things the Culture does.

The book is full of symmetries. If you’d like one more, the Zakalwes are “nice” people loyal to a terrible regime, whereas Elethiomel is a ruthless bastard who works for good, or at least less terrible, regimes.

So it’s perfectly possible that the rebellion he led was in fact very much a heroic and well-intentioned thing, but at the end, when it was doomed, he fell victim to his two great weaknesses — the unwillingness to back down from an untenable position (if he looks like he’s losing, he simply keeps on fighting to the bitter end) and his willingness to use ANYTHING as a weapon no matter how terrible. I think it’s perfectly possible that he did not kill Darkense, but was willing to use her corpse as a weapon because it gave him one more roll of the dice. What did he want to say to Livueta, after all?

I further submit that his final unwillingness to perform the decapitation attack in his last mission shows that he has actually learned something at long last. And this is the thing in him that has changed and caused him to start screwing up (from Special Circumstances’ point of view) in missions since he was, himself, literally decapitated.

Clifford Simak, Flying Houses, and Self-Driving Cars

When I got into SF in my teens, it was divided roughly into three broad phases, each dominated by an influential tastemaker. Hugo Gernsback (of the eponymous “Hugo” awards) essentially built a genre around the work of Verne and Wells. SF of his era were dominated by super scientists who were also all-round fabulous guys. This is the era in which E.E. “Doc” Smith emerged.

The second phase, from the late 30s through the early 50s, was dominated by John Campbell, who pushed for more rounded and realistic characters, but had his own foibles, such as a penchant for powers of the Mind (the Lensman series straddles the eras). Asimov, Clark, and Heinlein all emerged during this period, which — Wikipedia tells us — celebrated “hard” SF (i.e. SF which tried to get the science right).

The third phase, which I grew up in, was eventually dominated spiritually by Harlan Ellison, and it was characterized by the integration of speculation outside science (e.g. politics, social anthropology). Fussing over the science became less important than setting and character. Ellison, Silverberg, and Le Guin were ascendant.

Clifford Simak had the misfortune to do his best work in the later part of the Golden Age, while belonging in the third phase. He was also prolific and somewhat uneven. His best known novel is City — apparently voted the greatest SF novel of all time by the readers of Locus more times than any other. If you haven’t read City you need to stop reading this blog and go find yourself a copy. (It’s not easy — it’s out of print, and not available in electronic form.)

Even if Clifford Simak were a terrible writer (and Cosmic Engineers was pretty terrible, even though he was a working newspaperman when he wrote it) he would be worth reading as an antidote to almost every SF cliché. His robots have emotions, his aliens are friendly and helpful in a weird and alien way, his stories tend to take place in rural settings, there’s nary a space battle nor gunfight to be seen, and when there’s violence it tends to be catastrophic, one-sided, and not solve anything.

Cityspoiler alert — is presented as a collection of traditional stories, passed from dogs to their puppies around the campfire, about a mythical race of creatures called “humans” for which no archeological evidence has been found. The stories happen explain away the need for such evidence, which the introduction drily notes is very convenient.

In the earliest stories, humans are living very high on the hog. Their houses are able to fly where-ever the occupants want to live (assuming a “housing space” is available to park in) and life is good (at least in the US). Everything hard or dangerous is done willingly by tirelessly friendly robots. When it’s pointed out to one of the robots that they’re slave labor, one responds that it has been created with effectively eternal life, so why should it resent a bit of servitude in repayment?

In a later story, humans explore Jupiter by transforming themselves into native Jovians (the only practical method given the hostility of the Jovian atmosphere). The humans discover that being a Jovian is simply so much better than being a human that most emigrate to Jupiter and are never seen or heard from again. The few remaining gradually dial out of existence by going into long-term hibersleep.

Left behind, dogs — modified for greater intelligence and the ability to speak by the humans — together with robots mind the farm, and gradually form their own society, with each dog having an assigned robot helper referred to as its “hands”. They live in peace and happiness for a long time until ants, who have been uplifted by one of the few remaining non-hibernating humans, start taking over the world. Asked for advice on dealing with the ants, a briefly awake human suggests extermination. The dogs and robots instead migrate to a new alternate Earth.

In the last story, human children are being raised on the new Earth by dogs and robots, but despite removing all cultural legacy, the human children engage in horrific acts of violence.

Look, seriously, go read it.

If you’re interested in Simak’s best books, my nominees would be:

  • City
  • Way Station
  • Shakespeare’s Planet
  • The Werewolf Principle
  • Project Pope

Anyway, I was thinking of Simak today while musing over the news that we could see self-driving cars being allowed on California roads next year. My wife and I agreed that the impact of self-driving cars on society will probably exceed the impact of the car itself (consider that the “suburb” exists because of the car) and it struck me that if there was one SF writer who had foreseen anything like what we might experience, it was Clifford Simak with his [self-] flying houses.

The Walking Stupid


Spoilers everywhere!

A couple of my wife’s grad students put me onto The Walking Dead, an AMC TV show* about a small town sheriff’s deputy who is badly wounded in a shootout, falls into a coma, and then wakes up in a world overrun with zombies. Eventually, he joins and quickly assumes leadership of a rag-tag, ethnically diverse band of survivors — although as of the end of season one, I think they’re all out of black and brown people.

This rant is based on watching the first season on Netflix. Let me just say, from the outset, that I found this show utterly compelling despite all the complaints that follow. It’s very well-made, well-cast, well-acted, and the story works well (too well sometimes) at an emotional level. It’s also possibly most intensely gory thing I have ever seen (and I’m a Cronenberg fan), but hey, it’s a zombie story.

Note: right now AMC is responsible for Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Walking Dead which, by my count, puts it ahead of HBO in terms of compelling original content for the moment.

What is it with zombies?

The world of The Walking Dead is, as far as we can tell at the end of season one, pretty much completely overrun. In the course of the first season the survivors have never picked up a radio transmission from anyone else. The thing that bugs me more and more as the series progresses is just how stupid absolutely everyone had to have been in order for the characters to: (a) have gotten into their predicament, (b) be in their predicament, and (c) remain in their predicament. It particularly bugs me because I find the story so compelling and like many of the characters so much and I feel sad when they die, and yet their problems could so easily have been avoided, mitigated, or solved.

The zombies in The Walking Dead, like zombies in general, defy the laws of physics. As far as we can tell, they can operate on virtually no sustenance for ridiculously long periods of time, and have superhuman strength. (The former fact prevents the human race from taking the obvious approach of waiting them out.) But zombies are slow, unperceptive, and stupid. (They can’t operate vehicles or heavy machinery or use weapons — they can, however, turn doorknobs. Ominously.) It seems that zombies are created by humans being “infected”, generally by being bitten by another zombie. (Reading ahead in the Wikipedia article on the graphic novels on which the series is based, this seems to be at least slightly incorrect, but the actual vector has not been revealed.) Whatever the cause of the zombie plague, it doesn’t appear to be terribly contagious, and it’s not like someone is going to transform from healthy human to zombie fast enough to catch anyone by surprise (a corpse can come back to life in as little as three minutes, we discover in the final episode the end of season one).

So, how the heck did this get out of hand?

  • Only dead people become zombies. Until you’re dead, you’re not turning into a zombie. (I suppose it could have infected some living people originally but everyone still alive is immune. But there’s zero evidence for this.)
  • Zombies are easily identified (e.g. they can’t talk); all the zombies we’ve seen so far look gross, but that may have to do with how they died; perhaps early on some zombies looked OK.
  • Zombies are slow moving (again, their weird gaits may be an artifact of how they died, but they don’t seem to move like living people)
  • Zombies can’t use tools or drive vehicles
  • Zombies are easy to cripple, but it requires a hit on the brainstem to “kill” them; assuming the characters live in a world without zombie fiction they may not have known, initially, that you need to hit the brain stem, but it seems like a pretty obvious thing to try, and zombies are easy targets. So it’s simply implausible to imagine trained soldiers with military gear having any real trouble with them.
  • Zombies appear to be a lot stronger than people (but it’s TV/comics so strength varies with situation) — still let’s assume they’re pretty damn strong

The cliche, of course, is that zombies shuffle around, arms outstretched, rasping the word “Brains!” But in The Walking Dead, the zombies say nothing, and it’s the living who desperately need brains.

What happened to the police?

Over and over we see cases where people supposedly made a heroic last stand against apparently overwhelming numbers of zombies. I don’t get it. As of 2006, according to answers.com, there were just under 700,000 police officers in the USA. Assuming the police aren’t immediately turned into zombies that’s 700,000 people sworn to uphold and protect, and carrying around — let’s be conservative — one fully loaded pistol, at least one spare clip of ammo, a shotgun (with extra ammo), and probably a rifle (with extra ammo) each. (Incidentally, I did a little research indicates that when you buy a Glock it comes with four clips each holding 15 rounds, many police in the US are being issued AR-15s, typically with two 30 round magazines.) We can conservatively call this 120 rounds of ammo per police officer. That’s 84,000,000 rounds of ammo being carried around by police officers on a daily basis. Now, zombies move slow and don’t shoot back — they’re basically slow moving target practice. So let’s assume 2-3 rounds per zombie. That’s enough ammo to deal with over 20 million zombies with no advance warning or preparation.

And the well-regulated militia?

Now assuming that the police didn’t have to deal with more than twenty million zombies without any warning, there’s the extra ammo in the trunks of their police cruisers, back at the stations, firing ranges, homes, Wal-marts, sporting goods stores, outdoor centers, and so forth. That’s in addition to the heavily armed populace (especially in the South where the story takes place), national guard, and army (much of which is housed in Southern states). Now, if I heard one whiff of zombie apocalypse news I’m heading to my local sporting goods store and getting some guns and a ton of ammo, and in the US there’s a lot to go around. I might add we have a couple months supply of barely edible emergency rations at home just in case of natural disaster along with, conservatively, another couple of week’s supply of food in the pantry and the house is pretty defensible (good lines of sight all round). So exactly how did the national guard and police protecting the CDC get overwhelmed? And how did it get to that in the first place?

Bear in mind, the zombie apocalypse didn’t come with zero warning. (We know this from flashbacks and discussions of what happened between characters.) Some people were caught unaware, but presumably the majority of the police had some warning and thus some time to get more ammo before “SHTF”. So, again, exactly how did the police and military run out of ammo? Bear in mind that guns are really easy to shoot people with if they’re shuffling slowly towards you and you’re not afraid of them shooting back. (I learned about The Walking Dead when we were at paintball — my first time ever — and from a marksmanship point of view I would have no problem head-shotting zombies from a safe distance with a weapon as woefully inaccurate as a rented paintball gun.)

And something that didn’t really strike me until I lived here, but the South is a freaking disaster area. It is subject to regular tornadoes, hurricanes, horrific thunderstorms (if you’ve never seen “blinding rain” you’ve never lived here), and — in winter — ice storms. (Actually it’s still Autumn and we just had a minor ice storm yesterday.) A lot of people here prepare for the worst as a matter of course. After the tornado hit Tuscaloosa earlier this year and caused lots of power outages, the nearest Costco had diesel generators stacked to the ceiling, and sold them all very quickly.

And the easily fortified buildings?

Then there’s the buildings that can easily be secured against physical assault by non-tool-using zombies, like stadiums, banks, post offices, armories, hospitals, jeweler’s stores, high-end apartment buildings, mansions on private islands. Sucks they all got taken out. Then there’s those facilities that have guards, concrete walls, and barbed wire fences surrounding them. You know, like nuclear reactors, and important military bases. How did the zombies take them out? (Consider air force bases in the middle of deserts — relatively isolated, strong active and passive defenses, excellent communications, on-base medical facilities, and lots of weapons and supplies. Exactly how did all of these get taken out?) And bear in mind many military bases house the families of the soldiers on-base or nearby, so there’s not even the “I’m gonna go get myself killed heroically rescuing my loved ones” excuse.

And the folks with armored vehicles?

How do guys in tanks get turned into zombies? Seriously. If it gets that bad, don’t you close the hatch and shoot yourself? I mean really. But hey, wouldn’t you have kept enough fuel in the tank to drive out of town? Or did you maybe let your buddy siphon off your tank so he could try to find his girlfriend in the worst hit part of town? I guess every tank had some guy with a girlfriend in the worst part of town who needed their emergency reserve gas.

An M3 Bradley — we see a lot of them abandoned near heroic last stands — has an operational range of 250-300 miles (it gets about 1.5 miles per gallon) and carries 1500 rounds of machine-gun ammo (did you know machine-guns can fire single shots?). That’s a lot of zombies you can shoot and run over before driving to safety. (I have this vision of a tank crew circling a gas station and leveling all the buildings and flattening all the zombies before rolling up to a pump to refuel.) Remember they move slow and don’t shoot back. Seriously, how did these guys die?

Oh and there’s the abandoned helicopters. You know where helicopters ran out of fuel during the evacuation of Saigon in 1975? Not in downtown Saigon. So many helicopters were landing on the carriers that they were pushing them overboard to make room for more to land. If you have a helicopter and you know how to fly and you’re not an imbecile, your helicopter is not going to be found in the aftermath of a heroic last stand. But maybe you siphoned off the gas for your buddy whose girlfriend was in the worst hit area. That’s the ticket. (Of course some of those helicopters must have inadvertently carried zombies onto warships. Oops!)

And the navy?

Boy, it sure was tough defending nuclear powered aircraft carriers from the zombies. Those last desperate broadcasts from the bridge of the Nimitz as the surviving crew, equipped only with the pitiful weapons available (you know, assault rifles and stuff), struggled to survive as their zombie shipmates beat through metal hatches — designed to stop seawater sinking the ship in case of a hull breach — using, we assume, their heads was awful. Or maybe they starved to death. Whatever. Let’s not even get into the tragic deaths of nuclear submarine crews. Sad, sad times.

And our plans to deal with global thermonuclear war?

We’ll just ignore all the precautions we took against all-out thermonuclear war, like Cheyenne Mountain, designed to withstand direct hits from hydrogen bombs and keep out radioactive fallout. Somehow, the zombies got in. And don’t think too hard about people living on private islands, motor yachts, say. Sometimes you just need to go shopping, I guess. (Should I mention that the kinds of people most likely to live securely also have the best access to comms and independent sources of fuel and power? Shhhh.)

But, OK, somehow because mistakes were made early, often, repeatedly, and by everyone, the situation got totally out of control and then the police and military became demoralized and — OK I give up. Everyone died! Just accept it.

And our other fortified underground bunkers?

But now, the scientists in France and the US who were in fortified underground class 5 research facilities (where you need to wear a double-layered spacesuit in a negative pressure chamber protected by airlocks to do low risk experiments, and work in a glove box or using robotic arms to do high risk experiments) all died because of … power failures? Of course, they had to run out of diesel eventually (although France gets 80% of its electrical power from nuclear but shhhh.) After just a few months? And remember, this disease is not terribly contagious. You can blow a zombie’s brains out at point-blank range and be splashed with rotting gore, blood, and brain matter and not get infected. They could just have moved to the roof of a building to continue their research safely. But, OK, they’re all dead too.

Having survived all those mistakes, we’re still fucking stupid.

Oh, and the survivors’ communications systems suck. They have a total of two walky-talkies, no spare batteries, and don’t even think about satellite phones. (Did the zombies take out our satellites too? It was sure horrible hearing the screams on the International Space Station when a zombie somehow got onboard. Bastards!) Given that the US is awash in gadgets, including hand-cranked radios, solar battery chargers, batteries of all kinds, generators of all kinds, and cheap and extremely capable portable radios this is plain stupid.

The stupid runs deeper though. The ragtag band of survivors chooses, as its base of operations, a small clearing in a forest that can be approached from almost any direction without being seen. (There’s a guy who hangs out all day on top of his trailer, watching for trouble, but not at night.) Shockingly, zombies sneak up on them at night and kill several. Look guys — your enemy is stupid, slow, and restricted to walking (they’ll chin drag if you shoot off their limbs, but won’t choose to crawl for purposes of stealth). Find a place where you can limit approaches and see anyone coming and you won’t be taken by surprise. It’s not like the zombies know how to sneak or rappel down the sides of buildings. In an early episode, our heroes come across a group of survivors operating out of a nursing home in Atlanta, who have fortified their building with whatever materials came in handy such that it has only one entrance. (They’re doing fine, thanks — despite caring for all of the patients in a nursing home) It’s a shame the military, police, national guard, etc. didn’t try to physically barricade vital facilities and people like that, but who would think of such a clever idea? (Incidentally, standard tactics for urban warfare involves turning buses and trams into barricades to block roads.)

You could explain everything a lot more easily if the zombie contagion is much worse or more insidious than we think. It could be airborne. It could infect healthy people, kill them, and turn them into zombies. Initially, zombies might not look different from people — until they bite you. But if these things are true then either it’s a very low risk or our heroes would all be dead by now. And if it’s a very low risk, then it again doesn’t explain anything. OK, perhaps it’s something some people have a natural resistance to, but when you get bitten that natural resistance is overwhelmed. That means that initially aerosol transmission did happen a lot, but if so some people would (a) have remembered this happening, (b) mentioned it at some point, and (c) still be paranoid about it. Just for example, the underground labs full of scientists who devoted their last months to studying the disease but died having gotten nowhere and left no record of any such discoveries.

Oh well, maybe they’ll eventually bump into a group of survivors riding bicycles along interstates, each carrying a walky-talky, rechargeable batteries, solar cell, flare gun, and plenty of ammunition, and keeping in touch with the US Navy via satellite phone. Maybe everyone in Canada is just fine but they can’t be bothered helping the US.


I’ll try to resist watching season 2.

Hamilton’s Void

One of the more interesting news stories today concerns Wikileaks’ publication of hundreds of thousands of US State Department diplomatic cables. The takeaway point is that there’s a use-by date on confidentiality, and while predictions that we’ll live in a world without privacy may be (slightly) exaggerated, the idea that one can bury the past is clearly obsolete.

I recently finished The Secret History of MI6 (I read the Kindle version — on my iPad — which, like pretty much every ebook I’ve read, is rife with egregious typographic and layout errors — I don’t know how many of them are shared with the print version). I don’t recommend this book to anyone not interested in stories of bureaucratic infighting. Operational details (“spy stories”) are pretty much thin, since this kind of stuff was purged from the records pretty methodically. How much was spent on office supplies was recorded for the ages. I mention this only because this is very much not the world we’re living in today.

Failing to Predict the Present

Science Fiction has been, it seems to me, almost crippled by the pace of real technological advancement. It’s hard to think of a SF story from before 2000 which doesn’t seem ridiculous given our current state of advancement. Even great books, such as (say) A Fire Upon the Deep or Earthlight need to be read “with allowances”. Theirs is a speculative future without decent cellphones and laptops. I remember saying to colleagues in 1992 that the Newton had just made every SF novel obsolete, because it represented technical capabilities beyond pretty much anything anyone had predicted* and the Newton’s initial failure in the market did not mean the demise of either the underlying idea or the technology behind it.

(Note: * Hari Seldon had something a lot like a Newton, only better, in Asimov’s Foundation, which was something of a tour de force in terms of tech ideas.)

It’s understandable for a SF writer not to take future developments into account (after all, if they really knew, they’d have better things to do than write science fiction). Even the venerated Arthur C. Clarke completely missed miniaturization (in Earthlight, scientists living on the moon have filing cabinets full of paper records; in one of his memorable short stories (whose name escapes me), a spaceship crew is reduced to using abacuses to calculate a new orbit after their ship’s two onboard computers both fail) — and this was despite its having been the central feature of Asimov’s Foundation trilogy (I continue to ignore the later installments).

It’s much less forgivable for SF writers to miss current and past technical developments. The lack of support for voicemail and call waiting in Star Trek: The Next Generation’s communicators is hilarious. One of the frequent, small satisfactions of the Stargate franchise is that it’s set in the present, and the characters are constantly pushing the envelope of existing technologies, such as when the Stargate Command started launching drones through the stargates for reconnaissance (and later, air support). One of my favorite ever scenes was when SG-1 was teaching people to use P90s and showing how for practical purposes they were far more effective than high-tech goa’uld weapons.

Which brings me to Peter F. Hamilton’s recently concluded “Void” series (The Dreaming Void, et al). I’m a little under halfway through as I write this, and I’m going to try to avoid spoilers. This isn’t a review per se since I can’t review what I haven’t finished reading. (Now, if I were a professional reviewer things would be different.)

My first exposure to Peter F. Hamilton was his Night’s Dawn Trilogy. This is a huge, spawling, kitchen-sink space opera — but with zombies (before the zombie craze really took off).

In a sense, Night’s Dawn reminds me a lot of Dan Simmons’s Hyperion Cantos (“Cantos”? Seriously?) — both are big, rich, complex settings torn apart by war and “monsters”. Hyperion seems like a more serious and disciplined work, while Hamilton’s books are something on the line of an explosion in a typewriter factory. Hyperion itself is, in my opinion, something of a masterpiece (albeit a pretentious one — it’s a riff on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales) but the follow-ups are increasingly ragged. Night’s Dawn feels more like a huge slab of work chopped into pieces and sold as a trilogy (or sexalogy in reprint). There’s no appreciable quality drop — the whole thing is a solid B while Hyperion starts as an A and fitfully declines to a C. (Maybe that’s C and B to D before grade inflation.)

Commonwealth vs. Culture

The Void strongly reminds me of Iain Banks’s Culture setting, but while both writers are somewhat slapdash — “I won’t bother you with details because, frankly, I haven’t bothered with the details myself” — it seems to me that Banks is simply better at keeping balls in the air (both plot-wise and conceptually). That said, he doesn’t generally try to keep nearly so many balls in the air.

If we do a bit of conceptual mapping — Banks’s Culture is a highly advanced machine/human civilization that’s very, very high tech. Machines are characters in the stories and have full human rights. It operates in a Galaxy full of civilizations among which it is one of the most powerful, mainly because most civilizations as advanced as the Culture choose to “sublime”. Earth is not part of The Culture, but an example of a pre-Starflight world in whose affairs The Culture meddles. The most interesting Culture novels examine the way The Culture interacts with external societies, notably the markedly less advanced (Use of Weapons), less advanced (Player of Games, Consider Phlebas), and more advanced (Excession). While there is some discussion of The Culture’s internal affairs, it is pretty cursory and, in general, The Culture doesn’t really work at all internally so getting into detail isn’t going to help too much.

Hamilton’s Commonwealth is a highly advanced human/machine civilization where the machines are, aside from when they are running human personalities, appliances. (This is perhaps a conscious dramatic decision, or even an attempt to differentiate the setting from The Culture.) In general, the machines act a lot like Culture machines, but they don’t “talk” and aren’t treated as characters.) The Commonwealth operates in a Galaxy full of civilizations among which it is one of the most powerful, mainly because most civilizations as advanced as the Commonwealth choose to become “post-physical”. Earth is the center of the Commonwealth, and is ruled by a giant computer into which the combined minds of many of its citizens have been uploaded. Surrounding Earth are “Higher” worlds inhabited by augmented humans living lives of essentially unlimited wealth and leisure on worlds largely united by wormholes, and beyond that some kind of ill-defined market-driven diaspora of ordinarily high-tech worlds. People live as long as they want and can “migrate inwards”, going from relatively normal, to “higher”, and then uploading.

And if I may make one final analogy — the titular Void in Hamilton’s universe is a lot like the titular Excession in Banks’s novel of that name. The big problem with the Void is that it’s been around a heckuva long time and no-one seems to have made any sensible contingency plans (which, given the level of technology available, would include relocating to a safer galaxy).

Now, in terms of being a “rollicking good read”, the Void seems to be right up there with Night’s Dawn. It’s pretty good fun, there’s a lot of good ideas and quite a few bad ones. It’s competently written, there’s plenty of action, and it hangs together quite well.

But as I read this series some of the overlooked details irk me more and more. There’s an old joke to the effect that anyone can see the wheel and predict cars, but it takes a SF writer to see the wheel and predict traffic jams, and a really good SF writer to see the wheel and predict parking meters. This is where Hamilton basically fails as a SF writer. He’s seen a lot of wheels and predicted a whole lot of cars and a few traffic jams, but he never sees the parking meter. Banks usually sees the parking meter, although he may choose not to dwell on it.

I want more life, fucker.

Let’s consider the absolutely central concept of personalities as software. This is perhaps the single most pervasive concept in science fiction today and for the last 20 years. (I can remember long conversations about it with friends when I was in college working on ForeScene, which would be circa 1985. Let’s just say we came up with a lot more parking meters than Hamilton has.) The idea is that a human brain/body is hardware and a personality is software. You can back up software and “run it” on alternative hardware (e.g. a sufficiently powerful computer) or load it on a new body (e.g. if the original is killed). In Hamilton’s Void this is called “relifing”. One of the major characters lives in Earth’s hivemind, and is relifed for a diplomatic mission. It’s no big deal.

This is utterly stupid. It makes no sense. And Iain Banks gets this in a way that Hamilton simply fails to.

In Excession there’s a hilarious scene where a modern Culture warship finds itself about to engage a suborned fleet of obsolete Culture warships in combat. Assuming that its attack run will be suicidal, the modern ship backs up its mind. It then feels an enormous sense of liberation, knowing that it is going to die and feels that it would be horrible to deny its new self the memory of this feeling and makes a new backup. The point is that in the Culture, despite all the technology, death is death.

You could explain away these problems in a setting which did not treat personality as software, but as soon as you decide personality is just a bunch of bits the consequences are pretty much lethal. (E.g. if you make the argument that the Universe is infinite and that therefore there are infinite perfect copies of everything, you can’t demonstrate that your “personality” isn’t shared among all the perfect copies of you. This lets you do things like teleportation and even backing up your body with quantum theoretic arm-waving rather than data/cpu arm-waving). The fact you can duplicate your copy of Excel and run it on a new computer doesn’t make it the same as the original — a fact you can quickly verify by running both at the same time.

(One of the ideas I’ve started toying with as a result of all this is the idea of a quantum-entangled backup — which I’ll call a “Schrodinger Clone” — where you make a duplicate of your body in such a way there’s a 50% chance that the “you” that continues “living” is the copy. If you come to a sticky end before your next backup the waveform is collapsed so that the copy was the one who died. Otherwise, you collapse the waveform to make your “active” copy the original, back it up, and then throw away the old backup. Note that death is still death, but the “self” with longer continuity leads a privileged “life”. Death still sucks for the copy, of course.)

Similarly, an SF writer can make the case for “teleportation” not being equivalent to dying and being duplicated if, and only if, the mechanism is fundamentally “space origami” and not replication. (I might add that Iain Banks’s “displacers” satisfy this rationale, and show how much more rigorous his underlying concepts are than most other writers’.) It’s very sad that in Star Trek (TOS) there’s an episode which explicitly requires transporters to be replicators (the main characters all die of old age owing to a disease and are “restored from backup” using the transporters), which means that using one entails being vaporized and having a new copy created at the destination (i.e. Star Trek transporters kill you). Note that it follows as a simple corollary that the Enterprise can reuse its security officers (they should probably keep trying new ones until they find one that’s competent, though). Similarly, there have been several episodes of Stargate: SG-1 and Atlantis that hinge on wormholes being replicators and not “folded space”. It’s pretty annoying for SF writers to be willing to completely destroy their settings this way.

(Note that my “Schrodinger Clone” concept could also work as a teleporter, or in fact be a teleporter. Thus, if your “Away Team” dies horribly then, actually, they never left. Sucks to have been them.)

But hey, it’s fun to read. Right?

Look, I get that SF is, in large part, a simple escapist fantasy genre. It’s simply a set of building blocks with which to tell good action stories. I’m not saying that Hamilton’s Void is horrible and not worth reading. Far from it. It just seems to me that there’s a much more interesting story to be told if the basic assumptions were to be examined more carefully, and that the pervasive underlying assumption that being uploaded into a hive mind or restored from backup “not dying” is a constant irritation.

And there are some brilliant ideas I haven’t even touched on in Hamilton’s Void. To begin with there’s the whole idea of the “gaiafield” — some kind of technologically implemented telepathic field that lets people share emotions and (notably) dreams. And then there’s the whole idea of the Void itself, and the whole techno-religious thing. And I quite like the story of the Waterwalker thus far (I won’t say anything more than that). Much as with the Night’s Dawn trilogy there’s so much stuff to like in these books that the not insignificant amount of really bad stuff is simply overwhelmed.