Spec-Fic Archive

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Book Review: Crux

My summer of sequels continues with the sublime Crux, Ramez Naam’s follow-up to last year’s near-future post-human techno-thriller, Nexus.

When I sat down to write my review of Nexus, I remember feeling overwhelmed at the prospect of having to package a complex novel within the confines of a short review. Crux has had much the same effect upon me. In the simplest possible terms, this book is speculative fiction at its finest. Full stop. Crux offers the sort of writing which literary wags could easily point to and declare, “Proper literature looks like this.”

Meanwhile genre readers will smile, knowing full well that their medium has always produced works of this caliber.

For anybody approaching Crux without having read the first novel, the book’s prologue provides a primer on Mr. Naam’s vision of our not-too-distant future. It is a world where a Ph.D. student named Kaden Lane creates Nexus 5, a designer “drug” – more on the danger quotes in a moment – which allows users to hack and subsequently network the human brain. Though Nexus continues in this novel as an allegorical critique on America’s war on drugs, it catalyzes Crux’s much deeper study into a post-human future. NB: post-human does not equal post-apocalyptic or any other sort of end-of-the-world cliché. Tempting as it may be to look at the novel’s union of cyberpunk motifs and climate change as a means of facilitating a dystopian label, the novel is very carefully balanced against such a framing.

I draw attention to this because it’s worth recognizing when a near-future science fiction novel doesn’t unfurl a big banner proudly declaring “We’re all screwed, and everyone is going to die.” Sure, it’s fun to watch writers like Paolo Bacigalupi and Margaret Atwood destroy the world. But it’s hard not to walk away from their novels without a palpable fear for the future outweighing any sense of wonder. By comparison, Crux rallying cry is that post-human problems require post-human solutions. The optimism for the future may be measured, pragmatic, and contingent upon change, but it is there none the less. And given a near-prescient plot point that saw a hurricane affecting political change, I think it is important to recognize the ability – and dare I say need? – for smart fiction to inspire readers to do better with our world.

Crux also sees the return of the Department of Homeland Security’s Emerging Risks Division. The ERD, and those who share its worldview, publically demonize Nexus as little more than a narcotic. In that light, the novel pulls no punches in showing how the ability to network a mind lends itself to the worst sort of abuses and affronts to human dignity. Alternatively, Nexus proves capable of awakening a capacity for learning and socialization in children with autism spectrum disorders while also facilitating next generation research between scientists. A think tank takes on a whole new meaning when a dozen scientists can collectively work on a problem at the speed of thought.

For the latter, and certainly individuals within the book’s target demographic, the ERD’s actions seem retrograde. What progressive nation bans a tool and further exploits a constitutional loophole to strip the users of said tool of their citizenship rights? But just as it was in Nexus, the debate in Crux is so much deeper than a simple binary between conservative and progressive ideologies. The proponents of The Chandler Act – imagine the Patriot Act, on anabolic steroids, targeting post-humans – can easily be read as a good piece of legislation designed to protect the rights of a majority who refuse to, or are incapable of, redefining humanity beyond natural selection. Think on that for a moment; the ERD waterboards and tortures Kade’s friends and Nexus co-developers on behalf of Americans who don’t want to be anything more than human. I’d be tempted to smirk at the idea of the government so effectively entrenching mediocrity through a clumsy law, but the strength of Mr. Naam’s ideas precludes such a simple reading. After all, what would happen if the next generation saw an open source technology that makes a person better than any natural born human?

Suppose I go into a job interview with a Nexus-esque neural computer feeding my brain every feel-good neurotransmitter in the book while reminding me of certain speaking points appropriate to each answer. It might not guarantee success, but certainly it grants an advantage otherwise absent to me. In this scenario a defacto ban on post-human technology would be necessary to protect the rights of a majority incapable of being anything more than they are. And once again, Ramez Naam has found a way to take my natural “damn the man” outlook on life and make me sympathize with the establishment.

Similarly, I’m not sure how much I should read into the Chandler Act’s ability to strip post-humans of citizenship as a parallel to North American immigration laws that redefine certain humans as “illegal.” A case could be made, but I’ll leave that to a critic better informed on the topic.

Moving beyond politics, which is hard to do in such a politically astute novel, Crux expands on Nexus’ exploration of post-human technology and religion. One such study focuses on Kade’s flight from justice through Southeast Asia via a series of Buddhist temples. The other looks at a character from the first book who has become the first true post-human after having her consciousness uploaded into a network of quantum computers. It’s standard enough fare to see science fiction writers using non-terrestrial actors as a lens for religious studies. Seeing similar discussions emerge out of scientific innovation is a delightful subversion of a standard trope. Would Buddhism adjust itself in the wake of technology that can allow novices to achieve an oneness with their fellows? Dare we invoke Descartes mind-body discourse in viewing a person of pure consciousness and computer code within her own digital realm? These questions further demonstrate the awe-inspiring extent to which Mr. Naam has considered the implications of post-human tech. My only regret therein is that there isn’t more room in the novel for probe for answers therein.

I’ll preclude any further rambling by closing on this point; if I don’t see some Nebula and/or Hugo buzz orbiting Crux within the next year I will be genuinely surprised. The novel is a poignant reflection on the sociological, economic, climate challenges of our changing world. Meanwhile, Mr. Naam masterfully mobilizes the zeitgeist of contemporary political and tech culture in his creation of a near-future which tempts readers with equal parts dread and optimism. This is not a book to be missed, and certainly one deserving much discussion in the months to come.

Crux by Ramez Naam

Published by Angry Robot Books



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Short Story Review: The Hammer of God

Summary Judgement: In a story of less than five thousand words, Clarke balances the harder and softer elements of science fiction.

Story by: Sir Arthur C. Clarke

Original year of publication: 1992

The division between “hard” and “soft” science fiction is an interesting one. Most readers within the genre will agree that the terms work to describe the quality of the science proper within a given narrative. All too often, however, “hard” and “soft” act as polite euphemisms that create an artificial dividing line between “literary” and “mass market” science fiction. The unfortunate connotation therein is that the former is somehow more reputable than the latter. For various reasons that need not be detailed in this review, I disagree. In fact, I reject the very notion that the two are somehow mutually exclusive. Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s reputation as a master of “hard” sci-fi is well earned, but his short story The Hammer of God can be seen as a bridge between the two subsets of the genre.

Hammer is set within the same universe as Clarke’s 1962 masterpiece Rendezvous with Rama, though farther along in the timeline. Set in the early 23rd century, Hammer details a mission to deflect a planet-killing asteroid, aptly named Kali, from a collision with the Earth. The story is primarily told from the perspective of a SpaceForce captain named Robert Singh. Singh commands the orbital tug Goliath, and is charged with installing a rocket motor that, over the course of several months, will deflect Kali on to a safe trajectory. But that’s only half of the equation.

I imagine no shortage of modern editors would look at some of the details that Clarke offers and ask that most dreaded of questions, “How does this advance the plot?” It’s a fair question as there is so much text that builds depth without actually forwarding the narrative. Do readers really need to know about the breakdown and fusion of Christianity and Islam to grasp the severity of a “Chrislam” extremist’s attempts to sabotage Goliath’s mission? Probably not. When an extinction level event is imminent, showing without telling is perfectly valid. However, it is in those possibly extraneous words that Hammer starts to read like something that is comparable to Heinlein’s Friday.

The world nation that backs SpaceForce’s mission to map and patrol the solar system against rocks, comets and other space ephemera emerges out of a near-dystopia. Prior to the “Demilitarization of Earth”, Clarke crafts a world where private armies supplant gangs for control of Los Angeles’ streets. Prohibition in America leads to extensive trade wars. Bootleggers clash with Canadian “Medicops” in attempts to sneak Tobacco into the United States – a nation where “an estimated 20 million people died from ‘Smokey’”. Economic meltdowns see the “near simultaneous collapse of capitalism and communism.” Order is restored through the World Bank’s chaos mathematicians installing a state regulated economy that ends cyclical boom and bust globalization, thus averting a much feared final depression – a plot point which should resonate with every contemporary reader. From the ashes of this mess a single world nation stabilizes humanity in a way that is infinitely more accessible than visions of the future that are dependent on cornucopia technology or alien intervention. Even conventional ideas of marriage give way to the normalization of polyamorous relationships and accompanying birth control legislation. Granted, much of these social changes are the result of terrestrial technological innovations. Yet, much like warp drive, mass relays and stargates, the science is wholly tangential and not subject to deep scrutiny. How then do the two balance each other?

I mentioned earlier in this review that there’s no need to explain the society behind the Goliath’s mission. That point remains valid. What I strategically omitted is that if all these details were cut from what is ostensibly the main story, they would form a complete, but parallel, tale on their own. This tactic is simultaneously the defining characteristic and Achilles’ heel of this story. Hammer could work quite well as a strictly space based “hard” sci-fi story. Clarke’s decision to include the parallel narrative takes the abstract premise of the “Earth at stake”, and turns it into a tangible place within the reader’s mind. Of course, this decision assumes that the reader wants a heightened level of detail. If they don’t, the story turns into a bloated belly flop. Absent objections to extra depth, Hammer is a wonderful success for balancing the harder and softer elements of science fiction in under five thousand words.

The Hammer of God did in 1992 what many other contemporary sci-fi/spec-fic writers are doing now. It ignored the idea that the social sciences ought to be alienated from the physical sciences within genre literature. Some publishers and purists might insist that the engineering of Dyson Spheres can not or should not coexist on the same page with applied social Darwinism. Despite those sort of objections, Hammer’s take away message is clear: science and sociology are parallel forces within the human equation.

You can read The Hammer of God, for free, at Lightspeed Magazine.


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Short Story Review: Ghost in the Machine

Summary Judgement: Strong and thoughtful speculative fiction that blends themes of philosophy and technology into a single narrative.

Written by: Dean Giles

Ghost in the Machine is the second of Dean Giles’ short stories/novelettes that I’ve had the pleasure of reading. Once again, I found myself engaged with a text that works within familiar conventions, in this case a tale of near-future cyber-crime, but charts a new direction therein.

First, a word on what it’s not. Any time I see the word “ghost” associated with technology, I brace myself for an artificial intelligence gone wrong fiasco. Case in point: that episode of The Outer Limits where Mark Hamill built a virtual environment to try and save his girlfriend in a coma. Unfortunately, the AI running the environment was actually the personality with whom he ended up having freaky late-90s VR cybersex. Thank the gods that Ghost in the Machine not one of those stories.

Although the expression “Ghost in the Machine” is a popular episode title within televised science fiction, notable examples include Stargate Atlantis, X-Files, and Caprica, the phrase originates in British philosopher Gilbert Ryle’s The Concept of Mind. In this work, Ryle criticized Rene Descartes suggestion that there was a duality to the mind/body relationship. It takes a few twists and turns to get there, but the Cartesian note upon which Mr. Giles concludes this story is unmistakable.

GitM focuses on an insurance salesman named Dexter. Readers are thrown headlong into Dexter’s life where they discover that his wife has recently absconded with their two children. This leaves Dexter a miserable son of a bitch who retreats into a booze and drug filled cyber world. When he’s not uploading his wife’s likeness into a piece of “femware”, he’s trying to hack her bank accounts so that he might find a trace of where she went. Dexter is one of those delightful sorts of protagonists who is quite obviously a scum bag, yet through a singular purpose and despite questionable means somehow remains endearing to the reader. He simply wants to know why his wife left. Is it another man? Is it something he did? Witnessing an individual needing to know why something has happened is an instant empathy generator and likely the reason why Dexter works as a character.

Dexter’s quest to find his wife takes him into the technological underbelly of this not too distant future. In a world of pub tables with user interfaces, true three dimensional monitors and gaming chairs that enhance immersion by firing electric impulses into a person’s spine, Dexter comes across a way to directly connect his mind to the internet.  The world building that gets the character to this place is nothing short of fantastic. In fact, the only thing better than Mr. Giles’ means of connecting innovations in military hardware to consumer electronics is the persistent way in which the story flirts with ideas of post humanism. At the same time, it’s the quest for family and a sense of belonging, both universal and easily accessible concepts, that keeps the narrative on pace.

Thus do we return to Descartes. GitM takes a pretty clear stance on the Cartesian relationship between mind and body. However, it’s not a purely philosophical exercise.  Dexter’s quest raises larger questions about human integration with technology and the extents that people are willing to go to for access to said technology (Apple, I’m looking at you). Though never answered, the story also asks what it is that some people find online that they can’t seem to ever get in the real world. Once the setup is complete the novelette is simultaneously a study in psychology, speculative fiction, and horror.

My only complaint is with found within the last two pages of the story. The end just sort of happens.  A narrative rife with tension and steady escalation comes to a resolution that is a little too Zen for my liking. Dexter simply abides the fate that Mr. Giles has crafted for him.  Given the turn toward the macabre that the plot took, I think I expected a bit more suffering.

In the end, Ghost in the Machine is a strong piece of speculative writing. Issues of post and trans humanism as well as humanity’s relationship with its technology are anchored into the realm of the familiar through the protagonist’s quest to find his family. The world in which events unfold is familiar enough to draw a reader in, but alien enough to evoke a measure of technophobic discomfort. It’s the sort of formula that will appeal to genre veterans as well as those looking for something new.

Hits:

+1.0 for pairing technology and philosophy

+1.0 for keeping said pairing reasonably accessible

+1.0 for a “love to hate” protagonist

+1.0 for great speculation and ideas into the relationship between military and consumer electronics

Misses:

-1.0 for the fact that the story just ends on a bit too even of a keel for my taste.

Overall Score: +3

Ghost in the Machine is available as an e-book from TWB Press


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Book Review: Filaria

Summary Judgement:  With its rich environments and characters who ooze empathy, Filaria is as thoughtful as it is emotionally satisfying.

Written by: Brent Hayward

Published by: ChiZine Publications

Filaria is one of those rare novels that refuses easy classification.  Pegging it with one specific genre would undermine the ease with which Hayward brings together elements of sci-fi, speculative fiction, fantasy, horror and bio-punk.  Even calling the book a novel stands as a mild misrepresentation of what Hayward offers in Filaria. Rather than following one character through a beginning, middle and end of a narrative, Filaria reads more like four novellas woven into one large tapestry.  Although the four main characters cross paths with each other, their stories remain mostly isolated from each other.  Their only real connection is the world in which they live.

As mentioned, there are four central players within Filaria: Young Phister, Deidre, Tran So and Mereziah.  Then there is “the world”, which is quite honestly a character in its own right.  Phister lives in the bottom of the world.  Isolated from the world’s suns, Phister spends his days drinking acrid water and gumming down hallucinogenic moss.  Deidre is the privileged daughter of an orchard keeper at the top of the world.  Tran So lives in Hoffman City, a den of vice, inequity and religion, somewhere in the middle of the world.  Mereziah is an elevator operator/maintenance man in the great shaft that runs through the world.  One of the reasons why this novel works is because the catalyst for each of the main characters’ stories is something wholly normal, despite occurring in a very alien environment.

Phister leaves his hole in the ground because a girl who once kissed him has gone missing.  Deidre’s father sends her and her family away from home for reasons beyond her knowledge.  Due to the death of his infant son and an illness that his turned his wife into a shell of her former self, Tran So embarks on a journey to seek answers from the god of all gods.  On Mereziah’s hundredth birthday he decides to abandon his life of service to elevator occupants; before he dies, Mereziah wants to see the much fabled uppermost level of the world.

To wax in detail on these stories or the world in which they are set is to risk spoiling the novel for any would-be readers.  Sufficed to say, each of the narrative’s threads move the characters from their home level into other parts of the world.  At the same time, the environment of the world and plot are inextricably linked to each other.  Such nuanced writing has the benefit of rewarding readers with a story that unfolds quite organically.  Hayward’s narrative voice is exquisite in its ability to capture how people within their levels would perceive the details, both extraordinary and mundane, of everyday life.  Moreover, the characters emanate empathy in such a way as to render their back-story largely irrelevant.  It’s rare to find a novel that can paint such a vivid picture without resorting to clumsy infodumps or characters speaking about the obvious for the benefit of the reader.

Beyond the evident metaphors on class and economy that a reader can draw when exposed to a world where the people who live on the highest level have it the best, Filaria seems primarily concerned with exploring the things that trap us in our lives.  I might be skewing this review toward an English Lit paper, but motifs of love, (perhaps more accurately read as desire but I’ll leave that to individual readers to decide) religion, innocence and “capital P” Purpose permeate the novel.  Each of the characters embodies one of these motifs and the events of their lives orbit the same abstract ideas.  Yet in attempting to complete their respective quests, they are all freed of these things.  In my estimation, this unshackling of ontological burdens works out well for two out of the four characters.  The effect of these varied endings amounts to a grand resolution that is equally beautiful and tragic.

The only caution/criticism that I would offer toward this book is that it must be approached with the right attitude.  If an animated corpse as a playmate for a little girl or a fisherman catching a gene-hacked talking crab inspires a response along the lines of “What? That’s stupid!” Filaria is probably not the book for you.  In its opening chapter the book easily compares to a surreal nightmare along the lines of Naked Lunch (I’m thinking the movie with Peter Weller, not the book.  Although I hear the book is just as much of a head trip). However, as the stories progress an order emerges from the perceived insanity.  There’s no doubt that Filaria is a smart book; but it is also a book that expects its readers to display a little patience and intelligence.

Filaria is one of the best things that I have read this year.  Fans of genre lit would be doing themselves a grave disservice if they didn’t read this book.

Overall Score: +4.5

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