sci-fi

Size doesn’t matter

This is my review of the short story The Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang.

I rated this story 5/5, so you might want to skip this review and go straight to the story.

Still here? Let’s see if I can persuade you.

This is a sci-fi romance revolving around physics and linguistics and philosophy. Sounds intimidating? To be honest, it is a fairly dense work and packs a lot of content into its brief 33 pages. But you can get away with just a superficial understanding of the science (it took me a while to get my head around it, I’m not sure I would put in the effort if I hadn’t liked the story).

There’s not much I can say about the plot without spoilers. It’s mapped out so you have a sudden whoosh of understanding halfway through the book. It raises the interesting question- if time didn’t progress linearly, then there would be no causality, or ‘sequence’ of events. Does that mean that we would no longer have freedom? If our entire lives were prewritten, we’re just actors in a play.

An interesting thought. Back when classical physics was in its nascent stages, science was looked at as natural philosophy. A way of looking at the world that helped natural phenomena seem less random. We’ve come a long way since then, and no longer rely on conjectures to dictate scientific thought. But this story reminded me of how much the theoretical aspects of science- physics- mathematics- relies on intuition to formulate new ideas. Along these lines, doesn’t language count as a more constructive science, like engineering? I think that the non-linear temporal perception should be a prerequisite for  learning the alien language depicted in the story and not the other way round, but that’s just nit-picking.

I found out recently that the movie Arrival is based on this story. It would be interesting to see how the complex timeline of this story is translated into film.

World War II, V2.0

I haven’t been reading much at all lately; blame Philip K Dick*. His book, The Man in the High Castle, has been on my nightstand for months. It is both fascinating and terribly difficult to read, which accounts for the procrastination…

I picked out this book because I really liked Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It brings an abstractness and emotion to sci-fi that one rarely sees in a genre filled with stereotypes and action. After that, I had less luck with A Scanner Darkly, which is a very evocative account of a man’s descent into drug addiction. The beauty of Dick’s work is that the strong plotlines are bolstered by an immersive writing style- A Scanner Darkly gets more and more choppy (and incoherent) as the protagonist, a cop, gets drawn in to the murky world that he was meant to be investigating. He does a good job with the garbled stream of consciousness of a drug addled mind (PKD had his own struggles with drug abuse)- so good that it is hard to follow.

Anyway, I went in with very high expectations, and while I wasn’t disappointed per se, I still didn’t enjoy this book. A failing on my part, not PKD’s.

The Man in the High Castle is a speculative fiction book, set in an alternate reality where the Axis Powers won World War II. The Japanese now rule the west coast of the USA, and Jews are unwelcome. This genre of fiction is very exciting; I would have appreciated it more had I been more familiar with the historical details of the end of World War II (mostly in relation to the USA- this is clearly a large hole in my knowledge).

There are three parallel storylines that are loosely connected. One involves some good old fashioned espionage and murder. Another is about forgery of ‘traditional’ American manufactured items (that, perversely, have collector’s value in this world). The third revolves around a one night stand between strangers in a small town in Colorado that rapidly turns dark.

There are several relatively minor plot points that really stand out: all the characters use the I Ching to make decisions and divine the future; there are strongly racist feelings expressed by a white man towards the ‘superior’ Japanese- something that is prevalent in today’s world as well**. Even better, there’s a novel in the book that speaks about an alternate-alternate history in which the Axis powers were defeated. Meta enough to satisfy even the most discerning sci-fi fan.

This book is truly an immersive experience- nuances are conveyed via language and narrative pace. The scenes set in Japan-ruled San Francisco are told in choppy, metaphor-heavy language vaguely reminiscent of Japanese. In other chapters, panic is conveyed with short sentences and incomplete trains of thought.

3.5/5 from me, but PKD is still da man.

*He apparently died in 1982, and I doubt he would be heartbroken by this anyway.

**Though ‘this reverse racism’ may be obvious only among the melanin-blessed population.

Anglophilia

I haven’t been reading much at all, but I still have the compulsive need to express opinions. Sorry.

I’ve recently fallen down the rabbit-hole of British TV. It went something like this: “Netflix wants me to watch Broadchurch. Machine learning? Please, it’s clearly a marketing strategy. Mustn’t let them get to me. Oops, finger twitched. Might as well watch. Hey this is pretty good! …. (Several days later) Welp, back to work. Those actors are pretty good, wonder what else they’ve done? Oh, Amazon wants me to watch Doctor Who. Not falling for those tricks again. Hmm, but I have that hugely important exam tomorrow! How else will I procrastinate?”

Rinse and repeat.

The results of my inefficiency, for your consideration:

  • Doctor Who

This is definitely one of the most popular series from the BBC. It has an interesting history as well- it started out in the 60s and was immensely popular, but got cancelled for a decade or two before being revived in 2005 or thereabouts. It’s BBC label means that it must be clean and family friendly (and low budget). Given that I grew up watching the weekly Mahabharatha on DD1, this show is very impressive.

I started out with the 2005 episodes, because NewWho is more readily available for streaming.

Doctor Who is essentially a Sci-Fi/Fantasy show with standalone episodes (more or less, some character development happens over time). The Doctor is a Time Lord who navigates space and time and fights baddies. His low-budget equipment of choice is a time machine, the TARDIS, that looks suspiciously like a phone booth, and  a nondescript LED torch, the Sonic Screwdriver.

Since the show has been running for SO long, it has seen quite a few showrunners (basically writer/producer) in its time. Oh, the Doctor also has the ability to regenerate, thus allowing the actor, and his overall persona, to change periodically. This lets the BBC experiment a bit and keep the stories modern. It’s also an interesting reflection of viewer demographics and culture- while the older Doctors were middle-aged white men, the 9th-11th Doctors have been much younger and more energetic. The 13th Doctor is tipped to be female or black. I’m excited to see what direction they’re taking the show, because there’s a new showrunner next season as well!

Recommended for the young at heart.

  • Broadchurch

Broadchurch is another series by the BBC. It’s primarily a crime-suspense-whodunnit, and I really liked it for the lonely scenery and the amazing acting performances. Olivia Colman is brilliant.

There are 2 completed series- one deals with the murder of a young boy, and the second is a follow-up of the court case. The third series is currently airing in the UK. The murder mystery plot was excellently done. The only gripe I had was that there wasn’t nearly enough foreshadowing before the culprit was revealed- but there were red herrings and unresolved threads galore. They sacrificed the smoothness of the plot for shock value.

I would still recommend this to anyone who likes suspense and mysteries.

  • Bletchley Circle

This was another unexpectedly good show, albeit short. It’s about a group of women codebreakers at Bletchley Park during WWII. What happens to them after? Well, they’ve been sworn to secrecy, but still have apparently superhuman mathematical skills. Which they use to… solve mysteries? I’ll take it.

The first series has a very likeable main character who balances pragmatism with the stereotypical ‘genius’ impracticality. Unfortunately, the subsequent series have a much more Nancy Drew feel to them. I’d have liked to see more than 9 episodes though!

Recommended for anyone who likes historical drama and feminism.

  • Black Mirror

This show has become very well-known in the past year, and its popularity is well deserved. Each episode is a standalone dystopian thriller. While I love this genre, these are dark dark stories. Binge watching is impossible, because of the shock value- it makes sure you have food for thought. Which is a good thing!

The sci-fi hits very close to home- I can imagine some of these issues coming up in the next decade or two. Social media for keeping tabs on people’s behaviour?  Already exists. Crazy murderous drones? Possible. VR hell for people convicted of crimes? Why not?

Watch this if you don’t shy away from serious television.

Do gamers dream of virtual reality?

This is my review of Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.

This is an acclaimed (by the Internet, but that counts, doesn’t it?) YA sci-fi dystopian novel. Possibly the only novel fitting these criteria that I hadn’t read yet. And it didn’t let me down!

Wade Owen Watts is a child of the future, who was (almost literally) raised by the Internet. In this new world, house rents are dependent on Wi-Fi availability, and free education is available for all children via virtual reality. Meanwhile, a wealthy, eccentric, videogame maker has left a challenge to children everywhere. I don’t recall what the reward was, but this is basically Charlie and the Chocolate Factory‘s ‘golden ticket’.

Our hero’s only way out of his gloomy urban slum is winning this challenge, and he has dedicated years of his life to studying 80s geek culture in search of clues- much like thousands of other teens all over the globe. The plot is cliched, but definitely not boring. You can see the ending from hundreds of pages away, but that doesn’t make the story any less enjoyable.

Master list of cliches and/or stereotypes in this book:

  1. Hero gets the girl in the end
  2. Japanese kids are hardworking and intense
  3. Token racial minority in America
  4. Reference to white trash culture because hero has to be white
  5. Reminder that people fake their identities on the Internet
  6. Geeks are unattractive, but can undergo quick transformation to get aforementioned girl
  7. One or more of the token racial minorities will die
  8. Technology giant built from humble beginnings by pair of hardworking youngsters in their garage
  9. Eccentric millionaire
  10. Friendship ends because of a fight over a girl

This list is not exhaustive (or well-formatted), but this site, TV Tropes does a good job of describing common tropes in TV and movies.

The writing style of this book is slightly confusing. It reads like a YA action novel but is littered with 80’s geek culture references. I’m a bit too old for YA myself, but wasn’t even around in the 80s, let alone playing videogames. 99% of the pop culture references went over my head, but luckily they did not have much relevance to the plot.

4/5 from me. Recommended for anyone who enjoys fast paced stories without too many subtleties.

Mad Scientists Are Mad

This is my review of Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood.

I’d previously read The Handmaid’s Tale by the same author and didn’t like it much. It is like what happens if you lock an emo-goth feminist into a room for a few months- a dystopian novel about the subjugation of women. But I kept seeing the MaddAddam trilogy mentioned on the Internet, and decided to give it a shot. I’m glad I did!

The protagonist of the story is Jimmy, alias Snowman, who appears to be the last human alive after a bioengineered virus epidemic. The evil mastermind behind the epidemic is revealed to be Crake, Jimmy’s childhood friend. We learn about their formative years while present-day Snowman fights to stay alive in a land overrun by vicious animal hybrids.

The novel is set in an unspecified future time, when scientists are the elite of society, living in separate gated communities. Jimmy’s father is a genetic engineer, working on developing modified animals, mainly for human consumption. He attends the high school in his community, where he meets Glenn, a borderline Aspergers biology prodigy. They become fast friends, indulging in the usual (?) teenage vices. Jimmy’s mother, formerly a lab technician in a biological lab, begins to have serious doubts about the ethics of genetic engineering, and soon escapes from the high security community- she is a fugitive until her death later on in the book.

Jimmy and Glenn separate to go to different colleges- Jimmy to a rundown liberal arts school and Glenn to the prestigious Francis Crick Academy. They are in and out of touch for the next several years. After Jimmy learns of his mother’s death, he falls into a depression, questioning his mediocre job in advertising, his numerous casual relationships, and even his premature hair loss. Glenn, now referring to himself as Crake, visits him to offer a job marketing his latest drug. Further trouble ensues when they fall in love with the same woman, Oryx. It becomes obvious to Jimmy that something is being planned, but the full extent still shocks him.

Like many other sci-fi novels, this book will blow you away with its attention to detail. Jimmy, self-described as ‘not a math person’, doesn’t fit in with his father’s (and Crake’s) scientific background. He studies a watered-down version of the now neglected humanities in college, and though his degree is looked down upon, it allows him to critically evaluate the world-building plans of the scientists. His skills at rhetoric also stand him in good stead as the plot progresses. The genetically modified creatures have some neat features, like insect repellent scents.

And the drawbacks. This is book one of the MaddAddam trilogy, and feels very much like a prequel. The ending is more a cliffhanger than an ambiguous climax and that annoyed me a little bit. Jimmy’s mother is a two dimensional character, despite having an interesting point of view that could have been elaborated. In fact, most of the female characters in sci-fi are strange to say the least- the wives in Fahrenheit 451 and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep are also pointlessly neurotic. Just saying, it seems like a weird literary trope.

3.5/5, and I’m definitely going to check out the rest of the series. If you liked Oryx and Crake, try reading some Robin Cook for more medical mayhem.

One small step for SciFi, one giant leap for engineers

This is my review of The Martian by Andy Weir.

Let’s talk about the representation of different professions in pop culture.

Lawyers- Boston Legal, Suits, The Practice

Doctors- House, Scrubs, Grey’s Anatomy, and those old hospital soaps (one of which had George Clooney)

Psychic detectives (and this isn’t even a profession)- Psych, The Mentalist, Dexter (sort of)

Billionaire industrialists- Batman, Iron Man

Advertising- Mad Men, wasn’t Chandler in F.R.I.E.N.D.S also in advertising?

Chefs- Masterchef, ’nuff said

Engineers- Uh, Dilbert?

We live in an age where astrophysics is a more sexy profession than engineering. Luckily, the huge popularity of The Martian could change that. Not that my engineering degree equipped me to repair NASA-designed high technology equipment on the surface of Mars….

This story is about Mark Watney, astronaut/botanist/mechanical engineer, who is left for dead on Mars by his crew. Turns out he wasn’t dead, and needs to use his wits and engineering superpowers to survive on an inhospitable planet until help arrives.

I’m one of those weirdos who loves sci-fi but not fantasy, and this book is just about perfect. Weir has clearly done his research- the book gives the right level of technical detail without becoming heavy or boring. Mark’s tone is humourous and witty and the plot moves at a consistently quick pace. The only complaint I had was that it reads like a movie plot; not an flowery adjective or wasted word to be found. Could be a plus too, if you like no-nonsense narrative.

This book is a solid 4.5/5. Read it if you’re a fan of the Hitchhiker’s series, or sci-fi/comedy in general.

Live another sol!