Tag Archives: Science fiction

Book: Adam Robots by Adam Roberts

Adam Robots by Adam Roberts

Originally written for Dark Matter Fanzine

High-class tasting menu of sci-fi sub-genres
392 pages, ★★★★★

Adam Robots is a collection of science fiction short stories. It’s a five-star tasting menu of sci-fi sub-genres. It was perfect  for a novice sci-fi reader like me because it allowed me to discover which sci-fi sub-genres I enjoy reading the most.

By far the best story in this book was ‘Thrownness’, a twist on Groundhog Day. The title, ‘Thrownness’, is a rough translation of the German word “Geworfenheit”, which is a philosophical term used to describe the feelings people have about a past that is neither deterministic nor chosen. Author Adam Roberts brings this bizarre abstract concept to life by making the protagonist’s world ‘reset’ itself every 70 hours. After a ‘reset’, all the characters go back to where they were 70 hours ago and start going about the same 3-day routine in perfect repetition. The only difference between each cycle is what the protagonist chooses to do (his location and thoughts are not reset each time). He starts off well-behaved, but soon learns that the only way to survive is to rob, cheat and steal. (He steals from the same people in each 3-day cycle but his ‘crimes’ are forgotten after 3 days!) There’s definitely an element of dark, understated humour that’s unmistakably British underlying this short story.

‘Thrownness’ also makes a political point about incarceration and the notorious problem of reoffending. The situation, not the man himself, propelled the protagonist’s downward spiral. With no roots and no long-term direction in his life, he very quickly resorts to crime.

‘Shall I Tell You the Problem With Time Travel?’ was another one of my favourite stories in this book. Protagonist Professor Bradley, a scientist developing time travel in the near future, has realised that every time travel attempt causes a giant explosion at the intended time and place of arrival. He also notes that he can only travel into the past—not into the future. I won’t give anything away here, but the story is very cleverly-written and not contradicted by present-day scientific theories, which is important for me.

Reality is very important for me in books, which is why I read so much non-fiction. I’m not a fan of the extremely farfetched sub-genres in sci-fi—complicated alien civilisations and the like, or artificial intelligence—and I’m put off by scientific impossibility. I learned all this by reading Adam Robots. I learned that I enjoy reading sci-fi that’s set either in a believable future, or in a slightly altered present, and Adam Robots gave me a very generous serving of both. ‘The Time Telephone’ and ‘A Prison Term of A Thousand Years’ in this book were also very good.

Recommended for people who want to get more into reading sci-fi. Five out of five stars. ★★★★★

Book: Physics of the Impossible

Physics Of The Impossible

Tour of the future. Written with poetic grace and a child’s wonder.
328 pages, ★★★★★

Michio Kaku is one of the most readable pop-sci writers of today. His books straddle the boundary between physics and science fiction. He uses sci-fi technologies (such as teleportation, warp drive and invisibility) to get readers excited about real-world physics, which, he predicts, will resemble current-day sci-fi in a few millennia from now.

He’s one of few scientists lucky enough to work on what we call “sexy science”. Sexy science is the stuff that gets everyone excited; the stuff that doesn’t bore people when they ask you what you do; and only it constitutes about 1% of all scientific research. Unlike biology (much of which is “sexy”), research at the forefront of physics can be extremely complicated and abstract, and seems to have little practical implication. Kaku succeeds not only because he’s a great writer, but also because he writes about fascinating (“sexy science”) topics that have a direct connection to everyone’s lives.

In Physics of the Impossible, Kaku tackles 15 “sexy” physics topics in three groups:

  1. Class I impossibilities: impossible this century (e.g. invisibility)
  2. Class II impossibilities: impossible this millennium (e.g. time travel)
  3. Class III impossibilities: violations of the known laws of physics (e.g. perpetual motion machines)

Most of these 15 topics are in Class I, and I’m really excited that some will even become true in our lifetimes (cold fusion, perhaps, or fission-powered rockets?)

Author Michio Kaku is extremely optimistic not only that these incredible technologies will eventually come to fruition, but also that humanity will use them all in a benevolent way. He assumes that humanity won’t exterminate itself, and I’m pleased to say that there’s no mention of climate change or nuclear bombs in this book whatsoever! Kaku’s books make me feel very excited about the future of science—and reassured about the fate of humanity. Kaku’s books invoke feelings of wonder, excitement and hope. Kaku, and authors like him, are doing Physics a great service.

(Makes me wonder—Chemistry really needs a Michio Kaku to balance out the damage done to its reputation by Breaking Bad’s Walter White.)

Physics of the Impossible is similar to his later book, Physics of the Future, which I reviewed two years ago. They’re both captivating reads. The main difference is Physics of the Future’s much smarter conclusion: that once we’ve solved one major technological problem, such as cold fusion or warm superconductors, all the other technological barriers we now face will disappear. Excitingly, Kaku just announced a new book, Future of the Mind, which is coming out in February 2014, and I definitely want to get my hands on a copy. 🙂

I recommend this book for moderate fans of either physics or science fiction. ★★★

Book: 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson

2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson

Beautiful, credible, vivid glimpse of the future.
565 pages, ★★★★★

Originally posted at Dark Matter Fanzine

2312 is a science fiction story of love, politics, and interplanetary terrorism. While the plot is interesting in itself, the futuristic setting in which the story takes place is definitely the book’s main selling point.

This book is set in the year 2312 at a time when humans have already colonized Mars, Venus, and many asteroids and moons in our solar system. Most of them were terraformed before being settled (terraforming is a process of drastic geoengineering that involves removing entire atmospheres, changing temperatures by hundreds of degrees Kelvin or manipulating collisions with other celestial bodies to import necessary resources). Humans travel in hollowed-out asteroids called ‘terraria’ that spin to simulate gravity on their inside walls. Venus now has a giant sunshield, Mars has people living in underground caves, and the inhabitants of Mercury travel perpetually westwards to keep in line with the temperate crepuscule (and thus avoid deadly extremes of hot and cold). Mercurian ‘sunwalkers’ do this on foot, while Mercurian cities move westward on rails that circumnavigate the entire planet.

Genders are diverse in 2312. Hormone interventions before and after birth give rise to about ten different genders between between ‘male’ and ‘female’. The book implies that these intermediate genders are more advantageous than either of the traditional sexes.

Quantum computing has advanced to the point that people can wear quantum-classical hybrid computers as implants or wristwatches called ‘qubes’. Qubes can listen, speak out loud, analyse vast amounts of information and serve as a perfect memory aid for the wearer. They can’t, however, transmit signals to each other. Qubes are too personal for that—they’re used more as implants than as cellphones. I particularly love how the qubes entertain their wearers by playful use of the English language. I’ve learned about exergasia, synathroesmus, anaphora, pretended dubitation, synchoresis, aporia and many more rhetorical devices from the qubes in this book! Qubes might be inhuman in many ways, but they do have their own sense of humour.

Biomedical advances abound. DNA repair, limb regrowth, telomere extensions and wearable pharmacies (controlled by wearable qubes) have increased lifespan to at least 200 years in space. Regular visits to Earth are still necessary, however, for optimum health and longevity. The reasons for this are unknown.

Earth is devastated in this novel. Countries have been decimated into nearly 500 mini-states (and groups of mini-states with varying levels of authority), while China is the only major power. Earth is overpopulated, plagued with poverty and misery, and most progress is stifled by laws, politics and taboos. My favourite criticisms of Earth are that the gravity is “too high” and “nobody looks at the stars”! Protagonist Swan says that gravity is much more comfortable on Mercury and Mars—both are just 0.38 g.

I loved how China was so powerful in this novel. Best of all, heroic protagonist Swan Er Hong, who is both male and female, and capable of interplanetary travel at over 100 years old, has an unmistakably Chinese name. Venus is inhabited by Chinese descendents and Venusian streets are cluttered with slogans written in Chinese characters. On Earth, China has been strong for “most of history” except for the “brief period of subjugation to Europe” (referring to the period between 1850 and 1949). As a massive fan of Chinese culture, all these subtle details make me proud. Even the title of this book, 2312, makes a subtle reference to China’s power: “GB2312” was the code name for the first official set of Chinese characters used on computer systems worldwide in 1980.

The notion in 2312 that space-dwellers should return to Earth every few years to recuperate (called “Gaian replenishment”) is an ironic one. Reading this, I immediately thought of overseas Chinese who return to China to ‘recuperate’ every so often—despite the crowds, the pollution, and the stress that it causes. The idea of ‘recuperating’ in such a dystopian environment reminded me that just as Earth is an integral part of human nature in 2312, China is an integral part of Chinese people today—however irrational that might seem.

I also loved the mixture of writing styles in this book. The author uses ‘lists’ (descriptive poetry that sets the scene much quicker than prose); ‘extracts’ (snippets of scientific journal abstracts that explain science fiction much quicker than prose); and ‘quantum walks’ (which follow the thought processes of a personal quantum computer called a ‘qube’). In my opinion, these diverse writing styles, which amount to about 10-20% of the book, enrich the story, not distract from it. However, some reviewers disagree. Many of this book’s worst reviews make negative reference to these ‘poetic’ chapters. I love them, though.

The broad range of themes in this book should appeal to a very wide audience. Readers with an appreciation for science fiction and human development may enjoy it more than those without; and readers with the patience and imagination to understand poetry will appreciate the chapters written as ‘lists’, ‘extracts’ or ‘quantum walks’ much more than those without. This is one of few books that I can positively recommend for anyone who enjoys reading. ★★★★★

Finally, the blurb for this book on Goodreads is completely wrong.

Book: The Disestablishment of Paradise

Disestablishment-of-Paradise

GORGEOUS sci-fi/fantasy setting, but the storyline’s not rich enough for me.
528 pages, ★

Originally posted at Dark Matter Fanzine

The Disestablishment of Paradise is set a few hundred years in the future at a time when humans have colonised at least 150 planets. The majority of these planets are located outside our solar system, and a giant “fractal” network allows people, goods and letters to travel between these planets with relative ease. The setting for this story is gorgeous.

The story takes place on a planet called Paradise. Paradise is a relatively hospitable planet—there are no living predators, plant life is everywhere, gravity is at a comfortable level and oxygen is more abundant than on Earth. Early pioneers encountered nothing dangerous at all, but did discover an irrestibly delicious, aphrodesiac fruit called the “Paradise Plum”, which, along with mining, quickly became Paradise’s most important export.

However, Paradise has become plagued by problems since its colonisation by humans: mining company MINADEC causes widespread destruction to the delicate ecosystem; and the Paradise Plums contract a mysterious disease, making them unsuitable for export and causing violent vomiting and nausea in anyone who eats them. By the time this novel begins, Paradise’s two main industries (mining and plums) had already been forced to grind to a halt, and the planet goes into debt.

Disestablishment begins when the Economic Subcommittee makes the sudden announcement that all humans must abandon Paradise because it’s unprofitable—a decision, which, once ratified by Central, has no chance of being revoked. The inhabitants are required to remove or destroy all evidence of human colonisation (the regulations tell them to “leave nothing intact”), then start new lives on another planet with monetary compensation. Most inhabitants are understandably disappointed to leave the planet, but protagonist Hera Melhuish, a leading plant scientist on Paradise, is completely heartbroken. She loves her planet so much that she breaks down upon hearing the news, attempts suicide, and spends ten days recuperating in a safe-haven. The story then follows Hera and her assistant Mack while they stay on Paradise as long as possible, discover one of its hidden treasures, and ultimately become the last people to leave.

The beginning of this story is told from personal, political and scientific perspectives. It’s written in a way that makes readers empathise with the characters as they learn the disappointing news that their planet is to be ‘disestablished’. We learn the political and economic arguments from the other side for doing so, and the interplanetary legal battle to reverse the decision is a compelling one. All the science fiction is explained convincingly in the narrative or in the appendices, and the story makes clever allusions to Genesis and to Greek mythology before page 50. Over thirty characters make themselves known before page 200. I loved this richness and complexity in the first half of this book.

Spoiler alert

This book went downhill for me after page 200 when the “hunch” that leads Mack to fly half-way around the planet unguided by maps to save Hera from danger turns out to be correct. This unexplained act killed my sympathy for both of the main characters. Mack and Hera then wrestle a Dendron (an animal-like plant), a process throughout which, it becomes increasingly obvious that they love each other and will eventually have sex. Disappointingly, they do.

I am disappointed because the politics, science fiction and maturity from the first half of the book don’t continue into the second half. Character complexity and fantasy melt away and the book becomes a simple romance story between Mack and Hera. The author sexualises both characters heavily and makes them dwell on their feelings to the extent that they sound like adolescent, first-time lovers (highly reminiscent of Gale and Katniss from the Hunger Games, actually) even though they’re both fifty years old. This novel’s intense focus on Mack and Hera’s naïve, predictable relationship in the second half didn’t match the complex, political sci-fi/fantasy novel I was expecting after reading the first half of the story.

I would have preferred an alternative storyline. First, I’d have preferred to see Mack transported back to Earth or Mars after his sex with Hera. The book’s ending could be the same, but Hera would then be faced with a big question: does she care more about Mack than about Paradise? Second, I’d have preferred to bring Hemi back into the spotlight in the second half. I’d make Hemi (who has an obvious crush on Hera) work for a demolition team, and thus introduce a new conflict: should he abdicate his duties as a demolition worker to protect Hera and her scientific samples? Unfortunately, such dilemmas were absent from the second half of the book.

End of spoilers

I recommend this book for anyone who enjoyed the film Avatar. You’ll enjoy The Disestablishment of Paradiseeven more if you’re also familiar with young adult literature, science fiction and the few allegorical references that this novel makes to other stories. Even though the storyline weakens towards the end, the world that the author creates in The Disestablishment of Paradise is a beautiful one. I still enjoyed reading this book as a whole. 

Book: Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization

Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization
Also available in red. Hardback.

Too technical for me. Sci-fi fans probably understand this better than I do.
320 pages, ★★

Sorry. This is probably an excellent book, but my elementary understanding of Babylonian culture prevents me from appreciating it fully.

I learned three small things from this book. First, amidst a deluge of alien-sounding names, I recognised what looked like a section on a natural history of the Fertile Crescent. It was so-named by one scientist, who shaded the region that received more than 200 mm of rainfall each year. (And that area was crescent-shaped.)

Second, I learned how Babylon pioneered the construction of cities, states, social classes, division of labour and organised religion (it sounds like Babylon in many ways resembled modern society). We have a lot to thank them for.

Third, I learned how the “fight of ideas” has happened throughout history. People probably even opposed early agriculture because it rendered hierarchies in traditional hunting communities useless (the opponents of agriculture were probably the ones who personally had less to gain from it). Agriculture developed nonetheless.

Long-standing fans of sci-fi, or those who studied “Class Civ” in school, might be able to grasp this book better than I can. Babylon and I give each other two stars. I hope you learn more from this book than I did. ★★

Book: Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100

I am edging closer to fiction by reading this book. This book belongs in the middle group of "realistic fiction".

Written from a science fiction perspective
387 pages, ★★★★

Physics of the Future makes references to dozens of (mostly sci-fi) movies that I’m now tempted to download and watch. The author’s a professor of physics but relies very heavily on dozens of examples (Star Wars, Star Trek, Bladerunner, Twister, Rain Man) to illustrate which technologies will become a reality. Robots, genomes, and cheap energy are all among them.

Each chapter focusses on one area of expertise. The chapters are broken into three subsections: early 21st century, mid-21st century, and late 21st century. Each subsection then contains a list of technologies that will transform our lives (such as cold fusion, warm superconductors, space elevators, and human cloning).

Most of this book is pretty accurate. There are some cute mistakes, such as “one day, we’ll all carry our genomes around on a CD-ROM”; but most of the book is well-thought through. He predicts the future of manufacturing and capitalism, as well as the more cliché areas such as energy and transportation. Each technology has a limitation that stops it being a reality today (usually financial limitations, but sometimes insufficient science, ethics or political limits are invoked). I’m comforted to read that technology only seldom has intrinsic limit.

Magic happens hen you piece all of this together: all the obstacles fall like dominoes. Superconductive power transmission allows for a renewable energy boom. Carbon nanotubes allow for space elevators and thus cheap spaceflights. Nuclear fusion allows for energy-hungry magnetic levitation; and super-fast transportation. Mastering just one of the technologies in this book (particularly nuclear fusion or room-temperature superconductors) would allow most of the other technologies to fall into place, like magic!

Machines can become IQ billionaires but will always have an EQ of zero. The further we advance our understanding of robotics and computers, the higher we increase demand for EQ-based “human” services to work alongside them. Widespread computers and robots have the potential to make our work less menial, and our personalities more human. And that’s a world I would love to live in.

Physics of the Future introduces non-fiction readers to fiction; and coaxes science-lovers into reading science fiction. Admittedly, it would be a dull book for sci-fi buffs or lovers of literature, but is a page-turner for a non-fiction lover like me. ★★★★