Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Archive for the tag “science fiction”

The mystery of the Solar Wind (book review)

At our literary coffee klatch a couple of weeks ago Tony McGregor brought along a book called The mystery of the Solar Wind, which he said was about pirates in the 22nd century, so when I saw a copy in the library I grabbed it and brought it home to read.

The Mystery of the Solar WindThe Mystery of the Solar Wind by Lyz Russo
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m a bit conflicted about this book. On the one hand, I found it compelling reading, an interesting story, of pirates in the world a century in the future. On the other hand, there are too many rough edges, and it feels unfinished, like a rough draft that somehow escaped into the public library. The copy I read has no ISBN and is not listed on GoodReads, and the cover is different from all the editions that are. Its date is 2009, and it reads like a publisher’s proof copy sent to bookshops in advance of publication.

Some of the rough edges may have been smoothed out in a later “proper” edition, but I still wonder why this one was found in the public library.

It is set in a world in which two superpowers, the Unicate, which seems to be a kind of expanded and corrupt Nato, and the Rebellion, based in the south Pacific, are fighting for global dominance, and there is the Southern Free, in Africa, which appears to mind its own business and doesn’t come into the story much. And apart from that there are the pirates, who acknowledge none of the world powers.

The Solar Wind is a pirate ship, whose Hungarian captain seems to have an incongruously Slavic name. It is a wind-powered ship — ships using mineral oil as fuel are a thing of the past — though it does have fuel cell and nuclear auxiliary drives.

The protagonists are the Donegal siblings, Ronan, Paean and Shawn, orphans who joined the ship at Dublin, fleeing from the Unicate after the death of their mother in suspicious circumstances.

But there are puzzling quirks and plot holes. The pirates explain to the Donegals that they are not the bloodthirsty villains of popular perception, and go out of the way to avoid harming their enemies, until there is a sudden and totally unexpected outbreak of gratuitous violence and mass murder, which would certainly in our day be regarded as a war crime. And what kind of person gives a twelve-year-old a rifle to shoot people escaping a sinking ship in a lifeboat? Was it that the Donegals were only beginning to become aware of their real nature of their hosts? No, it seems to have been a turning point when they became loyal to them.

There are mysteries that are never explained, and the reader is simply left hanging. There are strange uses of words, some of which could be explained by language changes over the next century, except that they seem strangely inconsistent. “Anna bottle” can be accepted as a 22nd century expression, but exclaiming “Cor” seems so 1960s London. One sentence spoke of things being connected “by vice of a three-toed print”, and I tried to think of a three toed print holding things together like a vice, but the imagery failed. Perhaps it was meant to be “by the device of a three-toed print”, which would be evidence for my suspicion of its being an uncorrected proof copy that escaped to the library, but even that would make no sense in the context.

Something I also found odd was the reference to female characters by their hair colour — “the redhead”, “the brunette” (with black hair nogal). That seemed to belong to 1936 rather than 2116. And since the male characters weren’t referred to in that way it seemed rather sexist to me. It was also confusing, because there were two female characters with red hair, so one had to work out which one was being referred to.

One of the books we also discussed at the literary coffee klatsch was A high wind in Jamaica, which was also about children and pirates, though the setting was about 250 years earlier than The mystery of the Solar Wind, so I can’t help making comparisons. In A high wind in Jamaica the children (who are mostly younger than those in Solar Wind) are inadvertently captured by pirates, and actually turn out to be considerably more bloodthirsty than the pirates, especially when the pirates are themselves captured and put on trial, and the children are called upon to give evidence at their trial. But the bloodthirstiness of the children as as nothing compared to the imaginations of the adults at the trial, who embroider the evidence given by the children into something utterly remote from the reality.

At the time of writing The mystery of the Solar Wind is  available free on Smashwords.

View all my reviews

Advertisements

Review of “Cell” by Stephen King

CellCell by Stephen King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Clayton Riddell was having a good day. He had travelled to Boston and just sold some of his art work for a publication, and was on his way back to his hotel when disaster struck. An electro-magnetic pulse sent through the cell phone networks scrambled the brains of all cell phone users, and most of them became mindlessly violent. Cars crashed, and when drivers not using cell phones phoned to explain that they’d been in an accident or were held up by one, they lost their minds too.

Clayton Riddell’s main desire then is to get back to his estranged wife and 12-year-old son in Kent Pond, Maine, to see that they are OK, and sets out with a couple of companions to make the journey on foot — the roads are blocked with crashed vehicles. They soon discover that the phone-crazies as they call them, are active during the day, but not at night, so much of their travelling has to be done at night. The book describes their journey, and the difficulties they face, dominated by Clay Riddell’s search for his son.

I find Stephen King one of the most unpredictable. His books range from very good (Needful Things) to very bad (The Tommyknockers). I’ve generally found his spooky books to be better than his science fiction ones, but this one, though science fiction, seemed to be one of the better ones. I was thinking of giving it four stars until about three-quarters of the way though, when he jumped the shark by introducing levitation, which didn’t seem to contribute to the plot at all. And I didn’t like the abrupt ending.

View all my reviews

Networking and consciousness

A blogging friend recently drew my attention to an article about scientists’ attempts to understand consciousness — World’s Smartest Physicist Thinks Science Can’t Crack Consciousness – Scientific American Blog Network: The chemist Ash Jogalekar, who blogs as “The Curious Wavefunction,” wrote about Witten’s speech and transcribed the relevant section. (Thanks, Ash.) Here is an excerpt:

I think consciousness will remain a mystery. Yes, that’s what I tend to believe. I tend to think that the workings of the conscious brain will be elucidated to a large extent. Biologists and perhaps physicists will understand much better how the brain works. But why something that we call consciousness goes with those workings, I think that will remain mysterious. I have a much easier time imagining how we understand the Big Bang than I have imagining how we can understand consciousness…

Now I’m no scientist. I haven’t gone beyond high school physics and that was more than 50 years ago, and string theory wasn’t around then, so if you think that what follows is the insane ramblings of a lunatic, you’d better stop reading now. Check the right-hand column for something else to read, or close this window.

My picture of consciousness or an analogy for consciousness is that it arises out of the complexity of networks, and in this case the networks of neurons in the human brain.

This idea was suggested to me by a science fiction short story called A subway named Möbius. “When the MBTA (Boston’s Public Transportation authority) introduces a new line, the topology of the network become so complex that a train vanishes…lost in some fourth dimensional properties of the network.”

The Boston T

The Boston T

I read the story in 1962, when I was 21. There was no Google in those days, so I had to go searching among mathematical texts in the library to discover what topology was. The story mentioned a Möbius strip, which had one side and one edge, which the author described as a “singularity”. It also mentioned a Klein bottle, which managed to be inside itself, and had two singularities. The mathematical texts that I found explained and illustrated these, so at least I could form a mental picture of them, and for a while I enjoyed making Möbius strips and astounding my friends by demonstrating that they had one side and one edge. In the story a mathematician, Roger Tupelo, explains the disappearance of the train referring to the topological qualities of the network. It is a closed system, so the train must be somewhere on the system, but it has no real “where”.

The story suggested to me how it might be possible to have infinity in a finite space. It gripped my imagination, and I wondered if that was what consciousness was. Could this be an analogy to the link between the metaphysical mind and the physical brain? That the network of our brains was so complex that our thoughts jumped into another dimension?

A few years later I came across a play by N.F. Simpson called A resounding tinkle. At one point in the play a radio is playing in the background, and something resembling Anglican Evensong was playing, with dialogue something like this:

Versicle: Let us throw back our heads and laugh at reality.
Response: Which is an illusion caused by mescaline deficiency.

V: At sanity
R: Which is an illusion caused by alcohol deficiency.

V: At thought.
R: which is an illusion caused by certain electrochemical changes in the human brain structure which, had they been otherwise, what is now commonplace would be beyond our wildest imaginings, and what is now beyond our wildest imaginings would be commonplace.

And the connection between brain and mind would be as much beyond our wildest imaginings as that.

Of course this is all completely unscientific, being based on science fiction and the Theatre of the Absurd, but I rather liked the idea that the topological qualities of a network could make the whole network greater than the sum of its parts, and the brain as a neural network is a lot more complicated than an underground railway. I’ve always liked visible networks, like railways, and prefer trolley buses to oil buses, partly because their network is more visible.

When I actually visited Boston, I was rather disappointed to discover that the MBTA network was not nearly as complex as the story suggested, and in that respect did not compare well with the Moscow or London networks.

The Boston T -- August 1995

The Boston T — August 1995

I mentioned this theory of consciousness in passing in another blog post, where I suggested that it could also be used as an analogy for the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body — that God has us all backed up on tape or some kind of super DVD, and that on the last day we’ll all be rebooted into new and better hardware.

The idea of egregores allows one to extend the analogy, or the metaphor, even further. If the human mind is greater than the sum of the parts of the human brain, then an aggregate of human minds working together could be greater than the sum of the brains that compose it. According to the modern nation, an egregore is a kind of group mind which is created when people consciously come together for a common purpose. Each of us belong to several of these groups. The process is unconscious. There also are drawbacks, some disturbing psychic influences in many cases, and a restriction of freedom. It is impossible to free oneself from certain egregores, for example the egregores of the country you live in.

The egregores of the country one lives in bear a strong resemblance to the angels of the nations referred to in the Old Testament, and the Greek word egrigori (watchers) is sometimes used to refer to them.

Consciousness is sometimes described by scientists as being comparable to both waves and particles. So could not the angels of the peoples be both a kind of group mind, and also bodiless powers?

I’m not proposing a new doctrine here, it is just a theologoumenon. But it might provide a useful analogy.

The Handmaid’s Tale – a novel of a dystopian future

The Handmaid's TaleThe Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I first saw this book in a bookshop, soon after it was first published, I looked at the title and cover illustration, and assumed that it was of a similar genre to The Name of the Rose and put it back on the shelf.

Then, seeing a copy in the library a few weeks ago, I looked at the blurb, and it looked more interesting, so I took it out and read it, and found it was more of a dystopian science fiction novel, of the same genre as Brave new world or 1984. It shares with both those novels the setting of a repressive regime that will not tolerate the slightest appearance of dissent.

HandmaidPerhaps the resemblances are deliberate, since it was probably written about 1984, the period in which the book of that name was set. But in The Handmaid’s Tale the regime is sufficiently new that the main character and many others could still remember what things were like before. And that got me wondering, while I was reading, how a new regime could effect such a complete change in society and its values in such a short time.

In part it was explained by a programme of intensive indoctrination by a group of women called Aunts. The society is rigidly stratified and segregated, with females being designated as Wives, Aunts, Marthas and Handmaids, and males as Commanders, Guardians and Angels. Reading is forbidden, and the possession of books is punished.

The problem with this is that it results in extreme boredom, and in that respect Brave New World is more convincing, with its provision of an endless stream of compulsory frivolous entertainment to distract the populace from any thoughts of resistance or revolution.

One of the things that drives the society is a drastic drop in fertility, which is also the opposite of Brave New World. In The Handmaid’s Tale birth control means controlling every fertile woman (the Handmaids) to make sure they do not evade their duty of giving birth. But the drop in fertility is never adequately explained. At first one thinks that there has been a nuclear holocaust, but the society seems far too orderly for that. There is food in the shops, there are cars on the streets, and there are even neighbouring countries whose borders can be crossed (and, which, it seems, are not similarly repressive, so people even try to seek asylum in them).

Women's March to the Union Buildings, 9 August 1956, protesting against a law requiring black women to carry passes.

Women’s March to the Union Buildings, 9 August 1956, protesting against a law requiring black women to carry passes.

So I think back to my own past. The National Party came to power in South Africa when I was 7. Ten years later, it had certainly extended its control over society in many ways, but not to the extent or with the speed that is evident in The Handmaid’s Tale. Yet there was the stratification of society. The 1951 population census provided the basis for identity cards, issued from 1956 onwards, which stated the race of the holder, and that determined, far more rigidly than before, where they could live, which schools they could go to, what work they could do and so on. At the same time, the obligation of black males to carry passes at all times was extended to black women, and the women marched to the Union Buildings to protest, an event commemorated annually on Women’s Day, the 9th of August. They didn’t actually start shooting protesters in earnest until four years later, the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, 12 years after the National Party came to power.

In the book the new regime could not have been in power for more than 10-12 years at most. So how could it change society so quickly? And then I thought of Nazi Germany, where the whole thing only lasted 12 years from start to finish, so things must have happened much more quickly there.

There are religious elements that are absent in Brave New World and 1984 — Jews are deported, Baptists are insurrectionists on far-away borders, and Roman Catholics are routinely hanged. I’m not sure when exactly Samuel Huntington first enunciated his “Clash of Civilizations” theory, but I think this book anticipates it by a few years. It is redolent of the state religions and religious wars of early modern Europe, and the society depicted probably fits quite well into the vision of ISIS and what they are fighting for.

View all my reviews

Dreamcatcher: a book review

DreamcatcherDreamcatcher by Stephen King

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m never sure what to expect with Stephen King novels. Some I think are very good, some very bad, and most somewhere in between. The ones I liked best are Needful Things, Pet Sematary and The girl who loved Tom Gordon. I’ve generally enjoyed his supernatural horror stories rather than his science fiction ones or other genres, though The girl who loved Tom Gordon, about a girl lost in the woods, is neither science fiction nor horror.

I read a couple of his science fiction ones, including a UFO novel, The Tommyknockers, which I thought was his worst. So when I picked up The Dreamcatcher at the library, I wasn’t expecting much, but thought that as it was only a library book, I didn’t need to feel I had to finish it. In the end I did finish it. It was a page turner, in the sense that I wanted to see what happened, but it confirmed my opinion that King is better at writing about spooks than about space aliens. Dreamcatcher was better than The Tommyknockers but not much.

The story line was disjointed and made little sense, and thoughout the story telepathy seems to be overused as a deus ex machina. The eponymous “dreamcatcher” is never really explained in any coherent way. The main characters are unreal; we are told virtually nothing about their families, and they hardly ever think of them or miss them when they are experiencing tough times.

But there is also a kind of moral thread running through the story. Stephen King clearly has a lot of sympathy for bullied children, and one could say that there is a moral in the story: be kind to bullied and disabled children.

A possible explanation for this might be that King had been in a serious accident, and appears to have written this book while recovering from it, and one of the characters experiences a similar accident, and goes through similar suffering. The girl who lived Tom Gordon, written shortly before the accident, was a much better book.

View all my reviews

The age of miracles: dystopian fiction

The Age of MiraclesThe Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Eleven-year-old Julia wakes up one morning to find that the sun is late. The earth’s rotation speed is slowing, and soon clock time is out of sync with the procession of days and nights. At first there is panic, and people behave strangely. Julia’s best friend, a Mormon, moves with her family to Utah. A Jewish family is not sure when to observe the Sabbath.

For a schoolgirl the problems of friendship, popularity and peer pressure are exacerbated by the changes in the environment. As nights lengthen, crops are threatened by the lack of sunlight, and people begin hoarding food. Animals begin to behave in strange ways, and some species become extinct.

The story is not altogether believable, as some things that one would expect to be affected by the changes appear not to be. Though the wheat supply is threatened, there seems to be no problem in ordering pizzas, and ice cream continues to be readily available, through fresh fruit is not. People in the middle-class suburb where Julia lives still appear to go to work every day, even though one would expect there to be massive unemployment in sectors affected by the changes.

The story is told through the eyes of a child, of course, and one would not expect a child to know of everything that was happening. Apart from a few discrepancies, it is well told, and a good read.

View all my reviews

Dawn in Andromeda: book review

Dawn in AndromedaDawn in Andromeda by Ernest Charles Large

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this book more than 50 years ago, and thought I would look for it on Good Reads, but could not find it. Web searches make it possible to get such information easily nowadays, however, without time-consuming and expensive trips to the library, so I added it to Good Reads.

This description, which I found on the web, is pretty much as I remember it. Since the book is out of print, it isn’t much of a spoiler.

Five men and five women, all English, walk out of the sea one misty morning on a small uninhabited planet in the galaxy of Andromeda. Their new world is remarkably like the earth, except that it has two moons and it intercepts rather more meteorites. The party have, between them, a great deal of modern knowledge of the useful arts and sciences, and God, for his own inscrutable reasons, has set them the task of making a wireless set – a seven-valve all-wave superhet-in one generation, starting naked from the sea. They begin by putting back the flesh and blood on some of the bare bones of archaeology. They make their first fire, catch their first rabbits with their own hair, smelt their first button of iron, and find the first wild plants for the establishment of their agriculture. And then? In the course of a wonderfully human story, told with scrupulous veracity and attention to detail, they retrace step after step of discovery and invention, all the way from flint implements to high-vacuum technology.

It was a book I really enjoyed as a teenager. Perhaps I wouldn’t enjoy it as much today. I borrowed it from the Johannesburg Public Library, and second-hand copies seem to be going at quite exorbitant prices, so perhaps it’s time to reprint it.

Some things in it have dated, of course. I remember some bloke at school with me had a portable radio, which may have been a seven-valve all-wave superhet for all I know. The stuff that was crammed into the case was amazing, and it weighed about 3 pounds. But within a couple of years (and by the time I read the book), valves were obsolete and had been replaced by transistors, though for several years afterwards hi-fi (audio/sound system) fundis would insist that valves gave a purer sound than transistors, but that was in amplifiers, not in radios.

earthabidesThe “starting from scratch” theme is a familiar one in dystopian science fiction, one of the better examples of which is Earth abides by George R. Stewart, which I read a couple of years later, and also enjoyed. That one has been reprinted several times, and you can see an interesting selection of the cover illustrations at Exploring the world: Earth Abides cover photos.

But this is no dystopian novel. The starting over is not because of some man-made or natural disaster, but because God, for his own inscrutable purposes, decreed it. Well, no, that’s not quite right. God’s purpose is actually quite scrutable — he wants to know if men can make a better go of it starting over.

View all my reviews

The seeds of time: book review

The Seeds of TimeThe Seeds of Time by John Wyndham

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In my youth I liked John Wyndham’s science fiction stories, and when I picked this one off a dusty shelf to catalogue it on GoodReads, I decided to re-read it before putting it back. The seeds of time is a collection of short stories, and I had forgotten some of them, and had only vague memories of the rest, so it was almost like reading them for the first time. And I enjoyed them just as much as when I first read them some 40-50 years ago.

And that made me wonder.

When I was in my teens and twenties I read quite a lot of science fiction, both short stories and full-length novels. Now I hardly read any. On the rare occasions that I browse the science-fiction shelves of book shops I usually don’t come away with anything. On the even rarer occasions when I have bought recently-published science-fiction, I’ve usually been bored, and abandoned the book.

Have I changed, or has the genre changed?

At first I thought that I had lost my youthful taste for science-fiction, and that it was probably something one grew out of, but re-reading these stories by John Wyndham showed me that that isn’t the case. So the genre must have changed, or everything that can be said has already been said and the new stuff is just boring repetition. Or else, most likely, popular culture has moved on and left me behind. What a drag it is getting old, as the Rolling Stones (anyone remember them?) used to sing.

View all my reviews

District 9 versus Avatar


Last year I blogged about two science fiction films that had been nominated for Oscars: Oscar battle: District 9 versus Avatar |Khanya, though in the end neither of them won and the winner was a film that had a meaningless (to me) title The hurt locker.

I had seen District 9 when it was first released, and blogged about it here, but had not seen Avatar until it was shown on TV a couple of nights ago, so now, for the first time, I’m in a position to compare them, though I should probably watch District 9 again, as it’s 18 months since I saw it.

I hadn’t realised that Avatar was satire until I saw it. Most of the descriptions I’d read suggested it was a kind of parable of colonialism, and that while it was science fiction, and so broadly in the same genre as District 9 I didn’t realise how directly comparable they were.

I enjoyed Avatar, but I think District 9 was better.

In District 9 the satire works at multiple levels, not least because it satirises the genre itself. In one scene, where the protagonist Wikus van der Merwe is driving a robocop-type machine, it could even be satirising Avatar. In District 9 there are no good guys, there are wheels within wheels and plots within plots and the satire is liberally splashed on everyone.

Spoiler altert – if you haven’t seen Avatar, what follows gives away the plot

Avatar, by contrast, is much more simple. It is like an old-fashioned Western, where the white hats fight the black hats, and the white hats always win.

The plot can be summarised in one sentence: Redskins fight Palefaces; Redskins win and send Palefaces home.

Only in this case the redskins are blue, and “home” is another planet.

In District 9 the aliens are stranded on earth, in an anything but beautiful environment. In Avatar the earthlings themselves are the aliens, out to rape the planet of its mineral wealth and exterminate any natives that get in their way. The natives, Na’vi, live in a beautiful environment that the alien earthlings destroy, and it is an environment that earthlings cannot even live in. They can only enter it by creating remotely controlled avatars, using alien DNA – another parallel with District 9, where Wikus van der Merwe becomes contaminated with alien DNA, which makes him a desirable property to corporate and Nigerian gangsters.

On another level Avatar has parallels with C.S. Lewis’s novel Out of the silent planet, which has the same theme of science and high finance in an uneasy partnership to exploit another planet, Malacandra (Mars). In Lewis’s book the natives have a similar relationship to a planetary deity, the Oyarsa, as the Na’vi in Avatar have with their deity Eywa. But Out of the silent planet doesn’t end with the same shoot-’em-up scenes as Avatar.

Avatar is entertaining and has a moral message, and no doubt deserved the Oscar it got for special effects, but it falls a long way short of District 9

Post Navigation