A Pair of SF Penguins

I stopped into Twice Sold Tales today to check up on their excellent SF collection. Strangely, while I was there I cracked open Greg Bear’s book Darwin’s Radio (I was thinking of re-reading it) and the page I turned to described the characters getting off I-5 at Denny Way and heading up to Capitol Hill. Weird, because Twice Sold Tales is at the corner of Denny and Harvard on Capitol Hill.

I didn’t buy that one but I did pick up a couple of Penguin Science Fiction titles, neither of which I’m hugely interested in. But they’re Penguins, and they’re in great shape, so I was more or less unable to resist. The only Penguin SF I own otherwise is the batch of Olaf Stapledons (Last and First Man & Last Man in London, Star Maker and Sirius). Blish-tdajIn Germany I had five or six others that I found at the marvelous Open Door Bookshop in Rome — the best non-UK cache of Penguins I’ve ever found, hidden away in a little side street in Trastevere — but those books didn’t survive the cull for our move back to the States, unfortunately.

First up in today’s haul was James Blish’s The Day After Judgement. I’ve read A Case of Conscience and Fallen Star, and I like Blish’s work well enough. This one seems a bit more magicky than sciency, which isn’t normally my thing — but it’s short, and for all I know I’ll love it.

Next was Deathworld, by Harry Harrison. Not sure what to make of this one — I’ve never been too interested in Harrison’s books, but I’ll give it a try. In any case what really seals the deal here is the author photo, which should by all rights be a classic:


He looks like Cory Doctorow at the proctologist’s office, or at an NSA convention, or something. Right? How was that author photo a good idea?

Browsing used bookstores is making me realize the one reason I really miss having a smartphone. (I had one for about two years, Deathworldbut gave it to my son a few months ago because I sort of prefer a dumbphone instead. I felt a little too plugged in, a little too internetted — though two hundred years from now when we’re all posthuman with embedded neural-comm interfaces I’ll gladly hop on.) It would be super-useful to be able to check the Seattle Public Library’s online catalog when I’m browsing for used books. I was choosing between Damien Broderick’s nonfiction compilation of writers’ speculations on the far future Year Million, and Greg Egan’s Quarantine; and I figured the library would carry the second but not the first. So I bought Year Million, which of course the library carries, and left behind Quarantine, which of course they don’t. I don’t regret getting Year Million — it looks fascinating, with contributions from Rudy Rucker, Gregory Benford, George Zebrowski, and a bunch of other interesting folks on how things will shake out in AD 1,000,000. But Quarantine seemed intriguing enough that I hope it’s still there on the shelves the next time I go.

Review – Beyond the Rift

The Canadian biologist and SF writer Peter Watts, in the somewhat sour and defensive afterword to his selection of short stories Beyond the Rift, comments ruefully on the terms he finds often applied to his work: dark, paranoid, dystopian. (Sour isn’t there yet although I guess I’ve just added it to the list.) But, as he points out, “There’s wonder here, too: a diaphanous life-form big enough to envelop a star; mermaids soaring through luminous nightscapes on the ocean floor; a misguided Thing whose evolutionary biology redeems Lamarck.”

The best stories in this selection are the ones that give scope to that sense of wonder. When Watts focuses on the near future, or the earthbound, or the topical, his characters are often one-dimensional ciphers; and there’s always an undercurrent of aggrieved resentment, of sour disappointment in how inevitably awful humanity’s behavior will be. beyond-the-riftBut when he gets out into deep space or deep water his stories, paradoxically, get a chance to breathe; taking time with the setting, and the mechanics of surviving in it, he lets his characters out from under his judgement, and once they’re free they consistently surprise the reader and themselves.

So the standouts here are the stories set in space (“The Island” and “Ambassador”) or in the undersea milieu of Watts’s Rifters trilogy (“Home” and his first published story, “A Niche”). I’d previously read the Hugo-winning “The Island,” about a mother-and-son team of wormhole builders who come upon an intelligent Dyson swarm, and found the downbeat ending to be a gratifying, surprising tonic. “The Ambassador” is less expansive but similar in tone, while “A Niche” is an expertly paced and constructed story, with the kind of ending that makes you laugh in delight at how well the author has set it up and how little you saw it coming.

The characters in these four stories are all edgily, uneasily posthuman, brutally bioengineered for the harsh environments they explore. Their existence is more or less a torment to them, sometimes due to neglect of the human sensibility trapped within the engineering and sometimes due simply to past trauma (there’s a substantial amount of past trauma in Watts’s work, often child abuse).

The Things,” meanwhile, possibly the best-known of the stories here, is a retelling of John Carpenter’s 1982 film The Thing from the alien’s point of view. It’s clever and enjoyable, a thorough exploration of a truly alien mindset. And it does a great job of making the alien sympathetic — but honestly don’t be fooled:


That is not a life-form you should be rooting for.

Other stories are less effective. Watts, the son of a Baptist minister, doesn’t like Christianity — in the afterword he calls it believing in “an invisible sky fairy who sends you to Space Disneyland when you die,” and the atheist clichés there give you a sense of his not-terribly-nuanced thinking on the subject. So “A Word for Heathens,” and “Hillcrest v. Velikovsky” spend some time on that. There’s a handful of stories that extrapolate modern technology to pretty modest results (“The Eyes of God,” “Mayfly,” “Flesh Made Word,” etc.). A different reader may get more from these ones than I did, as I tend to find this sort of story the most inessential sub-genre in SF.

“Nimbus” is about, uh, angry clouds.

These stories, as well as a few forgettable others, may spring from Watts’s frustration with modern humanity but they don’t play to his strengths. And I suspect he knows this: it’s probably not a coincidence that his novels take place in the same settings as his strongest short stories. So far, of the novels, I’ve only read the truly magnificent Blindsight, but the whilequel/sidequel Echopraxia, due to hit the shelves in August, is already one of my most anticipated reads of 2014; and based on “A Niche” I’m pretty eager to get to his Rifters trilogy.

Quote #15

dr.moreau“For that reason I live on the broad free downland…I have withdrawn myself from the confusion of cities and multitudes, and spend my days surrounded by wise books, bright windows, in this life of ours lit by the shining souls of men. I see few strangers, and have but a small household. My days I devote to reading and to experiments in chemistry, and I spend many of the clear nights in the study of astronomy. There is, though I do not know how there is or why there is, a sense of infinite peace and protection in the glittering hosts of heaven. There it must be, I think, in the vast and eternal laws of matter, and not in the daily cares and sins and troubles of men, that whatever is more than animal within us must find its solace and its hope. I hope, or I could not live. And so, in hope and solitude, my story ends.”

– Edward Prendick describing pretty much the perfect existence at the end of H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau

Die, Silly Journalistic Convention, Die!

My feelings about Richard Dawkins are conflicted at best — he’s brilliant and The Blind Watchmaker is a fantastic book but he seems to have become kind of an asshole sometime in the last ten or twenty years. However, this article (“Die, Selfish Gene, Die!”) is just silly. Dobbs huffs and puffs trying to force a supposedly counter-intuitive spin onto what is, from my reading, a well-established and not terribly controversial idea: that phenotype depends in large part on the specifics of gene expression rather than simple genetic makeup. And he takes forevvvvvvver to do it, picking a senseless fight with Dawkins in the process in order to create the sort of “contrary to perceived wisdom” narrative that magazine journalists love nowadays.

Ian Tattersall, meanwhile, briskly explains the phenomenon in a page or two of his excellent book Masters of the Planet: The Search for Our Human Origins:

ian-tattersall-photo_profile_fullIt has long been known that most protein-coding genes act to determine more than one physical characteristic, and that most physical features are determined by several genes. But it was widely assumed that there must have been a general relationship between the number of genes and the complexity of the organism, and the recent discovery that humans, with their billions of cells, have only around 23,000 protein-coding genes — about the same number as a tiny nematode worm with only 1,000 cells — came as quite a shock. What’s more, the protein-coding genes turned out to make up only about two percent of the whole genome, as the totality of the DNA in our cells is called. How could so few genes govern the development of an organism as intricate and complicated as a human being? And what was the rest of the “junk” DNA doing?

The answers to the two questions are closely related. Some ingenious recent investigations have shown both that the effects of a coding gene depend largely on when and how long it is active in development, and that part of the “junk” DNA is significantly involved in switching protein-coding genes on and off during that process. It also turns out that a coding gene’s effects depend on how active it is during the time it’s enabled by those “switch” genes, and that yet other stretches of “regulatory” DNA govern the vigor with which the coding genes are expressed in the development of the tissues. What is more, differences in the expression of the same basic gene may have huge consequences for the phenotype (the observed features of the individual).

Seems pretty straightforward. But hey, take that, Dawkins!

Tattersall’s book is excellent, incidentally–it’s a solid summary of the current state of paleoanthropology, and it’s mercifully free of the weird throat-clearing tics so common in popular science writing nowadays (I’m looking at you, Connectome). Plus it has the greatest “oh you caught me in the middle of my work” author photo ever — see above, Tattersall barely stops writing in order to throw a sullen glance the photographer’s way.

Theories of Nerddom and the Horrors of Fandom

This is a pretty interesting conversation — Lev Grossman and Adam Sternbergh discuss theories of nerddom, sub-categories and all:

Grossman: I like to think of myself as a three or even a four-quadrant nerd: SF, fantasy, comics, and video games. Though, granted, my obsessiveness about them isn’t very equally distributed. Especially since becoming a dad, I have nowhere near enough time to keep up with games or, really, with comics either. I might suggest a refinement along the lines of, one’s nerdiness is a fixed quantity, a non-expanding pie, which can only be allocated to one genre/medium at the expense of another?

It’s nice the way these guys embrace nerd identity, and they seem pretty self-aware about the whole thing. But really I find nerddom, or more specifically its manifestation as fandom, verrrrry sketchy as an overall rubric. I don’t think it leads to anything worthwhile and I think as a mindset it’s responsible for producing a lot of pap. Fandom — by which I mean the state of fandom and fan service, rather than “fans” themselves — is the direct cause of The Phantom Menace and the grindingly demoralizing Dune prequels of Herbert and Anderson. It feeds the mentality that says, “You liked your Boba Fett hors d’oeuvre? Really? Well how about a full Boba Fett banquet then? You’d like that, right? And we’ll fill your fridge with Boba Fett so you can have it with every meal from now on, forever.”

I do enjoy reading interviews with Grossman, though — he’s very candid and articulate, and not at all shy about admitting his own self-doubt. I enjoyed The Magicians well enough, but I wouldn’t re-read it, whereas I’ve read his AV Club interview several times.

The Seattle Archipelago, A.D. 7014

Pretty sure that when this scenario comes to pass I’ll claw my way to the chieftaincy of the post-civilizational Queen Anne tribe, or at least some sort of low-middle sub-counselor position…

This map is based on real-world information–I created the Seattle sea levels from publicly-available LiDAR data, rendering the rise of the seas in 10-foot increments for the animation, starting at the current shoreline, and ending with the 240-foot level. The Islands of Seattle poster was rendered at 240 feet of rise, which is roughly what would happen if all the world’s ice sheets melted.

I don’t know how long it would take for this to happen. One estimate says roughly 5,000 years. If this is accurate, then our descendants living with this level of sea rise would look back on our time in the same way that we might look back on the Early Dynastic Period of Egypt.


(h/t Slog)

“A wicked thing to do” – Priest on Tidhar

Christopher Priest is not a fan of Lavie Tidhar’s The Violent Century:

English prose can be subtle, exciting, descriptive, rhythmic, mood-inducing, beautiful, shocking. Good prose is a required art, and to scatter short sentences in undigested lumps throughout a novel is a wicked thing to do.

Then he really goes in for the kill, calling Tidhar out on particulars:

A fug of smoke cannot ‘crescendo’; the word ‘oblivion’ means the state of being forgotten or disregarded, and is not a synonym for ‘annihilation’; similarly, there is no such word as ‘obliviating’; air does not condense out of mouths in cold weather, but breath does (Tidhar gets this right later, so he knows the difference); someone who has a hole blown out of his head is described as ‘very dead’, which is presumably much more dead than just dead; ‘”We don’t age,” the Old Man said’, which suggests he must have been born old; colours don’t ‘leech’ away.

violent-century-lavie-tidharI might disagree with Priest on “very dead,” depending on the context — its nonsensicality is kind of its point, and it can be used in a jocular spirit (I’d also like to point out to Priest himself that his own phrase “a hole blown out of his head” isn’t really correct, either idiomatically or conceptually). And I don’t mind it when an author doesn’t follow standard dialogue punctuation. Priest seems a bit fuddy-duddyish here — if it’s good enough for Joyce and McCarthy, it’s good enough for me.

Still, it’s a great review, and it did sort of confirm my own impression of Tidhar’s book. I might read it at some point, but it was already low on my list.

By the way, it’s interesting that Priest mentions “recent Batman movies directed by Christopher Nolan” — Nolan’s film of Priest’s own novel The Prestige is fantastic (as Priest has pointed out in the past), a real masterpiece, incredibly subtle and assured in its plot and pacing.

Quote #14

nova-swing“This used to be her profession. A sun-diver like the Saucy Sal was more mathematics than substance. It didn’t really know what to be, and without an active pilot interface would revert instantly to a slurry of nanotech and smart carbon components, a few collapsing magnetic fields. It was in the class of emergent artefacts, a neurosis with an engine. You don’t so much fly your hyperdip as nurse it through a programme of dynamic self-reinvention.”

– M. John Harrison, Nova Swing