Voyages dans l’ailleurs

I often review books I don’t expect other people to read, but this one might take the cake: an anthology of French science fiction, dated 1971. The editor is Alain Dorémieux. I need to read more French, and it looked good at the library.

First, you might ask, what is ailleurs? Has anyone ever seen or held an ailleur? Is there a female form, the ailleuse? It can be translated “elsewhere”, and Larousse tells us that it comes from *alior, comparative of alius ‘other’. The –s was thrown on by analogy with other adverbs.

One book is hardly enough to judge all of French science fiction by; but fortunately I’ve read three. My general impression is that the idea, the sf germ that motivates the story, is often weak, but the storytelling and the writing are very good. In classic American sf– this is probably John Campbell’s fault– the Idea was everything, and the writing was workmanlike, the characters barely above the stereotype level. Of course, a few writers, like Alfred Bester and R.A. Lafferty, stood out for their writing style; and in the ’60s the dominance of the Idea waned. Many of the stories here (not all) excel in vividness and actually have characters.

There’s also maybe a certain proneness to structural or narrative problems– many of the authors seem like they’re feeling out how to tell the story, and have an absolute horror of rewriting. Curiously this was a problem also in one of the French sf novels I’ve read, Le Naguen. If you’re curious, the other one was La planète des singes (The Planet of the Apes).

(I’ve read quite a bit more of French sf comics, which are a different beast altogether, and generally are very well done.)

And now– why not?– a mini-review of each story.

Voyages dans l’ailleurs

Yves Dermèze, “Demain, les chats”

An alien invasion where humans are treated exactly as humans treat pets. A simple horror idea but well imagined.

Nathalie Henneberg, “Le Retour des dieux”

It turns out the Sumerian gods are actually from Arcturus. Pretty well done, but too many errors about Babylonia for me, and this sort of sf/myth mashup gets on my nerves.

Jean-Pierre Andrevon, “Un petit saut dans le passé”

A man is the subject of a time travel experiment, and creates his first time paradox. It’s getting to be a pattern by now: the idea is not deep or new, but it’s very well written and told.

Claude F. Cheinisse, “Conflit de lois”

A direct tribute to Asimov: a robot is placed in a situation where it must permit harm to a human in order to save a life. Well executed, but kind of an idiot plot: even if you accept Asimov’s laws, this particular situation should have been anticipated.

Georges Gheorghiu, “Au fil d’Ariane”

Really a Borgesian fable, a reworking of the myth of Theseus with minimal sf trappings (a few references to computers). This sort of thing depends on the payoff at the end; I understand the twist ending but the final plot mechanics eluded me.

Philippe Curval, “L’Oeuf ovipare”

A bizarre little fable about an egg which cracks, revealing another egg– only, each time, the surroundings (including the narrator) get smaller. Entertainingly told (the bit where the now small narrator can’t get a store to accept his money is pretty funny), but I don’t think the author knew how to end it.

Christine Renard, “Transistoires”

In a world with access to parallel timelines, a woman buys a trip to see a more successful self. One of the best stories, not least because it uses the idea as an excuse to explore questions of ambition, regret, and free will.

Francis Bessière, “La Barbe du ministre”

Another time travel story. It has some interesting ideas about how, in effect, the timeline could protect itself against ‘too much’ modification. I think the author wasn’t sure how to tell the story: too many tonal shifts, no real characters.

Daniel Walther, “Assassinat de l’oiseau bleu”

A soldier, sole survivor of a massacre, is forced to relive the catastrophe until his superiors can see what happened. This one reminded me strongly of Alfred Bester, from the hallucinatory prose to the tragic ending to the anti-authoritarian sentiment.

Yves Olivier-Martin, “La Tourelle de Ngôl”

A space opera in 30 pages, featuring an eternal conflict between Arcturus and Ngôl, told in hallucinatory prose. Here (as in “la Barbe du ministre”) I think the author saw several ways to tell the story, and tried to used them all. At first it’s a quiet story about the discovery of interstellar agents in Paris; like Lovecraft, it takes forever to slowly reveal what we’ve already guessed the story is about. Briefly the narrator seems to take sides, find a love interest, get captured. Then the story leaps 3000 years ahead, narrating a strange voyage to Ngôl. Unfortunately none of this really works: the author just piles on strangeness without pursuing any plot threads, or making us care about either side.

Guy Scovel, “La Forêt de Perdagne”

This is mostly swords-n-sorcery, with an sf denouement. The main idea (a portal between worlds) seems too promising to waste on just one story, and indeed Scovel seems to have written several novels based on it.

Interesting linguistic bit: the main character is a noble, and when he comes to some two-horse town he uses tu for the locals, who use vous for him. He’s also pretty arrogant, but it’s a real weaponization of the T/V phenomenon.

Pierre Versins, “L’Homme”

A little fable which, contrary to the first story in the volume, pictures Humans as near gods, told in the form of an encounter between a people created by Humans, and another which believes that it created Humans. Maybe not so compelling in an epoch where Humans seem intent on being monumentally stupid.

Francis Carsac, “Dans les montagnes du Destin”

The longest story in the book, and one of the better ones. It’s essentially a space Western: lone superhero adventurer, mining town, corrupt director, local bully, downtrodden natives. It takes its time, with plenty of character interaction and intrigue before the final sf mystery is explored. For once the payoff is real, and actually explains everything that’s gone on. It also has a book-length sequel.

A Desolation Called Peace

So, Arkady Martine wrote a sequel to A Memory Called Empire. Might as well use the same graphic, though. I won’t avoid spoilers here for the first book, so go read it first.

We’re back in Teixcalaan, which is addressing the alien threat that arrived in the first book, just a few months later. The war is not going well: the aliens are hard to find, and have a way of showing up out of nowhere and causing destruction. A yaotlek or admiral, Nine Hibiscus, sends for someone in the Information Ministry to see if it’s possible to talk to the aliens. The message reaches Three Seagrass, who pounces on the idea and swoops by Lsel Station to pick up Mahit Dzmare. If you like the first book, it will be comfortable and fun to get back into this world and see how everyone is doing. 

Though it’s about first contact, it’s mostly a novel of intrigue. The plot takes place in several venues– Lsel Station; Nine Hibiscus’s flagship; a desert planet recently attacked by the aliens; the imperial capital– and each of them is provided with multiple actors who hate each other’s guts. And I have to admire how good Martine is at intrigue. It’s all too easy, in political stories, to make the antagonists idiots, or to make them just act out of pure malice. (Think about Darth Vader, who’s wicked stylish, but has absolutely no believable motivation.) That’s averted here: each character, for good or ill, has reasons for what they do and who they despise.

Amid all the drama, Mahit and Three Seagrass take up their romance, though only after having a huge fight. 

I liked the book, but not quite as much as the first one. That may just be author fatigue– it might have been better to wait a year or two. What I think doesn’t work quite as well:

  • Mahit, though smart and competent in the first contact situation, and enjoyable as a romance partner, seems to be a complete idiot this time in the intrigue department– including in her own home station. It wasn’t very clear why she came home after Book One, and all she does when she gets there is get into more trouble. For unknown reasons she never bothers to debrief her own government.
  • The intrigue is maybe too neatly plotted? One of the pleasures of Memory was its unpredictability– we were discovering this huge weird empire, we are as confused as Mahit, and whenever things threaten to become too stable the author throws in some violence. The alien situation should provide opportunities for similar surprises, but it never really does.
  • (To avoid spoilers, I’ve put these in white text.) The nature of the aliens is not at all mind-boggling– it has its own TV Tropes page, dammit.
  • The ending: again, Mahit, alone of all the characters, just doesn’t seem to make sense. I know she’s had a hard time, but it doesn’t seem fair to Three Seagrass, now does it?

But again, it’s fun to be in this universe again, and it does do what a sequel should do: present a new kind of problem rather than rehashing the last one.

Bester: Virtual Unrealities

Alfred Bester is my favorite classical sf writer– see my review of The Demolished Man here. Mostly this is because he’s a great storyteller and an energetic worldbuilder… his novels are some of the few which don’t contain monocultures, which show off the same sort of diversity and weirdness we find in the real world. This book collects some of his best short fiction.

It’s also because, to be frank, a lot of classical sf was distorted and deadened by a reactionary streak… mostly due, it appears, to John Campbell, editor of Astounding. Robert Silverberg, in his introduction, describes how Bester ran into this. After a break from sf, Bester returned in 1950, sold one story to Campbell, and no more. Campbell, as Silverberg says, was then “obsessed with Dianetics”, the precursor to Scientology, and Bester hated this. But really, once you’re aware of it, it’s hard not to see that reactionary streak. Mostly it’s expressed as a belief that an educated technocratic class, or maybe supersmart mutants, should control the world: Heinlein’s superscientists, Asimov’s Foundation and robots, Poul Anderson’s time police, Van Vogt’s Weapons Shops and Slans. Bester is one of the few to resist the idea. The Stars My Destination is explicitly populist, while Demolished Man is simply too chaotic a world for anyone to control.

However, this collection highlights another side to Bester– a darker side. Many of the stories are more horror than sf, and end unhappily. Two are about the end of the world; quite a few are about some superhuman ability that causes more trouble than it’s worth.

Bester decorated his works with the usual high-tech spaceships and such, but it’s clear that technology as such doesn’t interest him. The science he’s most interested in is psychology. (Which fits in with the novels: Stars is about teleportation, Demolished Man about telepathy. And both are particularly interested in how society should handle disturbed individuals.)

A glance over some of the stories:

  • “Disappearing Act”: a pretty sharp satire of 1950s conformity and the Cold War. The particular sf idea is cute but not deep, but it allows Bester to show how a society can lose the very things it claims it values.
  • “5,271,009”: An extremely surreal story, told with Bester’s characteristic stylistic gusto. In brief: Bester warns about indulging one’s childish fantasies– such as being a superhero or the last man at the apocalypse. The moral gets a little more bite if you imagine it aimed at his fellow sf writers.
  • “Fondly Fahrenheit”: the story of a murderous android. This one has been widely anthologized, but it’s rather typical of the short stories, which often take their idea inexorably to a horrible conclusion.
  • “Time is the Traitor”: here the idea is that one man, named Strapp, is a Decider. Things in his multistellar world are too complex for individuals or even AIs to figure out; but a man with abnormal intuition can decide things anyway. A neat idea presented with satirical verve (the rituals of Decision, and the nature of Strapp’s entourage, are lovingly described). As usual, things end badly.
  • “The Men Who Murdered Mohammed”: also widely anthologized. Bester uses time travel in several stories– mostly as a way to parody human foolishness and the cussedness of the universe.
  • “They Don’t Make Life Like They Used to”: one of the end-of-the-world stories. Probably more interesting for its slice-of-post-apocalyptic-life portion than for its final revelations.
  • “The Flowered Thundermug”: I always like a heist story, and this one features two very accomplished heisters. The satirical world– it’s another post-apocalypse– doesn’t really connect.
  • “Galatea Galante”: About the creation of an artificial, perfect woman. Bester realizes and underlines how creepy the idea is, but still can’t really get past a very 1950s-male idea of femininity.
  • “The Devil Without Glasses”: another very surreal story– the basic idea is that two opposing forces from dreams are affecting reality, one pushing for human liberation, one opposing it. This might have made an interesting novel, but in short story form all Bester can do is turn it into another pessimistic fable.

I’m probably not selling the book well. I enjoyed it a lot while reading it. Bester can write, and he can be scintillating without losing the thread of the story. And if you like dark fables, he’s got plenty of them, and they’re a bracing corrective to the techno-optimism of some of his peers.

Still, the novels are masterful; the stories are merely fun. If there’s a common flaw, it may be that Bester gets too caught up in the surface details: the dialogs, the little swerves of plot. So some (not all) of the stories feel like they go on longer than they have to, or take a little too long to make their point.

Another biographical detail: Bester took another long break from sf in the late 1950s– instead writing for a travel magazine, Holiday. It must have paid better than sf, since he stuck with it for years. Also, before he got into sf he wrote for comic books… I’d love to see an anthology of his comics work!

Why do food replicators suck?

If you like mega-nerdy discussions about impossible things, this Tumblr and Metafilter discussion delivers. I found myself convinced by entirely opposite conclusions several times. The basic question: is Star Trek replicator food as good as real food?

The originator of the discussion, Beatrice-Otter, thinks it obviously is:

In Star Trek, replicator technology is part of the same tech tree as transporters. Replicated food would be identical to the food it was based on, down to the subatomic level.

The discussion makes many good points.

  • Working from a fixed recipe makes every instance of a dish taste the same. That could get boring fast.
  • If you’re a foodie, the number of options for a dish just explodes. Precise ingredients, multitudes of obscure varieties for each one, their terroir, different cooking methods, seasonal changes, the taste imparted by the pan you use. Maybe even which microorganisms live in the local tap water…
  • Maybe the replicator is good with pizza, but does it do Ethiopian food well? To say nothing of all the hundreds of planets and dozens of species the Federation has run into. You can have a database that’s huge, yet really only works for a subset of people, probably the developers.
  • Everyone has their own individual associations and preferences. You could store the ratatouille recipe that brings Anton Ego back to his childhood— but visiting Anton Ego’s childhood isn’t the same for you and for him.
  • The ship’s replicators are military grade and just don’t have the options the crew had back home.
  • Humans are humans, and will find a way to complain even in a post-capitalist utopia.
  • Our senses are affected by ambience. Anton Ego’s ratatouille might be spectacular in a restaurant in Paris, bland and disappointing in a cold starship galley.
  • In ST canon, replicators can’t produce live animals. What about that Klingon dish that includes live ingredients? But you don’t have to invent other species to get this problem: I once saw a video about a Mexican street dish that included live insects. For that matter, yogurt is supposed to have live bacteria cultures…

Someone pointed out that once replication tech exists, people would deliberately mess with it— e.g. make a steak where some of the proteins are replaced by raspberry syrup. Or you deliberately play with glitches that would be impossible in any other cooking method. (E.g. imagine layering hot and cold levels within a pastry— each 0.01 inch wide.) Or a similar layering effect with chocolate and fruit.

To me, the killer consideration is data space. How much physical space does a recipe take up? We’re used to thinking of data as weightless: an e-book takes up way, way less space than a book. Thus we can easily imagine a replicator filled to bursting with variations on the pizza recipe.

But an e-book is negligible because printed letters are enormously huge at the molecular level. It really doesn’t take much to fool the eye. The stomach is another matter. You have to replicate the food way below the cellular level. E.g. you’re making a steak: you have to make all the proteins correctly down to the molecular level— if you make the proteins wrong, the food isn’t even nutritious!

A pound of steak contains on the order of 1025 atoms. We need to store the location and velocity of each one.

  • Yes, Heisenberg would have something to say about that; take it up with Star Trek.
  • Velocity? If you think “but the atoms aren’t moving much,” I remind you that electrons moving is what we normally call “temperature”.
  • Just in case you have some bright idea about storing info about multiple atoms in one atom using floating point numbers… atoms are quantized. E.g. the state of any electron can be given by two integers (spin and energy level). And these are not numeric registers: if you set an electron to a high energy state, it won’t stay that way, it’ll send off the energy as a photon.)

Anyway: to store the state of each atom, we have nothing smaller than an atom. The recording of the state of 1025 atoms will itself be 1025 atoms— a pound of computronium. Maybe more, since any data format has some overhead; plus of course you need the mechanisms to actually read the data. Now, do you still think that the replicator can store thousands of recipes, and thousands of variants for each one? The ship will end up being made of recipe blocks.

Fine, you say: we’ll compress the data. And I’ll say: there is no lossless compression. Every method you use will have some effect— and could change the taste. Make enough compromises and yeah, replicator food sucks.

Now, I’m happy to grant that compression can be done. But a lot of thinking about this will be due to analogies that don’t apply here— namely, our experience compressing visual and auditory data. It’s pretty easy to fool the eye and the ear with low-res data. How much of that applies to taste and smell is another matter. (A lot of biological processes, including these, depend on recognizing large molecules; you can’t depend on macro-level fakery. That’s one reason making fake meat is so hard.) And again, satisfying the digestive system is even harder.

Edit: Compression can be lossless if the data is strongly patterned. E.g. an entry in the Library of Babel that consists entirely of the letter “e” can be precisely described in a few words (I just did it). But complex biological material (a.k.a. “food”) isn’t strongly patterned in that way.

Suppose you can compress the recipe a thousandfold: you can store the recipe for a pound of beef in 1022 atoms. Great! Now you can store a thousand variants of the recipe in a pound of computronium, a thousand recipes still weigh half a ton. How many replicators did you want in your starship, by the way…?

OK, we compress it a millionfold! Just 1018 atoms per recipe. That’s just a pound of computronium for a thousand dishes with a thousand variants each. Good enough for government work! Only… come on. You can’t just say you’ll keep 1 bit in 1,000,000 and claim that the loss is undetectable. Some people will insist on this, but I call this an instance of engineer’s disease: a certain type of nerd thinks that their tech solution cannot fail, an optimism belied by fifty years of engineering experience.

(Also, please don’t quibble over the portion size. You could store 1 cm3 of beef instead and save a couple of orders of magnitude. Only, one, building food out of 1 cm3 cubes will definitely be noticeable. And two, I could easily increase thousand recipes by several orders of magnitude too— that was just a simplification for ease of calculation. The Joy of Cooking contains 4500 recipes, and it’s hardly the last word on food. And Star Trek ships include people not only from every human culture, but from other biospheres and other species.)

All this shed some light, I think, on why Star Trek transporters can’t be used to store multiple backups per person, create endless clones, etc. A person takes 1027 atoms to store— the same weight as a person. (You want that data compressed? And then you’re gonna cheerfully step into that machine?) This would explain why (as one Metafilter user points out) during one ST transporter malfunction, storing all the person-data completely overwhelmed the ship’s computers. Transportation cannot be a matter of reading the data, storing it in some mega-compressed form, beaming it somewhere, and 3D-printing it. The best way of storing those 1027 atoms is to use those very atoms. They’re transformed into plasma beams or whatever tech-gobbledygook you want, but they continue to be 1027 atoms, and they’re physically moved to the destination.

Oh, one more thought experiment for you. You go into the transporter carrying a portable food replicator— whose core is a pound of computronium. As we’ve established, every atom in a recipe is important: this data has been compressed as far as it can be. Does the replicator still work after you’ve been transported? Does it work well? Analogies based on JPGs won’t help you here!

Finally: this is all speculative and no answer, including mine, is the last word. But there is a conworlding lesson here, and that’s that though you can rescue a magical sf idea with more magic, you shouldn’t. A certain type of nerd just wants those replicating machines to work perfectly and keeps adding more impossibilities to keep the idea pure. But to get an interesting sf idea, you want limitations and tradeoffs and possible flaws.

Piranesi

Since I’m still awake, I’ll write another review, this one of something I liked: Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi.

If you know nothing about it, it’s a fable, something of an urban fantasy. The title character lives in another world, which he calls the House– because it’s all one house or mansion. It extends for thousands of rooms in all directions, and despite years of exploration Piranesi has never found an end to it. The lower floors are filled with oceans; the upper floors with clouds. He lives off fish, shellfish, and seaweed he finds in the ocean, and he keeps an obsessive journal– the novel purports to be its 10th volume.

For company there are a few skeletons, and a mysterious man he calls the Other– the only living human he knows. The Other shows up twice a week for meetings. The Other is pursuing what he calls Great and Secret Knowledge which he thinks is hidden in the House; he does not search for it himself, but encourages Piranesi to explore. (He provides him with notebooks and pens.)

The first part of the book explores the House, the strange narrator, and his strange friend. Piranesi, oddly enough, is completely happy with his life. He has excellent recall of everything he’s seen in the House, and he’s satisfied with his daily routines and occasional longer journeys. Every room is full of statues, and he knows them all. He talks to the birds which fly through the halls, and leaves offerings to the skeletons. He regards the Other as a friend, though he is skeptical about the Great and Secret Knowledge.

This idyll is threatened by new knowledge– starting with a visit from another living person, who Piranesi calls the Prophet. The Prophet tells him things that put in question what he knows about the House, and the Other, and himself. He begins to explore these clues…

I won’t say here what he finds, except for what the book jacket reveals– that there is another world besides the House. And magic is involved.

The obvious comparison is to Borges’s Library of Babel– though the House is more a catalogue of the visual than the literary arts, and was more densely populated. It’s also reminiscent of Schuiten & Peeters’ brilliant and gorgeous French graphic novel La Tour (The Tower), which also depicts a near-infinite architectural monstrosity with few human residents and a mysterious origin.

Reviews usually mention C.S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew, probably because it contains a few explicit references to it, and because the House also recalls the huge palace of Charn. But the comparison is not very illuminating. Piranesi’s House is not Charn: it’s not lifeless, it’s not the sinister end of an evil civilization, and there are no traces of Aslan or the Witch here. There is some human evil, but the House itself is– at least as Piranesi experiences it– a peaceful and even joyful place.

What it’s not much like is Clarke’s first novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. I liked that one, but it takes a long time to get going, while Piranesi is just 245 pages. One thing they do share is that in both novels, Clarke commits to the bit, as comedians say. Strange is written in the form and diction of long 19th century novels, while Piranesi showcases the oddness of its main character, who learns all sorts of things during his adventures but never becomes what we’d call normal.

I liked the book a lot, and finished it in one long binge. Most everything gets explained eventually, at least one of the bad guys is dealt with satisfactorily, and Piranesi manages to adapt to his new knowledge without entirely losing the calm he found in the House.

It doesn’t explore its magic very thoroughly. I don’t think that’s a flaw, but it’s good to set expectations: if you like your sf ideas teased out in all their complications, this isn’t that.

I do think that– as with The Tower— the first half of the book works the best, when we are most exposed to the awesome and strange world of the House and don’t understand it yet. Schuiten & Peeters couldn’t really make the mystery pay off. I think Clarke does better at that, but some of the magic does leak out. One disappointment, perhaps (in white to avoid spoilers)… the Great and Secret Knowledge turns out to be a dud. Which is realistic, but it might have been more interesting if the Other’s project was more of an actual threat.

The Psychology of Time Travel

I found this book, by Kate Mascarenhas, more or less by chance. It was on the next shelf from where Arkady Martine’s next book should have been, and it was about time travel– I’m a sucker for anything about time travel. And in fact it’s really good! Once I was into it I had to keep going till I was done. And now I’m out of books.

The basic setup: four women– Margaret, Barbara, Grace, and Lucille– invent time travel, in 1967. One of them, Barbara, is overstressed and has a sort of breakdown in front of the media, and she’s kicked out of the group. The rest form an organization to manage time travel, the Conclave.

In July 2017 Barbara receives a cryptic note which turns out to be the report of a death six months in the future, and discusses it with her granddaughter Ruby. In January 2018, a girl named Odette finds a corpse in a locked boiler room… locked from the inside.

So, it’s a mystery, and an sf story, and true to its title it really is about the psychology of time travel: how it might mess with your head. What happens if you know the day you die? Or the day your loved one dies? More strangely yet… how do you grieve, or do you grieve, if after they die you can, whenever you want, take a trip into the past to see them again?

Fitting the subject, the structure of the book is all over the chronological map. Most of it centers on the murder and its aftermath in 2017-18, but chapters are set in the previous or following decades. There are quite a few characters, though the chief ones are named above.

Mascarenhas’s version of time travel is deterministic, and also future-oriented: time travel requires a receptive apparatus, so you can’t travel back before the device was invented. (You also can’t travel more than 300 years in the future. It’s hinted that the 24th century is pretty nasty, and perhaps all the machines are destroyed.)

Most of the focus is on the Conclave itself. Its structure is a baffling, because time travel sort of collapses its 300-year timespan. Any given agent may be given an assignment at a future or past time; people get intimately familiar with their past and future selves; you can even make a phone call to any Conclave employee at any time. There’s an extensive Conclave slang, which never changes since it’s shared over that entire time period. There are objects called “genies” which are acausal: a future you hands it to a younger you, so it exists uncreated in a years-long time loop.

A major subplot is a romance between Ruby and one of the pioneers, which has the brain-busting peculiarity that the lifespans of the two characters barely overlap. Romance is weird for time travelers: if they end up with a partner, they know who it is, often before they’ve met. Also, is it infidelity if, while you’re partnered, you also hook up with yourself?

The Conclave also turns out to be kind of a nasty thing. It’s located in London, but it’s outside the jurisdiction of British law, since the agents present at any one moment in time may be from anywhen, and it’s not clear what set of laws should apply. And it reflects the heavy hand of Margaret, at the top, and her determination that psychological problems like Barbara’s never recur. Naturally, worrying so hard about one problem leads into a set of opposite problems.

The book must have been hell to plot. It’s a lot of fun to explore all these concepts, and almost all of the characters are interesting to be with. (All the viewpoint characters are female; from an interview, it seems that the author tried male characters, and found that readers took the male characters as more important. So she just made everyone important be female.)

Mascarenhas works out lots of weird side-effects of time travel as the Conclave practices it, though I’m not sure they’re worked out enough. To try to explain without spoilers: information about future events is a phone call away. Sometimes the characters use this information; and to make the plot work, some of the characters (Barbara, Ruby, Odette) spend much of the book outside the Conclave and thus have to plod through normal time like regular humans. But some events proceed as if the Conclave weren’t using its own mechanisms. (Though, the timeline being unchangeable, perhaps the ultimate argument is “things happened that way because they did.”)

An example with spoilers: Odette joins the Conclave to dig up info. Because she had therapy, she is ineligible per Margaret’s rules, and she hides this for a time. When it’s revealed, she’s kicked out. There’s a testing process for entry, lovingly detailed; why isn’t part of it calling the future to see if she’s still employed in a month? There may be answers in this particular case– e.g. Odette is hired as a sort of internal detective, and perhaps policy is to not to mess with them. But the same issue comes up with larger plot points. E.g. after 2018 everyone knows that Margaret is a bit of a nutter. How could this be kept a secret before then, when travelers are constantly going back into her tenure? I don’t think these are flaws, it just worries me a bit.)

The Collapsing Empire

This, by John Scalzi, was another of the books recommended by NPR, but it turns out to be very similar in theme to A Memory Called Empire. It’s also a space opera about (spoiler) a collapsing empire, and even explores the same idea of a sentient brainscan. What I learned: it’s best not to read two space operas in a row about collapsing empires.

It’s not bad, mind you. The basic setup: humanity lives in the Interdependency, a network of colonies dominated by guilds (basically megacorps with monopolies), linked by a para-space called the Flow that provides FTL travel. The problem is that the Flow is disappearing, which will be particularly bad because human society has been designed to be interdependent– so the colonies will probably die off on their own. Only one colony is an actual planet, called End.

There’s a number of viewpoint characters: Kiva, a roguish and foul-mouthed Owner’s Representative on a trading ship at End; Cardenia, the new and unprepared Emperox of the Interdependency; Marce, a scholar from End who has the best insight into how the Flow is failing.

Let’s start with the positive: the prelude, which sets the tone and the theme. It details an attempted mutiny on yet another spaceship. It’s fun and showcases what Scalzi seems to do best: tough asshole characters, tense but witty confrontations, quick reversals, and a good helping of comedy. If you like that sort of thing, you’ll like the book. And the series; it’s a trilogy.

The overall situation is good too, though maybe it hits a little close to our little problem, the looming climate change apocalypse. The Interdependency feels like a bunch of overgrown Renaissance city-states, everyone trying to screw each other over without quite violating social norms. Throwing an existential threat at these people is an excellent way to see what they’re made of.

So, I like a lot of it but I also find it tiring. The comparison to Arkady Martine does not help it. I think the things that rub me the wrong way are these:

  • The characters are divided into good assholes and nasty assholes. (Not everyone, but close enough.) I actually like Kiva a lot– she’s lively and inventive. But, I dunno, there’s a reason Star Wars didn’t consist only of Han Solo and Boba Fett. It’s nice to have some actually likeable people in there somewhere.
  • The multiple viewpoint characters are a good fit for space opera, but I miss the focus provided by a single protagonist.
  • The Interdependency as Scalzi portrays it is hard to like– Martine is far better at explaining why an empire could be both dangerous and attractive. But the deeper problem is that the systemic problems are sidelined in favor of building up one particular clan as the archvillains. That is, Scalzi understands that the Interdependency is hopelessly corrupt, but still writes a story where shooting three people would pretty much fix everything.
  • Come on, Scalzi, you literally give your exposition of the Flow in the form of a lecture for schoolchildren?
  • The structure is weirdly digressive and repetitive. E.g. something like a third of the book is devoted on getting Marce from Point A to Point B. He’s threatened at home, then kidnaped, then they send assassins after him, then pirates. It’s competent thriller-plot, but did we need all four of these inconveniences, especially when the bad guy is the same one each time and we learn nothing new about him? The Chandler plot, careening from one danger to another, doesn’t work merely because it puts the hero in danger, but because it deepens the plot and provides surprises.
  • One more unfortunate comparison: Martine is far better at showing how it feels to be involved in apocalyptic events. It’s fun when a resourceful character like Kiva keeps sidestepping the enemy, but it’s more affecting when a character sometimes feels overwhelmed and panicky.

I’m afraid this sounds more negative than I meant it to. When something feels off about a book or game, I want to analyze that until I feel I understand it. But if I’d read this book first, or been in a slightly different mood, I’d probably have liked it more.

FWIW, re-reading my review of Scalzi’s Redshirts, I note that I had a very similar reaction: great idea, weird structure, and a certain difficulty in raising the emotional temperature.

A Memory Called Empire

There was a great post on NPR on the best sf/fantasy of the last decade, and I’m trying to read some of them. The first one I found at the library is this one, by Arkady Martine.

The book is dedicated to “anyone who has ever fallen in love with a culture that was devouring their own”, and that pretty much sums up the theme of the book. It’s about the devastation and the allure of empire.

The setup is simple enough. The viewpoint character is Mahit Dzmare, newly appointed ambassador from a border space station to the Empire of Teixcalaan. As soon as she arrives at the capital city-planet, she learns that her predecessor is dead, probably murdered. She has an imago of him– a sentient brainscan– but it malfunctions, leaving her alone, unless she can trust any of the Teixcalaanli. At least she has a hypercompetent liaison officer / shadow, Three Seagrass. (This is a great standard way to explore a conworld, by the way: use an outsider, so as they learn about the culture we can too, in a natural way.)

The structure of the book is interesting. A lot of sf is emotionless problem-solving– think Heinlein, Asimov, Niven, Stross. Empire is most reminiscent of a Raymond Chandler novel. As in a Marlowe novel, Mahit follows leads, has fraught conversations, gets into new predicaments, and when the author wants to shake things up, there’s a new assassination attempt. With one important difference: Mahit is the opposite of a native, and has no allies to start with– the one she should have, her imago, is gone.

As a consequence, the plot feels chaotic for about half the book. She doesn’t even meet the Emperor till page 229. A contrast is with N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, where the outsider heroine meets all the major players in a few chapters, and is even assured that there’s no one else who matters.

The names– plus a certain cultural fascination with blood sacrifice– come from the Aztecs, but much more comes from Martine’s academic specialty: the Byzantine empire. In interviews, she also mentions Rome and the US, but curiously doesn’t mention the closest parallel: the Chinese empire, which could be both a military juggernaut and a machine for cultural assimilation. Teixcalaan is portrayed as robustly exporting novels, films, and poetry, and even has an examination system like the Chinese. Mahit herself is a devotee of Teixcalaanli literature, though she realizes that to the imperials she’ll never be more than a barbarian.

(That may be true of her Byzantine models, but I think it’s not true of most empires, which are usually quite open to outsiders. I recently discussed Lucian of Samosata, who was Syrian but became a highly popular Greek writer; think also of Italian composers in Austria, Central Asian traders in Xi’an, Greek generals in Xerxes’ army.)

The para-Nahuatl names are cool but a bit misleading, I think: they suggest a more direct modeling of the Aztec empire than Martine is actually doing. A little actual conlanging would have been in order here.

Everything has a space opera sheen, but really the one sf element that’s carefully explored is the imago– a technology that Mahit’s Lsel Station has, but the Empire doesn’t. Here the plot gets in the way a bit: as Mahit’s imago malfunctions, we spend most of the book not seeing how the things work. Still, the idea eventually pays off.

A nice bit about the book is that character gender seems to be random or nearly so. Both Lsel and Teixcalaan have both women and men in positions of power, and no one makes a big deal of gender at all. (It’s fine if a sf writer wants to confront gender essentialism, but it’s nice to take a holiday from it sometimes. It’s not like either society lacks for other problems to explore.)

I don’t like everything about the ending– to be precise, the plot is wrapped up, but truncating the lesbian romance and sending Mahit back home are dissatisfying. But I see that there’s a sequel (A Desolation Called Peace), which seems to address those issues.

If it’s not clear, I liked the book a lot, and I’m eager to read the sequel. Mahit and Three Seagrass are both great characters, the mystery structure is fun, and Martine succeeds in her primary aim, showing how an empire can be both frightening and compelling.

If there’s one weakness, it’s that Lsel never becomes quite as real as the Empire. We learn a lot about it, but by the end of the book we care far more about Teixcalaanli politics. At the same time, and despite a cast large enough that Martine has to provide a glossary of names, it’s never quite explained how a station of 30,000 souls can be quite so important to the Empire and the Emperor. (I mean, plot-wise, it is explained; it’s just a weak bit of conworlding. And it could have been easily fixed: make the Stationers two or three orders of magnitude bigger. 3 million Stationers would still be tiny compared to the Empire, but more credible as a little outpost of high technology.)

What happens to heroes

Some dude named Noah Smith had an interesting opinion about LOTR. (Hat tip to Jeffrey for retweeting it.)

One interesting thing about Lord of the Rings is that the hobbits mostly don’t learn to fight, come of age, get the girl, or win the throne. They’re not Campbellian heroes; they’re soldiers in a war. They do their duty and come home with PTSD.

Now, my immediate reaction is that this is entirely wrong. Merry, Pippin, and Sam do all of these things and get all of these rewards. True, you have to read the appendices to learn all the details, but they’re all there– Sam is Mayor, Merry is Master of Buckland, and Pippin– reverting to his dignified name of Peregrin– becomes Took. For them, it is absolutely a Campbellian journey.

Eressëa (artist’s rendering)

Frodo, yes, has a hell of a case of PTSD. He is also far from the fairly idle and naive fellow of Chapter 1, is able to reorder the Shire to his liking, and actually becomes Mayor. He ends up living as an immortal in Eressëa. (Smith went on to say that he interpreted that as a metaphor for death, but no, that’s not what Eressëa means in Tolkien. Aragorn dies normally, Frodo does not.)

This got me interested in what a Campbellian hero is, so the next stop is Wikipedia. This article is pretty interesting, and I’m tempted to go off in a million directions on it. But let’s just focus on what happens to heroes after they defeat the Big Bad.

Campbell is actually pretty perceptive about the difficulty here:

Many failures attest to the difficulties of this life-affirmative threshold. The first problem of the returning hero is to accept as real, after an experience of the soul-satisfying vision of fulfillment, the passing joys and sorrows, banalities and noisy obscenities of life. Why re-enter such a world? Why attempt to make plausible, or even interesting, to men and women consumed with passion, the experience of transcendental bliss? As dreams that were momentous by night may seem simply silly in the light of day, so the poet and the prophet can discover themselves playing the idiot before a jury of sober eyes. The easy thing is to commit the whole community to the devil and retire again into the heavenly rock dwelling, close the door, and make it fast.

So a bunch of temporal rewards is not in fact the normal end of the Campbell story. In fact he’s predicting that a return to ordinary life is going to be difficult and unattractive. Frodo’s experience is actually a far better illustration of his point than Sam’s or Aragorn’s.

Let me very unsystematically survey some epics and see what happened at the end.

  • Gilgamesh: The hero completely fails his quest. He just goes home. No rewards to speak of, though he retains his day job (king).
  • The Odyssey: Odysseus ends up with what he wanted: being back at home, with his wife.
  • The Ramayana: Rama loses the girl in a display of nasty suspicion.
  • Three Kingdoms: Liu Bei foolishly dies in battle as he’s pursuing the wrong war, for personal vengeance, rather than paying attention to the overall situation of China.
  • The Mahabharata: The victors give up their happy life to be pilgrims, and most of them die. But of course this isn’t final in Hinduism.
  • Morte D’Arthur: Arthur dies and his circle of knights dissipates.
  • Hamlet: Everybody dies, except the one guy who got very few lines and now becomes king.
  • The Roland/Orlando saga: Roland fails to defeat the Saracens and dies.
  • The Three Musketeers: Porthos and Athos die. Aramis becomes evil. D’Artagnan serves the king faithfully and dies in battle.
  • Narnia: Everyone but Susan dies in a train crash. Before that the kids brought to Narnia to improve their souls long for it interminably and seem not very well adjusted at all.
  • Star Maker: the Cosmos is rebuffed by the Creator and intelligent life, after lasting billions of years, is quietly extinguished in the heat death of the universe.
  • Pullman’s Dust saga: Lyra and Will are separated forever and travel to other worlds is prohibited.
  • Hitchhiker’s Guide: Arthur likes a quiet life in a rural area, as much he ever likes anything.
  • Snow Crash: Hiro becomes a moderately successful security engineer.
  • Laundry novels: I haven’t finished these, but Bob apparently succeeds his boss as some kind of powerful undead.
  • Star Wars: Everybody’s happy. Later retconned to: And then it all happens again.
  • She-Ra and the Princesses of Power: She-Ra gets the girl.
  • Harley Quinn animated series: Harley gets the girl.
  • Rocksteady Arkham games: Batman has a really bad night, pisses off all his allies, and apparently kills himself and murders his butler. (Never got to that scene: too many Riddler trophies to solve.)
  • Sandman: Sandman racks up just enough maturity to realize that he can never change, so it’s better to die and get reincarnated.
  • Little Nemo: Nemo leaves Slumberland and takes a long airship tour. In his very last strip, he goes to watch a farmer shearing sheep.
  • In the Land of Babblers: Whether Beretos gets the girl is unknown. The political situation improves for awhile, but after a century it all goes to hell.

If we learn anything from this– and it’s unsystematic, so feel free to learn nothing– it’s that Smith is wrong: the hero does not always end up with power and romance. Even in pure power fantasies, creators seem to realize that endings are bittersweet, and the celebration often gives way to melancholy. And it’s pretty common for stories, even ancient stories, to end unhappily, or in a mood of existential angst.

Beyond that, as Neil Gaiman noted, if you prolong any story it becomes a story about death.

On the other hand, the next stage, according to Campbell, seems like nonsense:

Freedom to pass back and forth across the world division, from the perspective of the apparitions of time to that of the causal deep and back—not contaminating the principles of the one with those of the other, yet permitting the mind to know the one by virtue of the other—is the talent of the master. The Cosmic Dancer, declares Nietzsche, does not rest heavily in a single spot, but gaily, lightly, turns and leaps from one position to another.

I dunno. Do any of the works above end up with a master who “gaily leaps” from the mundane to the extraordinary and back? The whole idea of an epic, one could say, is that some great evil has to be ended so people can go back to a normal life. If you have to keep going, then you didn’t exactly take care of the problem. True, episodic series (Star Trek, Conan, Batman, the detective novel) have to keep going and keep creating new threats. But the price paid is that there is never any closure.

The Three-Body Problem

I just read this, by 刘慈欣 Liú Cíxīn, a name almost designed to confuse people who don’t know Chinese. You can get close to it with lyoh tse-sheen. His given name means ‘kind (and) glad’; the surname Liu has no current meaning, but happens to be that of the rulers of the Han dynasty.

I liked the book a lot, though I’m going to have trouble describing it, because it’s written in the form a mystery. So even saying what it’s about is a spoiler. This mystery is initially faced by a nanotech physicist, Wang Miao, and a cop, Shi Qiang. In the near future, they’re called to a strange meeting where they hear about a wave of suicides among top physics researchers. One of the physicists they meet is playing a virtual reality game called Three Body, and that gets Wang playing the game as well. Oh, and the book starts with a sequence set in the Cultural Revolution, focused on a very unlucky physics student, Ye Wenjie.

This sounds rather random and slow, but it’s a whole Chekhov’s armory. Everything ends up being connected and important.

I always skip the testimonials and other stuff that comes before the title page, and now I see that the very first page gives the plot away. But, well, I still won’t. I’ll say, though, that the trilogy of which this is the first book can be described as space opera.

So the first thing I’d say about the book is that it’s very tightly plotted, though it doesn’t seem so at first. And the second thing is that it’s pretty compelling– once I got going, I kept reading till the end.

It’s pretty interesting to see sf from a non-American perspective. Liu has said that he doesn’t write sf to comment on contemporary society; but he does of course write within it. American sf has tracked the corruption of our own society: classic sf came from a confident, ever-more-prosperous society, and largely projected that into the future; as plutocracy took over, sf plunged into endless dystopias. China has almost the opposite trajectory: two centuries of frustrating oppression, of which the Cultural Revolution was only a  part, and then a burst of dizzying progress. But while the Cultural Revolution lives in current memory, there’s not the same triumphalism of 1950s American sf. (In an interview, Liu mentions that Chinese sf is usually dystopian, and he’s considered an optimist.)

If you’ve read my China Construction Kit, that would be excellent preparation for this book, as you’ll already know some historical figures that show up here. (They’re explained in footnotes, but it’s more fun to recognize them rather than be told.)

I would say, on the whole, that Liu is like classic sf in that he’s more interested in ideas than in people. It’s not that he’s bad with people, or that they seem artificial; but it’s definitely not a character study, and for the most part they are fulfilling roles demanded by the plot. So, Wang is just curious enough to go talk to people and play the Three Body game, and react with the appropriate puzzlement or despair; Shi is the cop who doesn’t play by the rules but gets things done, on loan from every cop movie. It works fine, but Liu obviously has more fun when he gets to talk about string theory or the titular problem in celestial mechanics.

(One bit did seem unconvincing: a description of future technology involving a couple of protons. They seemed a bit overpowered. But it is future tech, which is after all pretty hard to talk about.)

One more thought, which I’ll leave in white to avoid spoilers. Liu makes a case that the existence of aliens would be terrifying news. The book has been compared to War of the Worlds, and it’s notable that both Wells and Liu are well aware of the problem of colonialism. China was a great victim of it; Wells had a guilty conscience about it. Americans, by contrast, barely got into the business of direct colonialism; they’re neither conquerors or conquered, so they’re far more likely to think about aliens as exciting and interesting.