The Collapsing Empire: Goodreads Review

The Collapsing Empire (CE) is a breezy fun to read space opera. Because I rate books on Goodreads mostly on how much I enjoyed them I gave CE a solid four. If you’re looking for a few hours away from planet moron (Earth) CE is worth the time. While I enjoyed CE it’s unlikely I will be following this series as it unfolds in however many books the author and his publisher manage to flog in the future. I’ve reached the point in my life where entertainment is no longer sufficient. I demand new ideas and different ways of looking at things from what I read. By this standard CE barely rates a one.

The only moderately new notion here is that of “The Flow.” The Flow is CE’s magic element. It’s the story element that enables a human interstellar civilization. The Flow plays the same role in CE that the ocean does in Moby Dick. The ocean is not considered a character in Moby Dick but try imagining the novel without it! Remove The Flow from CE and you are left with stock characters, stock court politics, stock predictable disputes, and a tiny little universe that, trust me, feels more stunted than a night spent under a clear dark sky looking at real stars.

As a final note: I’d advise the author to refrain from dispensing his opinions about real-world politics. Nothing ruins a book faster than conflating actual authors with their fictional characters. Many years ago I was on the verge of reading Anne Rice’s vampire books but then I had the good luck to see an interview of Anne Rice going on about how her characters were her lovers. She wasn’t being metaphorical; the woman is nuts. I decided right on the spot that it was unlikely such a delusional nitwit was worthy of my sustained attention. Authors labor under an unspoken Fight Club rule. “The first rule of fiction writing is: stay the Hell out of your fiction writing!”

Dark Energy Entities

I’ve been having fun on a new social media site called Quora. Quora operates on the StackOverFlow principle. People pose questions and others answer. The act of asking of sincere questions, even silly ones, seems to take the wind out of troll sails. Political sites quickly degenerate into primate poo tossing contests. I enjoy pitching poo with the best of them but I demand wit, verve and humor with my insults. Sadly, these qualities are the first to go when vicious trolls tear into partisan believers of any persuasion. Honest political conversations have never been easy. I remember screeching, mostly left-wing, university harridans shouting down heretics forty years ago. I’m sure they would have burned them at the stake if the option had been available. Still there is something about the question that makes people put down their torches and give a heretic a break.

A good question and answer session is like a connect-the-dots cartoon. For example Javed Qadrud-Din observed when responding to the question:

Hypothetically, if there is intelligent alien life, with the knowledge and means to traverse space and travel to Earth, what would be their reasons for not making contact?

That aliens might be billions of years ahead of us and

we would be unable to recognize the evidence of their existence, and such evidence would instead appear to us as aspects of the nature of reality itself.

I thought about this and responded:

Your observation that some alien intelligences could be billions of years ahead of us and may, “appear as part of nature,” made we wonder what might qualify as a manifestation of such beings. It goes without saying that super advanced beings with real immortal ambitions will be somewhat bummed with mere matter. If our, admittedly primitive physical theories hold up, it looks like in the very long run, e.g. 10100 or more years, all matter will decay and space will expand into an unimaginably vast void with a temperature indistinguishable from absolute zero. All matter and energy based sentience will be snuffed out: everything, absolutely everything dies. What’s left in such a universe? Only Dark Energy survives and prospers. Cosmologists have noted that we appear to live in a Dark Energy dominated universe and the domination started fairly recently, within the last two billion years or so. If intelligent life evolved somewhere in the cosmos six or seven billion years ago that would be plenty of time to advance to the point that such beings could insert themselves into the only durable part of our universe: space itself. So perhaps the accelerating expansion of space is the “part of nature” that gives away the presence of such highly evolved beings.

We may be living in a Dark Energy Entity Cosmoscene. It’s unlikely that beings able to alter the entire observable universe are going to make contact with pitiful little poo throwing naked apes.

Incoherent Interstellar


Don’t look for plot points in Black Holes!

Christopher Nolan has made some excellent commercially successful films like Inception, The Dark Knight, and Mememto. When word got out that he was working on a serious science fiction film expectations got out of hand. Those of us old enough to remember the first screenings of 2001 thought maybe, just maybe, we might see something comparable to Kubrick’s masterpiece. Well I am sorry to report that Interstellar is no 2001; it’s not even a Blade Runner or Nolan’s own Inception. Interstellar is a giant, moderately entertaining, incoherent mess.

Much has been made of Kip Thorne’s involvement with Interstellar. The Black Hole depicted in Interstellar is based on General Relativity calculations. Apparently the CGI animators uncovered something unexpected in how a spinning Black Hole drags light around it. We are told the Black Hole in Interstellar is the most technically accurate ever seen in the movies. Unfortunately, it’s the only technically accurate part of the whole damn movie.

There is no point going over the boners in Interstellar. They are numerous, annoying, glaring, and embarrassing. If you must torture yourself the Bad Astronomer has catalogued Intersellar’s most egregious violations. Now I know what you’re thinking. John, it’s a freaking sci-fi movie, lighten up! You’re going on like a character on the Big Bang Theory.

My answer to such ankle biters is simple.  Science fiction is as an Art Form.  An art form has two equal components: art and form!  Art, without form, is usually effete garbage, and form, without art, is an income tax return. Greatness only emerges when the two are in perfect balance. The first step in achieving balance is honoring the basic elements of the form.  So what are the basic elements of the serious science fiction form?

I’ve gone over this before but clearly you weren’t paying attention. Serious science fiction differs from fantasy in the way it treats reality. Serious science fiction is allowed a few departures from physical reality. You can assume wormholes connect different parts of the universe and that it’s possible to safely traverse them but that’s it cowboy!  Outside of wormholes it’s physics as usual! This is the science part in science fiction. Great science fiction strictly follows this mandate. Take 2001, the exemplar of how this is done, anything non-obelisk related in 2001, including HAL 9000, is completely and absolutely plausible. The obelisk is the singular departure from reality in 2001.

Interstellar bombs because it often departs from physical reality for the basest of reasons: advancing a clunky nap inducing plot. I cannot abide such transgressions. It’s like watching a prima donna ballerina stop in the middle of Swan Lake, drop her tutu, and take a dump on stage. Now prima donna dumps may be entertaining but they’re not ballet. Similarly, Interstellar has its good parts but it’s not serious science fiction. In my opinion Interstellar is a bigger disappointment than Transcendence and it makes we wonder if anyone in Hollyweird is capable of making serious science fiction these days.

Pandora’s Star: a Grand Sprawling Entertainment

pandoras-starIn my fevered youth I was an avid fan of science fiction but as I crossed the Rubicon of middle age I read less and less of the genre. For years I preferred nonfiction: mostly science with a smattering of history and biography. Then, about five years ago, I started reading science fiction again.

What kept me away? Most of the authors of my youth had died: Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov, Bradbury, Anderson, Herbert and Dick – all gone! I had to find new – to me – authors. I knew and loved Neal Stephenson, the author of Cryptonomicon, Diamond Age, Snow Crash, and Anathem, but after four or five thousand pages of Neal it was time to move on. My first post Stephenson, new to me, author was Iain M. Banks.

Banks specialized in what’s often called alien infested space opera. His universes are overflowing with life. Aliens are everywhere, inhabiting niches that most biologists would poo-poo as impossible. I prefer more empty and serene universes but Banks’ books like The Algebraist, Surface Detail, and Consider Phelbas whet my appetite for his crowded milieus. I was looking forward to following Banks for years but it wasn’t to be. Iain M. Banks died of cancer, at the ridiculously premature age of 59, leaving fans all over the word wanting. There is no greater outrage than mortality!

After Banks’ death I looked around for other operatic authors; it didn’t take me long to find Peter F. Hamilton and Pandora’s Star. Pandora’s Star is a huge, highly entertaining, example of what I call restrained science fiction.

Restraint is what separates science fiction from fantasy. Fantasy tolerates an anything goes mishmash of logical inconsistencies. Literature has a term for this: Deus ex machina. Modern fantasy is a veritable high-tech Deux ex machina factory churning out beta-male vampires that take implausible romantic interests in their food, prepubescent wizards jerking off in boarding school, (Oh it happened), fireproof maximum babes with pet dragons, and armies of oxymoronic brain-dead brain eating zombies. Only scripture piles on more logical nonsense than fantasy.

I enjoy fantasy as much as the next nerd but it’s not science fiction. Proper restrained science fiction admits a small number of “magic suppositions” but otherwise rigorously adheres to what we know about physical reality. You need some damn science in your science fiction people. The universe of Pandora’s Star presumes a few impossibilities; it assumes wormholes and faster than light (FTL) travel. FTL is a standard plot enabling device. Civilizations spanning thousands of light years simply cannot exist, on human time scales, without it. Pandora’s Star makes three more “impossible” assumptions which I will not divulge because ruining good books should be a capital crime. Aside from these allowed departures from reality the universe of Pandora’s Star sticks to scientific bricks and unfolds with lovely consistency.

Most science fiction writers make impossible assumptions but great ones take them in unexpected directions. Consider wormholes. Wormholes have been a staple of science fiction forever. Three, not entirely restrained, TV series had contemporary soldiers marching through them every week for years. They’ve popped up in every two-bit tale that needed quick point A to B plumbing. Wormholes are a cliché and their presence often signals unimaginative hackery. If you’re going to confront me with wormholes you better damn well show me something new or I’m outta your lame book. The opening chapter of Pandora’s Star is one of the most humorous and imaginative use of wormholes in science fiction. A few pages later Hamilton sends trains through wormholes. It’s Sheldon Cooper’s wet dream: trains in space. I had to smile and keep on reading. Pandora’s Star is a big book, almost one thousand pages, but like all great sprawling books it’s too damn short. Fortunately, there’s a second book, Judas Unchained,  that keeps the story rolling. I haven’t had this much fun with a science fiction since Dune. It’s that good.


What’s the opposite of Transcendence?

johnny-depp-transcendenceSerious science fiction is a demanding cinematic genre; that’s why you see so little of it!  Most of what passes for science fiction is out-and-out comic fantasy. In the last year only three marginally serious science fiction films made it to wide release:  Catching Fire, Divergent and Transcendence.  Sadly, they’re all pretty awful and Transcendence is the biggest letdown of the three. Here’s why.

Transcendence is another riff on real AI.  Even though we live in a world of talking cell phones and computer Jeopardy champions a sizeable cohort of AI deniers claim machines will never think.  The best answer I’ve heard to this came from a young woman who noted that, “I am a machine and I think.”  Well I am thinking machine too and until there are serious scientific or mathematical arguments demonstrating that minds cannot, even in principle, be simulated by computations, assuming intelligence is algorithmic remains our best working hypothesis. Transcendence gets all this right. None of the characters in Transcendence go on about whether real AI is possible. Even the fearful anti-AI faction takes it as a given; it’s what they are afraid of.

If intelligence is algorithmic then it follows that we are nothing more than programs trapped in messy hardware. Separating hardware and software is one of the glories of our age.  We take it for granted that if we change the software we change the machine. The other day I killed off my old WinXP laptop and then resurrected it as a Mint Linux device. The hardware is the same but the machine is very different. We cannot do this with brains — yet.  The software that makes you, you, is regrettably entwined with the hardware that runs you. Nature has evolved better intellectual property protection than a division of parasitic IP lawyers. One of the great challenges of our age is breaking down nature’s intellectual property protection and reading out the software in brains. Transcendence also gets all this right. The best part of the film involves uploading a dying Will Caster, (Johnny Depp), into a bank of quantum computers. [1]

Up until Will goes live on his quantum cores Transcendence is a fine film. I kept pinching myself thinking: they’re not screwing it up or dumbing it down. This might be great.  Then my hopes were crushed. Before Will went all quantum supercomputery he gave a TED’ish talk pointing out that when real AI arrives it will have more raw intellectual capacity than all human brains combined.  When transcendent beings emerge in stories the plot often goes straight to pot. This is not a new artistic problem. It’s so common in science fiction that I even have a name for it: the superior being problem.

Depicting superior beings poses fundamental problems for feeble brained naked ape authors. Look at what a moron God is in the first few books of the Bible. Scores of fine science fiction novels have been trashed by trying to imagine what truly superior beings would think and do. The only approach that works is oblique. You can suggest the workings of superior minds. 2001: A Space Odyssey is a classic example of doing this right, but for reasons that escape me, many authors take on the inner life of superior minds only to show their own rather mediocre ones. Transcendence didn’t even make an honest effort to deal with the superior being problem: what a disappointment. Instead of enjoying new ideas I spent the rest of Transcendence wondering why our transcendent protagonist was such a dolt. Not really the transcendent experience I was looking for.

[1] The jury is out on the feasibility of practical quantum computers. If quantum computers can be made to work they will solve certain classes of problems faster than conventional machines but, and this is a big but, they will not expand the notion of what’s computable. It’s rather amazing that what’s computable has not expanded since Turning’s great theorems of the 1930’s.

Anathem: Plato’s Parallel World

anathem About the best thing anyone can do for you is to suggest a good book. When I was in my teens my aunt pointed me at Tolkien: a shrewd call.  I was at the perfect age for a romp in Middle Earth.  In the 1990’s a consulting client introduced me to Neal Stephenson. I started with Snow Crash and Hiro Protagonist. How can you not love a character named Hiro Protagonist? I went on to The Diamond AgeCryptonomicon, (Stephenson’s best work), The Baroque Cycle and now Anathem.

All authors get in ruts. Since Cryptonomicon Stephenson has been in a books about very smart characters rut. Fictional intelligent characters, particularly software types, scientists, mathematicians and so forth are often cut from the same cloth. This is why The Big Bang Theory works!

This is not a literary flaw! Speaking as a bona fide software type I can assure you that smart tech types are alike. Logic drives capable minds down adjacent roads. The history of mathematics and science is littered with tales of brilliant individuals independently coming up with similar, if not identical, ideas. It’s almost as if mathematical ideas exist outside the minds that discover them. This is one of the major themes of Anathem.

The world of Anathem is Arbre. Arbre is eerily similar to Earth. Arbre is Goldilocking around a Sun like star. It has a moon, large oceans, a “nitrogen oxygen” atmosphere and even enjoys plate tectonics. Plate tectonics is probably not that common for Earth sized rocky worlds. The Earth lucked out because a large chunk of the Earth’s crust is orbiting us in the form of the Moon. Venus wasn’t so lucky, or unlucky, depending on how you feel about crust stripping planetary impacts. Arbre is also inhabited by “people” that could be our neighbors.

Arbre’s history seems a few thousand years longer than ours; they’ve repeatedly wreaked their planet with catastrophes like ethnic pogroms, global warming and nuclear war things we’re only working on. Stephenson works his magic building up Arbre in our imaginations. The result is a solid real world. I applaud the authors achievement. Arbre, like Dune and Middle Earth, will stick with you.

There are big cultural differences between Arbre and Earth. On Arbre society divides into the Secular and Mathic worlds. Arbre’s secular world is familiar. It has brain-dead TV, (just like MSNBC), highways, gas stations, suburbs, tacky tourists, wacko religious cults and even big box stores — they’re  not called Arbre-Marts. It’s the Mathic world that needs elaboration.

The Mathic world consists of a large number of walled, self isolated institutions called maths. The maths are populated by avout.  A math is a cross between an Earth monastery, university and scientific society. Each math voluntarily cuts itself off from the secular world on one, ten, hundred and thousand-year cycles. Our preening public intellectuals might see themselves as avout. They flatter themselves. The avout have all taken a vow of material poverty. They are allowed three possessions. There are no tenured Mercedes driving poseurs among the avout. Stephenson makes it clear that not all avout are intellectually gifted or suited for a life of the mind. Many of them become gardeners. If only our second raters did the same.

Stephenson devotes many pages to the details of mathic life. We learn about their rituals, clock winding is central, they’re distinct philosophical orders, avout fashion trends, (challenging with only two articles of clothing), their diet and sex lives. By the time Stephenson is ready to release the avout you feel like you’ve been holed up in a math. I won’t ruin Anathem by summarizing. Let’s just say that a young Frau Erasmas and many of his friends and mentors will suddenly find themselves outside the gates of their math to deal with a historic emergency. After the avout leave the maths it’s a great ride: very much in the mold of the Waterhouse’s adventures in Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle. Along the way Stephenson wows us with countless philosophical allusions and micro in-plot seminars. Remember, the at large avout are uniformly brilliant; they’re not going to chat about reality TV. Imagine Plato as a Kung Fu star. Between ass-kickings the characters calmly entertain ideas like Plato’s world of pure mathematical forms, (known as the Hylaen Theoric World on Arbre), is an actual parallel quantum cosmos that somehow leaks information into receptive minds in “neighboring” cosmii. Somehow Stephenson makes these lectures riveting.

Anathem is excellent on many levels but one flaw bars it from the pantheon of great books. The characters are insufficiently distinct. You can tell them apart when absorbed by the novel but they quickly merge into each other. Smart tech types share many correct ideas but they do not share the same character. Read Brighter than a Thousand Suns there is no mistaking Oppenheimer for Bohr, or Fermi, or Von Neumann, or Teller. In the real world brilliance exaggerates character. Stephenson exploited this in Cyptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle by casting the very real Turing,  Newton and Leibniz as characters. Anathem is not a Dickens novel. There are no Scrooge’s, Pip’s, or Miss Havisham’s, characters that live outside their novels, running around. I fear that it is not even an Ayn Rand novel. Altas Shrugged is a pondering pretentious beast of a book and Ayn Rand couldn’t sharpen Neal Stephenson’s pencils but here I am, almost thirty years after reading Atlas Shrugged, recalling Dagny Taggart, Hank Rearden and John Galt right off the top of my head. Read Anathem for the world, the ideas and the great ride but if you’re looking for memorable characters stick with Hiro Protagonist.