The Cronian Incident (The Formist Series) (Volume 1) by Matthew Williams is a slow-paced, contemplative science fiction story that fans of The Expanse will really enjoy. When a high-ranking member of a Formist family disappears, Jeremiah Ward, a former detective serving a hard labor sentence on Mercury is called to act as private detective. In exchange for Ward’s services, his sentence will be commuted, but it may be more than he bargained for.
Out of the gate, Ward has his own self-imposed obstacles to overcome. He’s guilt-ridden over the events that landed him in prison, and seems to accept his fate as if he were on death row. When Ward is given his “golden ticket” of a task as a private detective, it seems like the best of all worlds. Of course, nothing is ever so easy as all that, and Ward finds himself going deep down the rabbit hole of conspiracy and danger.
Williams injects a realism into this splendid science fiction story that is reminiscent of some of the best in the genre. The Cronian Incident offers a unique view of the future-imperfect through the eyes of the flawed by likable character Jeremiah Ward. Fans of the genre will definitely want to pick up the slow-boil science fiction mystery and tuck in for a good read.
The first reviews for my recently-released novel have come in. And they are admittedly pretty good! If there’s one thing a new author who has just released a book will suffer from, its that pins-and-needles feeling that comes with waiting on the first reviews. Good ones will help attract new readers and fans to your book, while bad ones will cast a stink on it which will be hard to shake! So as you can imagine, I was really happy to see these!
The first was posted on Amazon, where JJ Clayborn (a fellow SF writer) wrote the following:
“Mr. Williams delivers an exciting tale in this story. It was a very enjoyable read and I’m looking forward to seeing more from him.”
And of course, there was the lovely advanced review from Professor Abraham Loeb himself:
“An exciting science fiction adventure into the technological future. An exhilarating read for scientists and fiction lovers alike.”
“An exciting science fiction adventure into the technological future. An exhilarating read for scientists and fiction lovers alike.”
Remake season continues for me, this week with the 2012 remake of the 1990 original movie Total Recall. Back when it came out, I was seriously questioning what the hell was going on in Hollywood, as this was just another remake in a summer that was packed full of them. But as the saying goes, “put up or shut up” – i.e. if I’m going to complain about the tide of remade movies, I might as well know what I’m talking about.
And much like last time, I figure that a review of this movie should start by paying a little lipservice to the original (which this remake did in spades!)
Total Recall 1990:
The film is set in the not-so-distant future, where a man named Douglas Quaid is haunted by dreams of Mars and a mysterious woman and seeks an escape from his humdrum life as a metal worker. He learns of a memory-implant service named Rekall which he believes might be the solution, since they can provide a simulated adventure that he has always wanted – to go to Mars and live a life of adventure.
He then goes to Rekall and selects a package that includes a simulation where he is a special agent on a top-secret mission. However, things go terribly wrong when he begins acting out his secret agent character before the company has even had a chance to implant it. They sedate him and put him in a car, hoping to wash their hands of the incident. But when he wakes up, his friends and wife try to kill him, claiming he is not who he says he is.
He is given a briefcase by a former associate which contains a recording, in which he is telling himself that he’s really a man named Carl Hauser, and that the governor of Mars (Cohaagen) erased his memory because of a secret he carries. Quaid/Hauser then goes to Mars, retracing the path his old self has given him, and finds his way to Melina and the resistance. She then takes him to Kuato, leader of the resistance, to unlock his memories.
They help him recover the secret he’s been carrying – which involves the discovery of an alien artifact under the surface of Mars – but the base is then found and overrun. He and Melina are taken prisoner, and he learns that Hauser was never a double-agent, but a mole working with Cohaagen all along to lead them to the resistance. They strap him and Melina into chairs and try to force Hauser to recover his old self.
However, Quaid and Melina escape and enter the alien artifact. Cohaagen tries to stop them, claiming its a doomsday device that will destroy the planet, but Quaid manages to activate it before the three of them are sucked out onto the surface. The reactor turns out to be an atmospheric generator that turns Mars’ icy core into breathable air, which then pours out onto the surface, saving Melina and Quaid and making the planet livable.
Quaid kisses Melina, still not sure if what he has experienced is real or a dream.
Total Recall 2012:
At the end of the 21st century, the world has been devastated by chemical warfare, rendering all but two regions unihabitable. Whereas the wealthy live in the northern hemisphere – in the United Federation of Britain (UFB) – and in the Colony (former Australia). Tensions between the two are high due to the latter demanding independence, and a series of terrorist bombings attributed to a man named Matthias.
Enter into this Douglas Quaid, a factory worker who makes the transit between the Colony and the UFB every day on a massive subterranean lift called “The Fall”. At night, he dreams of fleeing for his life with a woman, and then being taken captive. He attributes these dreams to feeling trapped in his dead end life, and then hears of the memory-implant service known as Rekall.
Against his friend Harry’s recommendation, he goes to Rekall and requests a memory in which he is a intelligence service agent. The chief technician reveals that any duplication will cause problems, and then stops the process when he learns that Quaid really is a secret agent. Federal agents then break in and shoot everyone and try to take Quaid prisoner. However, he kills his captors and escapes.
Coming home to his wife Lori, he tells her of what happened and she tries to kill him as well. After escaping again, a pursuit begins, and Lori is told by UFB Chancellor Cohaagen to bring Quaid in alive. Meanwhile, Quaid is told by a former coworker to find the “key”, and a hidden message in the call leads him to a safety deposit box containing fake IDs, a holographic disguise, and a recording in which he explains what is happening.
Apparently, Quaid is actually a man named Hauser who worked for UFB intelligence. He was given the task of infiltrating the Colony’s resistance until he met Melina, who convinced him to change sides. He is instructed to go to the UFB and find it, but upon arrival, he is found out and forced to flee again. He is then rescued by the woman he keeps seeing in his dreams and escape Lori for the second time.
Together, they make it away and Quaid takes them to his old apartment to hide. Here, he finds the “key”, which is a recorded message on his piano that tells him that Cohaagen has been behind the bombings, and that he is planning an invasion of the Colony with an army of synthetics so he can level it and rebuild it as a new living space for the UFB. Luckily, Hauser discovered a kill code for the synthetics, which he must get to Matthias to stop the invasion.
As they attempt to leave his apartment, they are interrupted by Harry, who claims Quaid is still at Rekall and that he is an implant there to help him wake up to reality. Quaid chooses to shoot him and save Melina, and they are once again pursued by Lori and once again escape. They travel via the Fall to the Colony, where they meet with Matthias to hand over the memory that contains the kill code.
Unfortunately, the memory proves to be a recording of Cohaagen telling them they’ve been had. He then shows up with Lori and several security forces, kill Matthias, and take Melina away. Hauser is told he was given a false code to lead them to the resistance, and that a backup of his memories that predate his betrayal will be restored. Hauser realizes his old colleague is with them, has left his restrain undone, and escapes.
A fight takes place aboard the Fall, and Hauser and Melina plant a series of bombs on the rails. The Fall arrives and the synthetics begin to deploy, and Hauser begins fighting it out with Cohaagen and his forces. Hauser and Melina defeat Cohaagen and then detonate the bombs, which causes the Fall to begin falling backwards towards the center of the Earth where it explodes.
Hauser loses consciousness and wakes up with Melina inside a medical vehicle. He realizes it is actually Lori wearing his holographic disguise and they fight again, and he finally kills her. He and Melina are reunited, and they stand together and hear how the Colony is now expecting full independence. He sees a Rekall signs and has a moment of doubt, but ignores it and kisses Melina.
Once again, I am forced to give this one to the original. Whereas the remake had some signs of quality, which included decent enough performances from Farrel, Biel, Beckinsale, and Cranston. But unfortunately, some decent sets, a whole of lot of chase scenes and big budget special effects were not enough to save this movie from a relatively weak plot and a whole lot, too much CGI, and a whole lot of borrowing.
First of all, why did they do away with the whole Mars plot? The story which both the original and the remake are based on – “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” by Philip K Dick – centered on Mars, though it did not take place there. Including it in the plot seems like a no-brainer. But for some reason, the writers of the remake wanted a story focused on Earth and the dangers of chemical warfare and rezoning.
Second, the story did away with a crucial element this time, which was the good old fashioned mind-fuck of the original. In that version, not only did we not know for certain whether or not Quaid/Hauser was dreaming the whole thing, we truly thought he was a good guy up until they showed otherwise. The plot involving replacing his memories was a ruse by Cohaagen in order to get Hauser past Kuato’s psychic detection.
In other words, in order to infiltrate the resistance, he had to believe he was an actual traitor. Thus began the convoluted process of making the resistance think he was genuine by erasing his memory and dumping him on Earth, then leading him to retrace his path and find his way to Kuato. Though the information he had about the Martian artifact was real, it was just the bait they dangled in front of the resistance’s nose to get them to give up their location.
Which brings me to item two in the weak plot front. The fact that Quaid/Hauser was actually a good guy in this version made me respect the plot way less. It was cool finding out the hero was a villain, and then seeing him chose to remain with his implanted identity rather than allow himself to be turned back into his old self. It was a big reveal, added a solid twist to the plot, and even raised an existential question or two.
And then there was the key moment where Quaid/Hauser has to decide what is real. In both versions, this takes the form of someone telling him he’s still dreaming and has to do something he won’t like in order to wake up. In the original, it involved Quaid being handed a pill which the man from Rekall says is a symbol of his desire to wake up, but could just as easily be a sedative. He realizes the man is a fake by the way he’s sweating and shoots him.
In the remake, it takes the form of him being confronted by his friend Harry who tells him he’s dreaming and to shoot Melina, a figment of his imagination. He chooses to shoot his friend Harry and accept that what he is experiencing is real because Jessica Biel begins to cry. But isn’t that be exactly what a fantasy woman would do in that situation? Seemed like quite the gambit there.
Also, the “secret” that Hauser had stumbled upon in this version was really quite lame. In the original, it involved an alien artifact, which is oodles more interesting than than Cohaagen planning to rezone Australia for more living space. Sure, the idea was laden with scientific inaccuracies – melting an ice core doesn’t instantly terraform a planet! – the ridiculousness of it could always be circumvented by arguing that it really was all a dream.
Last, but not least, there were the many parts of this remake that were obvious shout outs or references to the original. First, you had the three-breasted hooker, who was well cast and easy on the eyes. You also had key lines like – “If I’m not me, then who the hell am I?” “How would I know? I just work here.” And of course, the redheaded woman at the customs line. But these seemed a bit too many and obvious to be a simple wink and a nod.
Also, Bill Knighy had barely any screen time at all, and only really comes on to paraphrase what Kuato said in the original film. And the bad guys? No comparison! While Kate Beckinsale was believable enough as a villainess, Brian Cranston simply did not hold a candle to the original’s Ronny Cox and Michael Ironside. Those two were perfectly cast as the evil, somewhat over-the-top bad guys, the perfect counter to Arnie’s over-the-top good guy.
But getting past that, there’s the matter of what the movie kinda-sorta did right. The settings were all quite artistic, with the world in the Colony being gritty, crowded, dirty looking, and consisting of a great deal of cultural influences. By contrast, the UFB looked cleaner, brighter, and the design seemed singular by comparison. And the emphasis of shortages of space was summed up nicely by the massive, overlapping layers of structures.
And the “synthetics” were artfully done and kind of cool looking. As were the flying cars, the aerial traffic lanes, and the three-dimensional elevator pods that crisscrossed the sky. And “The Fall” was a pretty neat idea, especially with the whole “gravity reversal thing”. But in just about all cases, these things have been done before. The sets are reminiscent of Blade Runner, with it’s gritty, crowded streets, signs in Asian characters, and the synthetic humans wandering around.
The robots also looked like a cross between Storm Troopers and the machines from I, Robot, and the flying cars called to mind another Philip K Dick adaptation, namely Minority Report. What can be said about a movie who’s set designs and concept art are quite impressive, but which borrow heavily from several other franchises? It’s like this movie is subtly mocking itself for a lack of originality – which makes sense since it’s a remake.
And with all the special effects, things looked entirely too fake. People today might find the Kuato puppet and the molded plastic suits of the mutants to be outdated, but those showed a lot of heart versus the extensive use of CGI in this one. In fact, seeing movies like these make me long for the days of old-style effects where costumes, real actors and real sets were built rather than generating everything digitally. George Lucas, I’m looking at you as I say this!
I’d say its blatantly obvious at this point, but this one definitely goes to the original. And much like the Robocop remake, it begs the question: why redo a movie when the original got it right? Sure, the 1990 version of Total Recall wasn’t perfect. It had a lot of cheesy elements and some massive scientific inaccuracies, but it managed to both entertain and impress with the way it played with perceptions, twisted things around and kept people guessing until the end.
In this remake, there really is no mystery, the plot is simplified, the most important element (i.e. Mars) is dropped, some of the best elements are missing, and it borrowed too heavily from multiple sources – not the least of which was the original. So really, why was it even made? In this season of remake review, I find myself asking that question quite a lot! Not a good way to start…
Okay, onto new things. Which may, at this point, include The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles relaunch. No promises though 🙂
Recently, I took the plunge and watched some of the reboots I had been avoiding. These included the reboot of Robocop, an updated take on the 1987 Paul Verhoeven gorefest about a police officer who is brutally murdered and brought back as a cyborg. The movie was officially released in February of 2014 after being pushed back from its original August 2013 release, and received mixed reviews.
In any case, upon viewing the film, I totally saw what all the mixed reviews were all about. Whereas the new movie does score some points for updated special effects, technology, and has some decent casting, it lacked the social satire, edginess and macabre sensibilities of the first. So while it had some entertainment value, it really suffered from a sense of ambivalence, as if the makers themselves were wondering what the point of the remake was.
To put it in perspective, here’s a rundown on the original and what made it work…
Set in the near-future, the film opens on a Detroit that has become a cesspool of crime, corruption and corporate greed. Having gone bankrupt, the city has signed a deal with Omni Consumer Products (OCP) to run the underfunded police department in exchange for demolishing Old Detroit and building a new metropolis – Delta City – that will renew the city and provide employment.
To remedy the crime situation, OCP plans to deploy the ED-209 enforcement droid. But after a demonstration leads to the death of a junior exec, an alternate plan is considered from the cybernetics division. This involves placing a recently-deceased police officer inside a machine that is armored, has superior firepower, and runs on programming based on three simple directives:
1. Serve the public trust
2. Protect the innocent
3. Uphold the law
To get a “volunteer”, OCP transfers officers to more crime-ridden districts, one of which is officer Alexander Murphy. A dedicated officer, he and his new partner run into criminal kingpin Clarence Boddicker and his gang during their first patrol. After pursuing them to an abandoned steel mill, Murphy is isolated and gunned down. Pronounced dead, his body is then used to create Robocop.
His deployment results in an immediate drop in crime, but problems quickly ensue. At OCP, the creation of Robocop leads to an internal power struggle between senior president Dick Jones and Bob Morton – the young exec behind the Robocop program. Boddicker, it is revealed, has been working with Jones for some time, using his crime connections to advance OCPs agenda of taking over Detroit. Jones orders Boddicker to kill Morton, and promises him exclusive control over all vice in Delta City.
Meanwhile, Murphy begins to remember his old life and begins hunting for Boddicker and his gang. After capturing him, he learns of Boddicker’s relationship with Jones and attempts to arrest him, but is stopped by a secret Fourth Directive, which prevents him from arresting an executive of OCP. He narrowly escapes OCP headquarters with the help of Lewis, his old partner, and flees to an abandoned factory to recuperate.
Meanwhile, Boddicker is given advanced weaponry by Jones and a tracking device to go and kill Murphy. In a showdown at the abandoned plant, Murphy and Lewis kill all members of his gang, including Boddicker himself. He then goes to OCP headquarters and presents a video of Jones confessing to ordering Morton’s death. Jones attempts to take the head of OCP chairman, but he fires Jones, giving Robocop freedom to kill him.
The movie ends with the chairman asking Robocop if he has a name, to which he replied: “Yes. Murphy”.
For many reasons, the movie remains a cult classic and an iconic genre film. Though the franchise didn’t do so well after two sequels, the original remains popular with fans decades after the fact because of the way it pulled no punches and delivered on a message. Set in a future Detroit characterized by rampant crime and urban collapse, the movie showcased a very real problem that was apparent by the late 80s in America, and people certainly noticed.
Thought it was brutal and shocking at times, the over-the-top nature of the violence played into the social satire of the film. As he would demonstrate with later films – Total Recall, Starship Troopers – Verhoeven was known for using graphic violence to parody America’s preoccupation with violence in media. And in this context, it provided a sense or urgency to the plot – with police, politicians, and common folk feeling helpless in the face of it, and corporate execs being indifferent and using it to further their agendas.
In short, the hard-R rating of the movie worked in its favor. And the exploration of issues relating to identity and humanity in an age of man-machine interface were also well rendered. Now as for the reboot…
The year is 2028, and robotics and automated military systems are now commonplace around the world, enforcing US military policy in places like Iran. Looking to expand, Omnicorp contemplates ways that they will be able to make robots palatable to the American masses, where the Dreyfus Act currently forbids their deployment. All they need is a critically injured policeman to put inside the machine.
Meanwhile, detective Alexander Murphy and his partner are trying to take down crime boss Antoine Vallon, who has contacts within the police department. A car bomb nearly kills Murphy, and Omnicorp roboticist Dr. Dennett Norton convinces his wife to let them use him in the program. What is left or Murphy is placed inside a full-body prosthetic, and he is awakened.
Initially, Murphy is shocked to see what has become of him and tries to escape. But Norton manages to convince him to stay and do his job, if for nothing else for the sake of his family. He begins undergoing testing to see how combat effective he will be, and proves to be inferior to a fully-automated robot. Pressured to make him work, Norton then alters Murphy’s brain so that behavioral software is control of his actions, even though he still thinks he is in control.
This leads to the confirmation of the Robocop program and the company prepares to unveil it to the public. But his first demonstration, Murphy experiences a seizure when they attempt to upload tons of information and video feeds to his brain. Norton and his team then alter his emotional responses again, leading him to coldly enact his protocols before the public and arrest a criminal in the crowd. The arrest is a PR success, and Robocop’s performance begins to reduce crime and convince the public to rescind the Dreyfus Act.
Murphy’s wife confronts him in the street, which triggers Murphy’s memories and leads him to begin investigating his own death. He tracks down Vallon and destroys his gang in an intense shootout, and then confronts the members of the police department who were supplying him. Seeing this, Omnicorp shuts Murphy’s systems down before he can arrest the police chief and begin to rethink his existence.
They decide to circulate a news story that he died of complications, while plotting to shut him down permanently. With the help of Doctor Norton, Murphy escapes the Omnicorps facility where he is kept and goes to the headquarters to confront the CEO. With the help of his old partner, he is able to fight his way in and narrowly kill the CEO, who is holding his wife hostage.
Murphy is then rebuild in Norton’s lab, the President of the US vetoed the repeal of the Dreyfus Act based on the testimony of Norton, who confesses everything OmniCorp has done, and Murphy goes back to work and living with his family.
Compared to the original, the reboot suffered from multiple problems. In addition to being toned down and less violent, as evidenced by its PG-13 rating, it was c0mparatively confused and muddled in terms of its message. Whereas the original was a hard-hitting movie about corporate greed, corruption, crime, and the fight to retain humanity in inhuman circumstances, the new movie was a rather bland commentary on the morality of robotics and autonomous machines in today’s world.
While these issues are certainly very relevant, the way the movie went about presented them seemed at once too subtle and heavy-handed. This is best illustrated by the character of news pundit Pat Novak (played by Samuel L. Jackson), a clear parody of Bill O’Reilly and a slew of other Fox News commentators. In addition to being loud, extremely biased and a corporate shill, he completely hands the message to the audience within the last few seconds of the movie:
Now I know some of you may think that this kind of thinking is dangerous and these machines violate your civil liberties. Some of you even believe that the use of these drones overseas makes us the same kind of bullying imperialists that our forefathers were trying to escape. To you, I say… Stop whining! America is now and always will be the greatest country on the face of the Earth!
The way his scenes are shot, he’s even addressing the viewing audience. So he’s effectively breaking the Fourth Wall when he says this. It was honestly the most obvious scene and message I’ve watched in some time!
Another odd aspect of the movie was Murphy’s sense of self, which was a key aspect of the original. After having his remains dismembered and placed into a “full-body prosthetic”, Murphy’s memory was erased to prevent any semblance of his old personality from coming through. This was to ensure that Robocop would function perfectly and not experience complications due to things like anger, sadness, trauma, or an attachment to his old life.
But in this movie, he wakes up inside the machine remembering everything that happened to him and has trouble performing on par with automated robots. To remedy this, they have to go through a convoluted process whereby he’s no longer in control, but thinks he is thanks to the magic of brain-altering software. All of this seemed unnecessary, clunky, and took away from the story. It also begged the question, why not simply erase his memory and avoid all this?
But above all, the decision to go this route also robbed the movie of its most central theme – i.e. the Jesus allegory of death and ressurection! Murphy does not rise from the dead at all in this movie, but is simply put in a body to keep him alive. So ultimately, his transformation – dying and coming back to life as something completely different – is something that’s very watered down and ineffective by comparison.
This all seemed weak when they could have simply gone with what they did in the first movie and erased Murphy’s memory, which would have worked way better for the plot. That was one of the most important aspects of the old film and how it exposed OCPs corruption and delved into the whole issue of man vs. machine and what it is to be human. Not only was OCP looking for an automaton, Murphy’s recovery of his past self got the audience emotionally involved.
To boot, the bad guys were very underdeveloped in this film. Vallon was no match for Boddicker, having little screen time and no sense of motivation compared to Kurtwood Smith. His allies in the police department were also afterthoughts, who seemed to be nothing more than bride-taking cops who betrayed Murphy because he was too dedicated. And Michael Keaton is poorly cast as the crooked CEO of Omnicorps, which in this movie falls far short of the cold, indifferent corporate crooks of the first one.
To be fair, some casting choices weren’t bad. Joel Kinnaman wasn’t bad in the lead role, Gary Oldman played his role ably, and Samuel L. Jackson (though not very well scripted) certainly delivered on his portrayal of a loudmouthed, angry, horribly-slanted media pundit. But compared to Peter Weller, Ronny Cox, Kurtwood Smith and Miguel Ferrer, the guys were just eating crumbs off the table.
All of this leaves me wondering, what was the point of this remake? The idea was to relaunch the franchise for a new generation by focusing on modern issues, updated technologies, and a fresh take on the whole cybernetics thing. And in all of these respects, save for the technology aspect, they failed. Too bad, because their certainly was potential, given the range of issues that could have been explored better.
Between the highly contentious issue of UAVs, killer robots, and their effect on foreign and domestic policy, this movie could have really been something. Instead, it was a confused, half-hearted and obvious effort. And this is really too bad, because it’s likely to lead to yet another relaunch in a few years time. Don’t believe me, just look at Terminator: Salvation!
But regardless of what any reboots or relaunches attempt to do, Detroit still loves Robocop! As evidenced by their commissioning a massive statute of the guy. And Peter Weller and Kurtwood Smith… still the men!
It’s been a long while since I did a book review, mainly because I’ve been immersed in my writing. But sooner or later, you have to return to the source, right? As usual, I’ve been reading books that I hope will help me expand my horizons and become a better writer. And with that in mind, I thought I’d finally review a book I finished reading some months ago, one which was I read in the hopes of learning my craft.
It’s called Accelerando, one of Charle’s Stross better known works that earned him the Hugo, Campbell, Clarke, and British Science Fiction Association Awards. The book contains nine short stories, all of which were originally published as novellas and novelettes in Azimov’s Science Fiction. Each one revolves around the Mancx family, looking at three generations that live before, during, and after the technological singularity.
This is the central focus of the story – and Stross’ particular obsession – which he explores in serious depth. The title, which in Italian means “speeding up” and is used as a tempo marking in musical notation, refers to the accelerating rate of technological progress and its impact on humanity. Beginning in the 21st century with the character of Manfred Mancx, a “venture altruist”; moving to his daughter Amber in the mid 21st century; the story culminates with Sirhan al-Khurasani, Amber’s son in the late 21st century and distant future.
In the course of all that, the story looks at such high-minded concepts as nanotechnology, utility fogs, clinical immortality, Matrioshka Brains, extra-terrestrials, FTL, Dyson Spheres and Dyson Swarms, and the Fermi Paradox. It also takes a long-view of emerging technologies and predicts where they will take us down the road.
And to quote Cory Doctorw’s own review of the book, it essentially “Makes hallucinogens obsolete.”
Part I, Slow Takeoff, begins with the short story “Lobsters“, which opens in early-21st century Amsterdam. Here, we see Manfred Macx, a “venture altruist”, going about his business, making business ideas happen for others and promoting development. In the course of things, Manfred receives a call on a courier-delivered phone from entities claiming to be a net-based AI working through a KGB website, seeking his help on how to defect.
Eventually, he discovers the callers are actually uploaded brain-scans of the California spiny lobster looking to escape from humanity’s interference. This leads Macx to team up with his friend, entrepreneur Bob Franklin, who is looking for an AI to crew his nascent spacefaring project—the building of a self-replicating factory complex from cometary material.
In the course of securing them passage aboard Franklin’s ship, a new legal precedent is established that will help define the rights of future AIs and uploaded minds. Meanwhile, Macx’s ex-fiancee Pamela pursues him, seeking to get him to declare his assets as part of her job with the IRS and her disdain for her husband’s post-scarcity economic outlook. Eventually, she catches up to him and forces him to impregnate and marry her in an attempt to control him.
The second story, “Troubador“, takes place three years later where Manfred is in the middle of an acrimonious divorce with Pamela who is once again seeking to force him to declare his assets. Their daughter, Amber, is frozen as a newly fertilized embryo and Pamela wants to raise her in a way that would be consistent with her religious beliefs and not Manfred’s extropian views. Meanwhile, he is working on three new schemes and looking for help to make them a reality.
These include a workable state-centralized planning apparatus that can interface with external market systems, a way to upload the entirety of the 20th century’s out-of-copyright film and music to the net. He meets up with Annette again – a woman working for Arianspace, a French commercial aerospace company – and the two begin a relationship. With her help, his schemes come together perfectly and he is able to thwart his wife and her lawyers. However, their daughter Amber is then defrosted and born, and henceforth is being raised by Pamela.
The third and final story in Part I is “Tourist“, which takes place five years later in Edinburgh. During this story, Manfred is mugged and his memories (stored in a series of Turing-compatible cyberware) are stolen. The criminal tries to use Manfred’s memories and glasses to make some money, but is horrified when he learns all of his plans are being made available free of charge. This forces Annabelle to go out and find the man who did it and cut a deal to get his memories back.
Meanwhile, the Lobsters are thriving in colonies situated at the L5 point, and on a comet in the asteroid belt. Along with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the ESA, they have picked up encrypted signals from outside the solar system. Bob Franklin, now dead, is personality-reconstructed in the Franklin Collective. Manfred, his memories recovered, moves to further expand the rights of non-human intelligences while Aineko begins to study and decode the alien signals.
Part II, Point of Inflection, opens a decade later in the early/mid-21st century and centers on Amber Macx, now a teen-ager, in the outer Solar System. The first story, entitled “Halo“, centers around Amber’s plot (with Annette and Manfred’s help) to break free from her domineering mother by enslaving herself via s Yemeni shell corporation and enlisting aboard a Franklin-Collective owned spacecraft that is mining materials from Amalthea, Jupiter’s fourth moon.
To retain control of her daughter, Pamela petitions an imam named Sadeq to travel to Amalthea to issue an Islamic legal judgment against Amber. Amber manages to thwart this by setting up her own empire on a small, privately owned asteroid, thus making herself sovereign over an actual state. In the meantime, the alien signals have been decoded, and a physical journey to an alien “router” beyond the Solar System is planned.
In the second story “Router“, the uploaded personalities of Amber and 62 of her peers travel to a brown dwarf star named Hyundai +4904/-56 to find the alien router. Traveling aboard the Field Circus, a tiny spacecraft made of computronium and propelled by a Jupiter-based laser and a lightsail, the virtualized crew are contacted by aliens.
Known as “The Wunch”, these sentients occupy virtual bodies based on Lobster patterns that were “borrowed” from Manfred’s original transmissions. After opening up negotiations for technology, Amber and her friends realize the Wunch are just a group of thieving, third-rate “barbarians” who have taken over in the wake of another species transcending thanks to a technological singularity. After thwarting The Wunch, Amber and a few others make the decision to travel deep into the router’s wormhole network.
In the third story, “Nightfall“, the router explorers find themselves trapped by yet more malign aliens in a variety of virtual spaces. In time, they realize the virtual reaities are being hosted by a Matrioshka brain – a megastructure built around a star (similar to a Dyson’s Sphere) composed of computronium. The builders of this brain seem to have disappeared (or been destroyed by their own creations), leaving an anarchy ruled by sentient, viral corporations and scavengers who attempt to use newcomers as currency.
With Aineko’s help, the crew finally escapes by offering passage to a “rogue alien corporation” (a “pyramid scheme crossed with a 419 scam”), represented by a giant virtual slug. This alien personality opens a powered route out, and the crew begins the journey back home after many decades of being away.
Part III, Singularity, things take place back in the Solar System from the point of view of Sirhan – the son of the physical Amber and Sadeq who stayed behind. In “Curator“, the crew of the Field Circus comes home to find that the inner planets of the Solar System have been disassembled to build a Matrioshka brain similar to the one they encountered through the router. They arrive at Saturn, which is where normal humans now reside, and come to a floating habitat in Saturn’s upper atmosphere being run by Sirhan.
The crew upload their virtual states into new bodies, and find that they are all now bankrupt and unable to compete with the new Economics 2.0 model practised by the posthuman intelligences of the inner system. Manfred, Pamela, and Annette are present in various forms and realize Sirhan has summoned them all to this place. Meanwhile, Bailiffs—sentient enforcement constructs—arrive to “repossess” Amber and Aineko, but a scheme is hatched whereby the Slug is introduced to Economics 2.0, which keeps both constructs very busy.
In “Elector“, we see Amber, Annette, Manfred and Gianna (Manfred’s old political colleague) in the increasingly-populated Saturnian floating cities and working on a political campaign to finance a scheme to escape the predations of the “Vile Offspring” – the sentient minds that inhabit the inner Solar System’s Matrioshka brain. With Amber in charge of this “Accelerationista” party, they plan to journey once more to the router network. She loses the election to the stay-at-home “conservationista” faction, but once more the Lobsters step in to help by offering passage to uploads on their large ships if the humans agree to act as explorers and mappers.
In the third and final chapter, “Survivor“, things fast-forward to a few centuries after the singularity. The router has once again been reached by the human ship and humanity now lives in space habitats throughout the Galaxy. While some continue in the ongoing exploration of space, others (copies of various people) live in habitats around Hyundai and other stars, raising children and keeping all past versions of themselves and others archived.
Meanwhile, Manfred and Annette reconcile their differences and realize they were being manipulated all along. Aineko, who was becoming increasingly intelligent throughout the decades, was apparently pushing Manfred to fulfill his schemes to help bring the humanity to the alien node and help humanity escape the fate of other civilizations that were consumed by their own technological progress.
Needless to say, this book was one big tome of big ideas, and could be mind-bendingly weird and inaccessible at times! I’m thankful I came to it when I did, because no one should attempt to read this until they’ve had sufficient priming by studying all the key concepts involved. For instance, don’t even think about touching this book unless you’re familiar with the notion of the Technological Singularity. Beyond that, be sure to familiarize yourself with things like utility fogs, Dyson Spheres, computronium, nanotechnology, and the basics of space travel.
You know what, let’s just say you shouldn’t be allowed to read this book until you’ve first tackled writers like Ray Kurzweil, William Gibson, Arthur C. Clarke, Alastair Reynolds and Neal Stephenson. Maybe Vernon Vinge too, who I’m currently working on. But assuming you can wrap your mind around the things presented therein, you will feel like you’ve digested something pretty elephantine and which is still pretty cutting edge a decade or more years after it was first published!
But to break it all down, the story is essentially a sort of cautionary tale of the dangers of the ever-increasing pace of change and advancement. At several points in the story, the drive toward extropianism and post-humanity is held up as both an inevitability and a fearful prospect. It’s also presented as a possible explanation for the Fermi Paradox – which states that if sentient life is statistically likely and plentiful in our universe, why has humanity not observed or encountered it?
According to Stross, it is because sentient species – which would all presumably have the capacity for technological advancement – will eventually be consumed by the explosion caused by ever-accelerating progress. This will inevitably lead to a situation where all matter can be converted into computing space, all thought and existence can be uploaded, and species will not want to venture away from their solar system because the bandwidth will be too weak. In a society built on computronium and endless time, instant communication and access will be tantamount to life itself.
All that being said, the inaccessibility can be tricky sometimes and can make the read feel like its a bit of a labor. And the twist at the ending did seem like it was a little contrived and out of left field. It certainly made sense in the context of the story, but to think that a robotic cat that was progressively getting smarter was the reason behind so much of the story’s dynamic – both in terms of the characters and the larger plot – seemed sudden and farfetched.
And in reality, the story was more about the technical aspects and deeper philosophical questions than anything about the characters themselves. As such, anyone who enjoys character-driven stories should probably stay away from it. But for people who enjoy plot-driven tales that are very dense and loaded with cool technical stuff (which describes me pretty well!), this is definitely a must-read.
Now if you will excuse me, I’m off to finish Vernor Vinge’s Rainbow’s End, another dense, sometimes inaccessible read!
(WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!)
Just the other day, I saw the finale for season four of Game of Thrones, and it got me thinking. While the episode was hailed by some critics as the show’s best finale so far, others raised the obvious point that Thrones geeks did not fail to miss. That being the absence of Lady Stoneheart from the proceedings. In the novel, A Storm of Swords, which provided the material for seasons three and four, things ended with the appearance of a resurrected Lady Catelyn Stark, who now went by the name Lady Stoneheart.
Like most GOT geeks, I felt surprised and disappointed, a sentiment that has been echoing throughout this season. In fact, though I felt that the finale was the best episode of the season, I also had to conclude that season four was the worst season to date. And the reasons for this seemed to be pretty clear after ten episodes with some pretty consistent mistakes. So I thought I might go over them…
1. Pointless Changes that don’t go Anywhere:
One of the biggest annoyance for me this season was the fact they made some rather drastic changes to the storyline, ones which would have altered the plot significantly if they had been allowed to truly unfold. However, not wanting to get terribly off-script, the writers were then forced to tie these divergences up by making sure they didn’t have any lasting effect. As a result, we were left with sequences that were truly pointless.
The worst of the lot had to do with Theon. In the novels, Theon was presumed dead after A Clash of Kings after he was betrayed and defeated at Winterfell. He didn’t appear again until book V (A Dance with Dragons) where it was revealed that he had been Ramsay Snow’s prisoner the entire time. At this point, he is compelled by his father to use Theon to persuade the Ironborn to leave Deepwood Motte and other captured territories.
But in the show, Ramsay decides to openly advertise that he has taken Theon prisoners and is torturing him in order to persuade the Iron Islanders to leave the North. This prompts Asha Greyjoy (renamed Yara) to sail up the river and mount a rescue. This made little sense, since the Dreadfort is not reachable by river, but the real fault was in how things turned out. After finding Theon, Asha and her men are quickly dispatched when Ramsay decides to unleash his hounds.
Asha retreats, claiming her brother is dead. Not long before, she claimed that rescuing her brother was a matter of honor and an injury to him was an injury to all Ironborn. But after seeing him terrified and brainwashed, and frightened by Ramsay’s dogs, she decides to leave him to his fate. Not surprising, since there really was no other way this thread could have been resolved without seriously altering the plot down the road. But this only made the whole attempted rescue seem pointless.
Another pointless change that was clumsily resolved was Jon Snow’s mission to Craster’s Keep to kill the mutineers. In the novel, Jon only real concern at this point was the Wildling army riding to the Wall, not to mention the Wildling raiding party that was making its way towards Castle Black. The mutineers were all suspected of being dead, which made sense since Mance’s army was practically upon the Wall at this point.
Another thing, Jon did not know that Bran and Rickon were alive. And so, he didn’t venture out to Craster’s Keep in part because he figured they would be stopping here on their way further north. As a result, there was no close shave where Bran very nearly met up with Jon but then didn’t. What’s more, the fact that Jon was willing to ride out and risk running into Mance’s invading army, but would not ride south to engage Tormund and Ygritte’s raiding party made even less sense as a result.
And last, Brienne’s encounter with Arya was something that never happened in the books, and therefore necessitated that it end in a way that didn’t violate the plot. This one they actually did pretty well, in my opinion. Not only was the fight between Brienne and the Hound well executed, but it even made a bit of a sense that Arya would choose not to go with her and slip off, for fear that Brienne was working for the Lannisters. Still, it was a made up addition, and one which has to be included since it necessitated a contrived resolution.
At the same time, there were additions to the story that never happened in the books and were pure filler. And in just about all cases, it involved the same threads – Theon and Jon Snow in the North, Daenerys in Slaver’s Bay, and Stannis and co. at Dragonstone. In just about all instances, the writer’s were scrambling for stuff for these characters to do because their storylines were exhausted at this point in the book and did not come upon again until book V, which required that material from that book be brought forward and used.
For instance, Roose Bolton did not concern himself with the whereabouts Bran, Rickon, or Jon Snow upon returning from the Red Wedding. His only concern was cementing his rule by having his son marry a Stark and be declared legitimate, which meant that he never sent Locke to the Wall to find them and kill anybody. And so, Locke’s attempted murder of Bran, his death at the hands of Hodor, and the plot to kill the last of the Starks was entirely made up.
Much the same holds true for Daenerys entire storyline after the sack of Mereen. Having proceeded to cover her sack of Slaver’s Bay in a very speedy and topical way, the writer’s of the show were now left with a very important thread where the characters essentially had nothing to do. As a result, they mined material from book V to keep her busy, or just threw in some added material that never happened in the novels and really accomplished nothing.
In the former case, this included Daenerys’ affair with Daario Naharis and her learning that Drogo has killed a herders child, thus prompting her to lock her dragons up beneath one of the city’s pyramids. In the latter, it involved the relationship between Grey Worm and Missandei, which makes little sense seeing as how he is an Unsullied and completely castrated. But to confound this, the writer’s decided that Missandei was suddenly unclear as to whether or not the Unsullied’s castration involved both the “pillar and the stones”.
Much the same held true for Stannis’ thread this season. After being defeated at the Battle of Blackwater, very little was heard from Stannis until his forces appeared in the North and overran Mance Rayder’s Wildling army. However, to ensure he had something to do, the writer’s added many superfluous scenes where we simply see him and his people droning on about very little. And, similar to what they did with Daenerys, they even mined material from book V where Stannis meets with representatives from the Iron Bank.
In the novels, the representatives came to Stannis only after he had come to the Wall and routed Mance’s army. The reason being, Lord Tywin was dead, Cersei was in charge of King’s Landing, and she had made it clear that they would not be making payments to the bank just yet. Ergo, the Iron Bank was backing her enemies to ensure that whoever won would make good on the Thrones massive debts. So basically, they took material that happened later, changed it, and moved it forward to keep Stannis’ story going.
The same held true for Stannis’ decision to sacrifice a child of royal blood so Missandre’s could divine the future. This wasn’t to happen until he reached the Wall, and involved entirely different people than Gendry (who was gone from the story at this point). Here too, the material was moved forward and altered just so the character remained in the show.
3. Boring and Superfluous:
Something else that kept popping up for me this season was the endless array of short scenes with pointless talk, the prolonged scenes with pointless talk, and the scenes that tried to be dramatic but were just filled with superfluous stuff. This I generally filed under the heading of “filler”, and there was some crossover with stuff in item two. Still, I felt that it deserved its own category since there was quite a lot of it.
For example, the episode The Mountain and the Viper was one of the most anticipated of the season, and the fight scene that provided the climax was quiet awesome. However, everything leading up to it was some of the most boring material I’ve seen in years. This included Missandei and Grey Worm carrying on like teenagers, Tyrion talking endlessly before the fight about his simple cousin for no apparent reason, and a slew of other scenes in the North or Slaver’s Bay.
Much the same was true of Daenerys’ siege of Mereen in episodes five and six. What was essentially a major undertaking in the books was covered in three short scenes in the show. It begins with the fight between Daario (it was actually Strong Belwas in the books) and Mereen’s champion, which ended far too quickly. Then the siege itself which involved them throwing barrels filled with broken chains in, and then a quick sneak attack that opened the next episode.
Speaking of which, episode five, Breaker of Chains – what can you say about an episode where just about the only scene of consequence is a rape scene? Seriously, what were the writers thinking with that? It was completely different from what happened in the books, was ugly and unnecessary, and was the only point of interest in an episode that had nothing but after-the-fact dialogue and a slow, plodding pace to it.
4. No Stoneheart!:
But by far, the biggest inexplicable change this season was the absense of Lady Stoneheart (aka. Catelyn Stark) at the end of the season. Not only was she introduced at the end of the third book to preview what was coming in the next two volumes, it also provided a surprise ending that shocked readers and gave them hope. After getting away with bloody murder, it now seemed that the Freys were going to pay for their crimes! But first, a little explanation as to how Catelyn was up and walking again…
Basically, Catelyn became Stoneheart after she was murdered at the Red Wedding and her body cast into the river to float downstream, where it washed up and was found by the Brotherhood Without Banners. There, Beric Dondarion begged Thoros of Myr to use his Red Priest magic to bring her back to life, as he had done with Ser Beric so many times now. However, Thoros was tired of playing God and refused, which led Beric to kiss Lady Catelyn on the lips and pass his life force to her.
Tired of being brought back from the dead, he decided he would let the magic which had resurrected him many times bring her back. Ser Beric died on that riverbank, and Lady Catelyn came back – albeit in a scarred, muted form. Not only did she have a hideous scar on her throat and a bloated face, she was also functionally mute. And she was some pissed, and sought revenge against the Freys for their betrayal. As such, she now led the Brothers through the Riverlands to find all those who had betrayed her family and execute them.
So the question is, why was she left out? Well, Alex Graves, who has directed several pivotal episodes of show, commented on this and other issues after the final episode of the season aired:
They [showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss] have such a challenge adapting the books into a really focused television experience. It’s very hard, it’s very complicated, it’s much harder then they’ve been given credit for, I think — and they do a brilliant job. But to bring back Michelle Fairley, one of the greatest actresses around, to be a zombie for a little while — and just kill people? It is really sort of, what are we doing with that? How does it play into the whole story in a way that we’re really going to like? It just didn’t end up being a part of what was going to happen this season. And finally one [more] reason: In case you didn’t notice, a lot happens this season … To add that in is something they opted out of. But what’s funny is that it was never going to be in the season, yet it took off on the Internet like it was going to happen.
Wait, so they didn’t want to show Catelyn as a zombie and because they were too busy with other things? Well okay, except that she’s NOT a walking corpse, she’s a reanimated, living being, who just happens to look a bit the worse for wear. As for the latter explanation, that they were busy, this sort of makes sense since they chose to change things in the final episode where Brienne and the Hound fight it out. But as I said, that never happened in the books and it also served little purpose.
So if Graves is saying they chose to forgo a major plot point to focus on something that, while fun to watch, really didn’t effect the story, I would have to check my BS meter. As for whether or not Lady Stoneheart will be appearing in the next season, the director basically said that this was up to the writers and they were not being forthcoming on that point:
As somebody who’s worked deep inside the show, begged to have an answer and wants more than anybody, I have no idea. They won’t tell me. They’re very good at being secretive.
Hmm, so Lady Stoneheart may or may not be making an appearance in the next season, huh? There’s just one problem with that. SHE HAS TO! She’s an integral part of the plot as far as the next chapter in the story – A Feast for Crows – goes. To leave her out would be to leave a big, gaping plot hole where Brienne and Jaime’s story threads are concerned. I mean, its one thing to not bring her back just so she won’t be appearing for a few minutes at the tail end of a season. But to leave her out entirely when her character is central? That’s just plain weak.
But that wasn’t the last thing Graves commented on as far as this season’s finale and future shows were concerned. Fans also wanted to know if that semi-tragic scene involving the Hound was in fact his stand. Graves was strongly suggested that it was:
As far as The Hound, as I told the story … he’s gone. How is he going to survive that? The real point of it was that she walks away, it wasn’t that it’s left open ended.
Yet another problem. In the original novels, when Brienne came to the Riverlands and began tracking down leads, she was told that the Hound had been spotted and was carrying a Stark with him. Initially, Brienne thought it might be Sansa, but later learned it was Arya that was with him, and that she left the Hound to die underneath a tree on the Trident. But later on, reports began to circulate that the Hound was in fact not dead, and had been spotted on the move once again in the Riverlands.
Honestly, Graves’ guesswork on these topics makes it sound like he really isn’t familiar with the source material. But to be fair, only Martin knows for sure if the Hound is coming back, so announcing things either way at this point would be premature.
Of course, its easy to pass judgement of television writers for making changes from original material. And Graves was right when he said that the writing team have their work cut out for them and are working hard to bring George RR Martin’s novels to life. But the problems this season seemed to stem from one central thing: they split the book in half. While this seemed logical since it was clear they couldn’t possibly make all of A Storm of Swords fit into one season, the decision to split it into two meant they didn’t have enough materiel for this season.
After all, ASOS is one of the most eventful and shocking installments in the series, and ten episodes simply wasn’t enough to cover the Red Wedding, Joffrey’s Wedding, Tyrion’s trial and escape, the battle at Castle Black, Mance’s assault on the Wall, Stannis’ assault on the North, and Daenerys’ sacking of the cities of Slaver’s Bay. But twenty episodes was too much, which meant the writers had to make stuff up, take stuff from the next books, or just expand what they had to make it fit.
And the result was a season with some bad parts to it. Still, there were plenty of highlights too. Joffrey’s wedding and his death scene was some pretty good viewing, Tyrion’s trial did not disappoint, the fight between Prince Oberyn and the Mountain was badass, the battle at the Wall was hectic, and the Hound’s (supposed) death scene was quite well done. And the finale was one of the better episodes in the series, and perhaps one of the better finales as well.
And the additions, though they went nowhere, weren’t all bad. In fact, the only thing I would say was done poorly this season was the entire Daenerys thread, which gravitated between boring and superficial. I mean, the woman’s leading an army through the entire Slaver’s Bay and conquering cities! Why did they skim these things so quickly and then give her nothing but boring administrative duties for the rest of the season? Budgets? …ah, maybe.
In any case, I will be watching next season, and look forward to what they will be doing with it. Thanks to how George RR Martin wrote books IV and V (A Feast for Crows, A Dance with Dragons), we will be seeing aspects of both books presented simultaneously, but there will be enough material for two seasons this time. Which is good, seeing as how Martin needs time to produce book VI – The Winds of Winter – which will inevitably provide the basis for season seven.
Yeah, the man’s wheels grind slow, and exceedingly bloody! Until next season folks…