Redemption Ark

Continuing with the Alastair Reynold’s series is the second book in the Revelation Space universe, otherwise known as Redemption Ark. Released in 2002, just two years after the debut novel in the series, this book picked up where the previous story left off, continuing the story of the known universe, the Inhibitors, and the coming crisis where they would attempt to wipe out humanity.

While this alone was certainly a basis for an exciting novel, this second installment also included a lot of additional elements, such as a protracted war between the Demarchists and the Conjoiners, the inner workings of these and other factions, what life is like in the “Rust Belt” – the ring of satellites and orbital stations around Yellowstone – and some added secrets and twists that make it all more interesting.

Out of the three books that make up this trilogy – Revelation Space, Redemption Ark, and Absolution Gap – this one is definitely my favorite. While it was certainly no less interesting and detailed than the first, it was far less convoluted in terms of plot and expanded on some key elements. And ultimately, I found it more entertaining in terms of its pacing and action, and its characters were indeed more relatable than in the first.

Plot Synopsis:
The story opens in 2605 with a major discovery being made. After generations of being unheard from, Galiana (the woman who founded the Conjoiners) returns from deep space. Her vessel was apparently set upon by a mysterious force, square-sized segments of the ship are missing, and all aboard appear to be dead. All save for Galiana herself who is in cryosleep and appears to be suffering from the intrusion of an alien mind. After investigating the ship, Skade, a special operative for the Conjoiner faction, contact is made with Galiana herself.

It is then revealed that the alien force which attacked their ship, and now controls Galiana herself, was none other than the Inhibitors. They now are able to speak through her, and Galiana asks to be killed. Skade however puts her in suspended animation in the hopes that she can he helped, and so they can get more information out of the Inhibitor influence later… Skade herself appears to be communing with hidden voices, which belong to the Night Council, a super secret organization within the Conjoiner leadership that runs spec ops.

Fast forward to ten years later around Yellowstone, where a war is taking place between the Conjoiner faction and the Demarchists. After many generations of cooperation to restore Chasm City from the terrible effects of the Melding Plague, tensions have reached a crisis point and a constant state of war has been in effect ever since. Here we see Neville Clavain, a high-ranking military officer who defected to the Conjoiners centuries back.

In the course of a battle, Clavain comes into contact with a Yellowstone cosmonaut named Antoinette Bax, who nearly loses her ship while attempting to bury her father in the system’s gas giant, Tangerine Dream. After saving her ship, Clavain lets her know that if he sees her again, she’s dead, thus establishing that they most surely will! After taking down the Demarchist ship, he also finds a Hyperpig (a race of human-pig hybrids) who was apparently their prisoner. He also meets with Felka, Galiana’s gifted daughter whom he believes might be his as well.

Clavain is then brought to the Mother’s Nest, the Conjoiner hive, where he is asked to join the Conjoiners leadership, a decision he has been resisting until now. Skade informs him about the Inhibitors, and how there presence necessitates that they undertake a mission to reclaim the lost Conjoiner doomsday weapons. These weapons just happen to be the ones that appeared in the first novel, which are the current property of Volyova and the Nostalgia for Infinity.

The first step in the mission involves taking Clavain to see the fleet of advanced starships that the Conjoiners have been building in secret. Skade claims that the weapons and ships will be used to defend humanity against the Inhibitors, but Clavain is convinced that they will actually be used simply to evacuate the Conjoiners and abandon the rest of humanity. She confirms this when he begins a daring escape, saying only that “It’s a Darwinian universe, Clavain.” Clavain then travels to Yellowstone to defects to the Demarchists and spread the news of the Inhibitors, enlisting Antoinette Bax’s help to escape the pursuing Conjoiners under Skade. Told ya they’d see each other again!

Remontoire, a member of the Conjoiner leadership and old friend of Clavain’s pursues him to Yellowstone with Scorpio. However, once they reach Yellowstone, they are captured, along with Clavain and Antoinette, by a mysterious figure known as “H”. He takes them into his compound, which happens to the be the Mademoiselle old hangout, and tells them the truth of their situation. H reveals that many years previous, Skade participated in a raid into Chasm City to capture secrets that would lead to the development of inertia suppression technology.

He believes that at that time, she was subverted by the Mademoiselle herself, who happens to be the voice that’s inside her head. Clavain reveals Skade’s plans for the Conjoiner fleet and the cache weapons, and H agrees to help him beat Skade to them. H supplies ships and his own version of the inertial suppression technology, while Scorpio supplies an army of hyper-pigs for the pursuit. They name the ship the Zodiacal Light, in honor of a ship that holds significance to Scorpio.

Meanwhile, on Resurgam in 2665, Ilya Volyova and Ana Khouri have adopted aliases and are working on the planet. They have learned the Inhibitors have arrived and are busy dismantling several rocky moons and are moving the components towards the system’s gas giant, Roc. They begin collaborating with the local resistance leader, Thorn, who has been attempting to evacuate the planet by communicating with the Nostalgia, which is now under Captain Brannigan’s direct control. Thanks to the Melding Plague, he has now merged with the ship.

They begin the evacuation while the Inhibitors continue building their mysterious weapon, which appears to be a large gravitational device which they use to sheer the system’s sun to pieces. Unfortunately, their limited resources are only moving a few thousand people at a time. Volyova decides to deploy the Nostalgia’s cache weapons against the Inhibitor’s weapon to buy more time.

However, her efforts are upset a little when the Captain, in control of the ship and the weapons, attempts to use one to “commit suicide” by blowing the Nostalgia apart. Overwrought by guilt over everything he’s done to survive, he tries to end it all, but Volyova’s quick intervention stops him. By positioning her shuttle between the Nostalgia and the cache weapon, her shuttle is sliced in half and she is nearly killed. However, she is successful in getting the Captain to stop and he agrees to abide by her decisions.

Skade and Clavain then race to the Resurgam system employing various creative long-distance strategies against each other and pushing their vessels to higher and higher speeds. Eventually, Skade’s vessel is damaged in an attempt to exceed the speed of light. Clavain and crew arrive in the Zodiacal Light ready to recover the cache weapons. They begin communicating with the Nostalgia via a beta-level simulation of Clavain, but the efforts prove futile. Volyova refuses to hand them over and Clavain and friends are not willing to leave without them.

A shooting fight begins between the two sides when both ships come together. Clavain’s superior forces capture Nostalgia for Infinity, although Volyova is able to damage Zodiacal Light with one of the cache weapons. At a bit of a stalemate, Negotiations resume and the two sides come to terms. The evacuation is completed with the help of Clavain’s forces and the Nostalgia while Volyova, who is dying of her injuries, takes half of the cache weapons and attacks the Inhibitors in the Storm Bird, to no effect. Remontoire and Khouri remain in the system in the Zodiacal Light to try and contact Dan Sylveste in the Hades Matrix in hope that he will be able to supply information that can be used to fight the Inhibitors.

The Nostalgia then crosses paths with Skade’s ship again, which they rig to explode. But before this happens, Skade reveals the true plan and how they knew about the Inhibitors in advance. It seems that the Conjoiners began a project many centuries back known as Exordium, which involved the use of quantum computers to communicate across time and universes. This led them to the creation of the Conjoiner drives, but also to the Inhibitors impending attack. As a result, they began developing the cache weapons for the day when they showed up, but knew that even these wouldn’t be enough. This prompted them to develop the special fleet to escape to deep space.

In the end, Clavain and his team are unable to convince Skade that she’s being manipulated and learn that Galiana’s body is on Skade’s ship. But since she wants to die, he decides to detonate it once they are at a safe distance. Clavain mourns her death, since they were lovers, and the ship finds its way to a Pattern Juggler planet where they set down and begin building a tentative colony. Things seem bleak, until Felka reveals that she’s seen the planet before. Before dying, her mother showed her things, which included a vision of this place. She knows then that they are exactly where they need to be and takes heart from that. From this planet, they await the arrival of Khouri, Remontoire and the Zodiacal Light to catch up so they can continue the fight against the Inhibitors.

Good Points:
Like I said before, this book had a lot going for it that was new and interesting. One of the most important was the asides made by the Inhibitors themselves, which revealed their deeper intentions. Not only are they trying to inhibit the growth of space faring intelligence to prevent another Dawn War, but the inevitability of Andromeda’s Galactic Collision with the Milky Way is another reason. When this happens, the disturbance will cause untold destruction, especially to any civilizations inhabiting either galaxy. The only way to prevent trillions of deaths is to ensure that either no space-faring species are around at the time, or that one super-advanced one was in place to control the entire galaxy. Since the latter is so unlikely, they chose to opt for the former.

Also, the war between the Conjoiners and the Demarchists was an interesting touch. It provided some added excitement to the early chapters and some intrigue to the evolving story. Not that much was needed, given the plot involving the Inhibitors and the mounting crisis with them. Still, it was a nice addition. The glimpse inside Conjoiner society and the way they brought back characters from the earlier short stories, crossing them with this main plot line, also provided a lot of meat and consistency to the larger universe.

And last, there is the consistent theme of this novel. Whereas the first focused on revelation, this one was all about redemption. It was a fitting theme for the second book after everything that had taken place in the first. The misdeeds of Sylveste in his long search for answers, the crimes of Captain Brannigan in his quest for immortality, and even of Volyova in her drive to see his plans through. In the end, all things come together in this story with a drive to do something right in the midst of all the fear and chaos being wrought.

Which brings me to a part of the story which I am now kind of mixed on, meaning it was something I didn’t like about the story until after I realized the significance. The character of H, who appears on Yellowstone and provides some serious motivation to the plot. Initially, I had no idea who he was and saw his introduction as a total contrivance to the story. Not only did he know too much and have all the answers, he seemed to come out of nowhere. As plot twists go, this seemed like just another unnecessary one.

However, it was in reading Chasm City, a prequel to which was released between books one and two, that I realized who he was. Sky Haussmann, who is an important background character, was detailed in that novel and wound up on Yellowstone becoming an influential figure. It was he who killed the Mademoiselle and ended up inheriting her secrets and her empire, thereafter becoming known only as “H” to hide his identity. And it was fitting, since he too wanted redemption and found it by helping Clavain and his friends, and even attempted to commit suicide himself when it was all done.

Ah, which brings me to the weakness of this book, which bear some resemblance to all of Reynold’s other works.

Bad Points:
Once again, there are the excessive plot twists that just seem to keep coming and seem unnecessary. After all that is revealed in the early chapters, the book seemed perfectly packed with enough plot twists and revelations to keep the reader interested. However, in the later chapters, there are more which just seem to convolute things. For instance, Bax learns that her ship, Storm Bird, contains the AI of a man who was her father’s friend, and also a infamous because of an accident which apparently claimed his life. Facing death, and hoping to find a dignified end for his friend, he programmed the ship with his beta-level simulation to look after her. A nice story, a touching one even, but including it at that point in the story seemed too much and happened too late in the story.

Another is Exordium. While it was a very interesting concept and did provide some synthesis and some added background to the story, it was yet another 11th hour revelation that felt unnecessary. It was enough to know that Galiana had come back from deep space with a warning ten years previous, they really didn’t need to know about this generations back. That discovery alone would have been enough to motivate the creation of the secret fleet, the cache weapons and all the rest. And if time frames were an issue, Reynolds could have just made it happen sooner.

Last, but certainly not least, was the twist where it is revealed that the Night Council is in fact the Mademoiselle. What purpose did this twist serve, other than to involve the Mademoiselle from the first story? In that book, her agenda was clear. She was a Demarchist of great wealth and power who wanted Sylveste dead because of what he did to her. But now, what motivation did she have for infiltrating the Conjoiners or possessing the inertia suppressing technology? And, more importantly, what’s her agenda vis a vis the Inhibitors? Learning about them is understandable, but the agenda involving escaping into deep space and all, how’s that serve her interests? If anything, she would be trying to get her to help protect Yellowstone, where she presumably still is, not abandon it.

Really, it would have been much more plausible to actually have had a Night Council and have them being the motivating force behind Skade’s actions regarding the Inhibitors. It would have been a plausible angle involving covert conspiracies versus democratic considerations, like how the tiny executive council wants to save the Conjoiners and is keeping it a secret because they know the Council will object to such a selfish, Darwinian plan. These same people could become a problem later after Clavain and his friends defected, even coming after them later.

But like I said, this book was a worthy read, even more so than the first. It’s hard sci-fi and classic elements, and consistent themes of ancient aliens and worthy deeds in the face of impending doom – these all added up to a good story. And of course, Reynold’s usual stylistic touch, involving lots of cool technology, rich worlds, and his gothic, cyberpunk feel. It’s just cool! In keeping with why I picked it up in the first place, I highly recommend this book for those looking to learn more about current science fiction trends and what makes them popular.

More Utopian Science Fiction

Boy this is fun, and like I said last time, overdue! For fans of literature and science fiction in particular, you really can’t do justice to a genre unless you examine its opposite as well. Not only is it fun and interesting, it kind of opens your eyes to the fact that we find a certain truth in the pairing of opposites.

For one, you come to see that they really aren’t that different. And two, that they essentially come from the same place. Much like light and dark, black and white, heaven and hell, extremes have more in common with each other than anything occupying the space between them. Is that quote? If not, it is now! MINE!

Last time, I buckled down to tackle the big names, the famous classics. Today, I thought I’d cast the net a little wider since there are a ton I missed and there really is no shortage of examples. Here’s what I got so far:

3001: The Final Odyssey:
The final book in Clarke’s Odyssey series, 3001 not only provided a sense of culmination to this epic story, but also gave Clarke the opportunity to share his predictions on where humanity would be by the 31st century. Released in 1997, it also contained a great deal of speculation about the coming millennium and what the 21st century would look like.

The story begins when, just shy of the millennial celebrations, the body of Frank Poole is discovered at the edge of the solar system. This astronaut, who died in the first novel, had been floating at the far edge of the solar system for almost a thousand years. His body is resurrected using the latest technology, and his reintroduction to society is the vehicle through which things are told.

As a fish out of water, Poole is made privy to all the changes that have taken place in the last 1000 years. Humanity now lives throughout the solar system, Earth and most planets are orbited by massive rings that connect to Earth through huge towers. Sectarian religion has been abandoned in favor of a new, universal faith, and the problems of overpopulation, pollution and war have all been solved.

Amongst humanity’s technological marvels are inertia drives on their ships (no FTL exists), a form of holodeck, genetically engineered work creatures, skull caps that transmit info directly into a person’s brain, data crystals, and of course the massive space habitation modules. Though the story was meant to be predictive for the most part, one cannot deny that this book contained utopian elements. Essentially, Clarke advanced his usual futurist outlook, in which humanity’s problems would be solved through the ongoing application of technology and progress.

Though I found it somewhat naive at the time of reading, it was nevertheless an interesting romp, especially where the predictive aspects came into play. And it also contained one of the best lines I’ve ever read, a New Years toast for the 21st century which I quoted on midnight on Dec. 31st, 1999: “Here’s to the 20th century. The best, and worst, century of them all!”

Brave New World:
I  know, BNW is listed as one of the quintessential dystopian novels of our time, and I even listed as such on my list of dystopian classics. However, one cannot deny that this book also contained very strong utopian elements and themes, and it was how these failed to remedy the problem of being human that ultimately made BNW a dystopia.

Set in the year 2540 CE (or 632 A.F. in the book), the World State is very much the product of utopian engineering. Literally all aspects of social control, which are largely benign, are designed to ensure that all people are born and bred to serve a specific role, cannot aspire beyond it, and are emotionally and psychologically insulated against unhappiness.

In short, people have exchanged their freedom for the sake of peace, order, and predictability. In fact, these ideals are pretty much summed up with the States motto: “Community, Identity, Stability.” Another indication is the popular slogan, “everyone belongs to everyone else”. And finally, the orgy porgy song provides some insight as well: “Orgy-porgy, Ford and fun, Kiss the girls and make them One. Boys at one with
girls at peace; Orgy-porgy gives release.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself. The goal of creating oneness and sameness to prevent things like greed, jealousy, war, and strife, is a constant theme in utopian literature, elevated to the form of high art in Huxley’s vision. And above all, the dream of a perfectly regulated, peaceful society, where individuality and difference have been purged, was accomplished through pleasure and not pain. This can best be summed up in an exerpt from Huxley’s letter to Orwell after 1984 was released:

“Within the next generation I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience. In other words, I feel that the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in Brave New World.”

I, Robot:
In the course of examining utopian literature, a term came up with made me stop and think… Robotocracy. Hence this next example which also contains some rather interesting utopian elements. As one of Asimov’s most recognized works, this collection of interlinked short stories tells of a future where intelligent robots make their debut and gradually become more and more integrated to society.

Ultimately, Asimov portrays AI’s as loyal and gentle creatures who not only improve the lot of humanity, but are incapable of harming their human masters. Whereas most speculative works of fiction dealing with AI’s are cautionary in nature, showing how entrusting our fate to machines will result in death, in this story, all of humanity’s fears prove baseless.

In time, the employment of robots and positronic master computers leads to the development of FTL, optimizes the world’s economy and production, and even prevents problems and conflicts which they can foresee. Human beings express reservation and fear, but in the end, the robotocracy proves to be sensible and caring, not cold and inhuman.

It was for this reason that I didn’t care for the film adaptation. Not only would a repressive, world-domination plan contradict the first and most important of the Three Laws (a robot may not harm, or through inaction, allow to be harmed, a human), it really didn’t contain any inherent logic. How would putting humans under house arrest ultimately ensure their protection? With all humans deprived of their most basic rights, revolution would be inevitable, leading to more death. Ah, whatever. At least the book was good.

Also written by Aldous Huxley, this novel (published in 1962) represented a possible resolution to the central problem he raised in Brave New World. Essentially, the protagonist of John the Savage committed suicide at the end because he could not reconcile himself to either world, one characterized by primitive freedom and the other by civilized sterility.

In the foreword section of the 1946 edition, Huxley expressed regret over the fact that he could not have given John a third option, which could have taken the form of the various exile communities where the thinking people who didn’t fit in with the “civilization” of the World State were sent.

Hence the setting of Island, a utopia created on the fictional island of Pala. Told from the point of view of a cynical journalist named Will Farnaby who gets shipwrecked on the island, the story was Huxley’s final book and a message to humanity about possible third options and the positive application of technology and knowledge.

As Huxley decribed it beforehand: “In this community economics would be decentralist and Henry-Georgian, politics Kropotkinesque co-operative. Science and technology would be used as though, like the Sabbath, they had been made for man, not (as at present and still more so in the Brave New World) as though man were to be adapted and enslaved to them. This last sentence is especially important in reference to Island. Here, drug use, trance states, contraception, assisted reproduction and slogans are all used voluntarily and serve the purposes of learning and social betterment. They are not employed as a means to pacify and control people.

What’s more, from a social perspective, Huxley characterized Pala’s prevailing philosophy as:  “a kind of Higher Utilitarianism, in which the Greatest Happiness principle would be secondary to the Final End principle – the first question to be asked and answered in every contingency of life being: “How will this thought or action contribute to, or interfere with, the achievement, by me and the greatest possible number of other individuals, of man’s Final End?”

The Culture Series:
Created by sci-fi author Ian M. Banks, “The Culture” refers to the fictional interstellar anarchist, socialist, and utopian society that characterizes his novels. Encompassing ten novels – beginning with Consider Phlebas (1987) and concluding with The Hydrogen Sonata (slated for release in October 2012), Banks paints the picture of a universe where humanity has created a peaceful, stable and abundant society through the application of technology.

Told predominantly from the point of view of those who operate at the fringes of The Culture, the stories focus on the interactions of these utopian humans with other civilizations. Much in the same way as Star Trek follows the adventure of the Enterprise crew as they deal with alien cultures, often ones which are less developed or evolved, this provides a vehicle for examining humanity’s current predicament and providing possible solutions.

Overall, The Society is best characterized as post-scarcity, where advanced technologies provide practically limitless material wealth and comfort, where almost all physical constraints – including disease and death – have been eliminated, and the concept of possessions are outmoded. Through all of this, an almost totally  egalitarian, stable society has been created where compulsion or force are not needed, except as a means of self-defense.

At times however, The Culture has been known to interfere with other civilizations as a means of spreading their culture and affecting change in their neighbors. This has often been criticized as an endorsement of neo-conservatism and ethnocentrism on Banks part. However, Banks has denied such claims and many of his defenders claim that The Culture’s moral legitimacy is far beyond anything the West currently enjoys. Others would point out that this potential “dark side” the The Culture is meant to reflect the paradox of liberal societies at home and their behavior in foreign affairs.

The Mars Trilogy:
This ground-breaking trilogy by Kim Stanley Robertson about the colonization and terraforming of Mars is also a fine example of utopia in literature. taking place in the not-too-distant future, the trilogy begins with the settlement of the planet in Red Mars and then follows the exploits of the colonists as they begin transforming from a barren rock to a veritable second Earth.

Even though there are numerous dark elements to the story, including civil strife, internal divisions, exploitation and even assassination, the utopian elements far outweigh the dystopian ones. Ultimately, the focus is on the emergence of a highly advanced, egalitarian society on Mars while Earth continues to suffer from the problems of overpopulation, pollution and ecological disaster.

In addition, the colony of Mars benefits from the fact that its original inhabitants, though by no means all mentally stable and benevolent people, were nevertheless some of the best and brightest minds Earth had produced. As a result, and with the help of longevity treatments, Mars had the benefit of being run by some truly dedicated and enlightened founders. What’s more, their descendents would grow up in a world where stability, hard work, and a respect for science, technology and ecology were pervasive.

All of this reflects Robertson’s multifaceted approach to story writing, where social aspirations and problems are just as important as the technological and economic aspects of settling a new world. Much like the conquest and settlement of the New World gave rise to various utopian ideals and social experiments, he speculates that the settlement of new planets will result in the same. Technology still plays an important role of course, as the colonists of Mars have the benefit of taking advantage of scientific advancements while simultaneously avoiding the baggage of life on Earth. In the end, there’s just something to be said about a fresh start isn’t there?

The Night’s Dawn Trilogy:
Written by British author Peter F. Hamilton, The Night’s Dawn Trilogy consists of three science fiction novels: The Reality Dysfunction (1996), The Neutronium Alchemist (1997), and The Naked God (1999). Much like Robertson’s depiction of humanity in the Mars Trilogy, Hamilton explores humanity’s dark side at length, and yet the tone of his novels are predominantly optimistic.

Set in a distant 27th century, humanity has become divided between two major factions. On the one side there are the Edenists, an egalitarian, utopian society who employ biotech (“biteck” in their lingo) to create living, sentient space stations as well as machines. The use of “Affinity” – a form of telepathy – allows them to communicate with each other and their biteck, creating a sort of mass mentality which encompasses entire communities. Thiee Edenic government is what is known as the “Consensus”, a form of direct democracy that is made possible by telepathic link.

On the one side their are the Adamists, the larger of the two where human beings live with a limited religious proscription against technology. Biteck is forbidden, but nanotechnology, FTL and other advanced applications are freely used. Because the Adamists encompass anyone not in the Edenic camp, they are larger, but far less organized and cohesive than their counterparts.

Through all this, Hamilton attempts to show  how the application of technology and the merger between biological and artificial can create the kind of society envisioned by men like Thomas More, characterized by participatory government, collective mentality, and a consensus-oriented decision-making process. While both the Edenic and Adamist societies are still pervaded by problems, not the least of which is competition between the two, the ideals of betterment through technological progress are nevertheless predominant.

Revelation Space Series:
Another series which examines the beneficial aspects of technology, particularly where governance and equality are concerned, is the Revelation Space Trilogy by Alastair Reynolds. Comprised of the five novels Revelation Space (2000), Chasm City (2001), Redemption Ark (2002), Absolution Gap (2003) and The Prefect (2007).

Taking place in the distant future (circa. 2427 to 2727), the story revolves around a series of worlds that have been settled by several different factions of humanity. The two largest factions are known as the Demarchists and the Conjoiners, both of whom have employed advanced technology to create their own versions of an ideal society.

Though much of the books are dark in tone due to the discovery of a terrible nanotechnological virus (the “Melding Plague”) and the discovery of hostile ancient aliens (the “Inhibitors”), the series still does have some discernible utopian elements. For starters, the Demarchists take their name from the concept of “Democratic Anarchy”, and employ cybernetic implants, nanotech and wireless communications to achieve this.

Within the Demarchist metropolis of Chasm City, all citizens are permanently wired into a central server which allows them permanent access to news, updates, and the decision-making process. As a result, Demarchist society is virtually egalitarian and marks of social status, such as ranks and titles, do not exist. This changed with the spread of the Melding Plague however, causing the city’s structures to degenerate into a gothic nightmare and the class divide to become very visible.

Another important faction are the Conjoiners. These people, who were originally inhabitants with the Great Wall of Mars (above left picture), but who became a star-faring people after the war with the “Coalition for Neural Purity” drove them off Mars. To these people, cybernetic implants were taken a step further, giving every Conjoined person the ability to telepathically link with others, preserve their memories beyond death, prolong their life, and enhance their natural thinking process.

Thus, much like Hamilton and Banks, Reynolds speculates that the advent of nanotech, biotech, and space travel will result in the emergence of societies that are predominantly egalitarian, peaceful, and dedicated to consensus and direct democracy. I personally found these stories quite inspiring since it seems that in many ways, we are already witnessing the birth of such possibilities in the here and now.

Yep, this is still fun, if somewhat tiring and conducive to burnout! I think I’ll be taking a break from these literary-criticism pieces for a day or two, maybe getting back to pieces on robots and cool gear. However, in keeping with the format I used for dystopia, I still have one more utopian article left to cover. Look for it, it will be called “Utopia in Popular Culture!” See ya there…

Of Planetkillers!

What is it about doomsday devices that make them simultaneously scary and freakishly cool? Oh, I don’t know. Maybe it’s the fact that they can turn an entire planet into glass, render it completely uninhabitable, or just plain blow it to smithereens? If none of these things do it for you, I suggest you stop reading now, this is what the whole post is about!

Where these ideas come from is a source of debate, but it goes without saying that apocalypticism is part of our collective unconscious. The very concept of the end of the world has worked its way into every world religion and is as intrinsic to our beliefs as creation. And I suppose that it goes without saying that since humanity began to develop weapons that could actually level entire cities, depopulate entire countrysides, or even raze whole continents, that this obsession with the end of days has expanded beyond the spiritual world and has become an everyday preoccupation.

So it’s little wonder then why science fiction writers have taken it upon themselves to come up with concepts of machines that can destroy and sterilize entire worlds. It just seems like the next logical step after anthrax and thermonuclear weapons doesn’t it? And in the course of this, some pretty cool concepts have been thought up. Here are some examples from various popular sci-fi franchises:

The Death Star:
Without a doubt, this planet killer is the best known in the business. Making its first appearance in A New Hope where it destroyed the planet Alderaan, the Death Star was a massive space station that was created to inspire fear and silence all dissent to the Emperor’s rule. At the center of this force of unrivaled terror was a massive, high-powered laser that resembled a huge eye or a massive crater on the station’s surface. A single beam from this weapon was capable of breaking planets apart and obliterating all life on the surface.

Granted, this same station was then destroyed by a ragtag group of Rebel pilots, guys in tiny fighters who knew about a tiny exhaust vent in the side. But its replacement was even more badass! The second Death Star, which appeared in Return of the Jedi boasted a laser that was capable of recharging more quickly between shots and was accurate enough to take out large vessels as well. Before being destroyed by the Rebels at the Battle of Endor, the new Death Star managed to destroy two Mon Calamari cruisers with ease.

But alas, this weapon’s fatal flaw lay in its design. Being so big, small craft were capable of penetrating its defenses and attacking its vulnerable points. In the case of the first incarnation, this involved firing torpedoes into an exhaust port which would then reach the main reactor. In the second version, there were to be no exhaust ports so the station would have no outward vulnerability. But as long as it was still under construction, the station was vulnerable and hence open to attack. And given it’s sheer size and the time it would take to complete just one, that’s a pretty big window! I guess it’s true what they say: the bigger they are…

The Vorlon/Shadow Planet Killers:
In the B5 universe, a few different types of planet killers existed, both of which were the property of the oldest races. Given the amount of energy that would be required to destroy an entire planet, it was reasoned that only ancient races like the Shadows and Vorlons would be capable of constructing such a thing. However, the younger races had their own means of leveling a planet, if not destroying it completely. This involved mass drivers, which the Centauri used in season two to hurl asteroids into the surface of the Narn homeworld, causing massive destruction and forcing the Narn to surrender. But that’s another matter. Here are what the proper examples of planet killers in the B5 universe looked like:

The Vorlon planetkiller was essentially just a massive gun that was built into a ship. The long, flattened spheroid with plenty of tentacle like things would be escorted through space, fly into position around the enemy planet, and then fire a massive energy discharge that would obliterate the entire thing. By comparison, the Shadow’s planetkiller was much more complex, not to mention insidious!

In what appeared to be a massive, black cloud, a Shadows Shroud held a massive buckminsterfullerene-like assembly that would move into position around a planet and then enclose itself around it. The assembly would then unleash a massive swarm of missiles which would bore into the surface and then detonate, releasing a massive thermonuclear payload near the core of the planet which would trigger tectonic activity that would rip the planet apart.

The former planet killer got its fair share of attention in the series proper, where the combined forces of Sheridan and Delenn’s alliance managed to destroy one only by calling in the help of the First Ones. Between all their races, only they possessed the kind of firepower that was needed in order to destroy a ship of that size. Some attention is also given to the Shadow’s Shrouds, but it wasn’t until the TV movie “A Call to Arms” came out that any in-depth explanations of how they worked or how they could be beat ever came up. In this movie, we see for the first time what the internal structure of the Shroud looks like and how the device could be defeated by attacking its nerve center. This alone would not destroy it, but would prematurely trigger it, causing it to unleash all its missiles, which would then impact and destroy the assembly itself.

The Behemoth:
This planet killer comes to us courtesy of the Wing Commander videogame and made its appearance in the third installment in the series. Much like the Vorlon planet killer, the Behemoth was essentially a big gun that was designed to blow up planets by firing a single, concentrated beam directly into its surface. Simple, and effective, were it not for the fact that the weapon suffered from some congenital defects, which included gaps in the shielding array and the fact that it had no defensive mounts anywhere along the hull.

However, given the fact that the Terran Confederation (the good guys in the story) were losing to the Kilrathi Empire (the bad guys), the weapon had to be pressed into service before it was complete. Its intended purpose was to destroy the Kilrathi homeworld, a move which they believed was the only way to win the war outright at that point. Naturally, the vessel was destroyed due to a combination of its weaknesses and high-level treason. However, the good guys still won in the end due to alternate plans and daring-do, so don’t fret!

The Transformers franchise was something I enjoyed for many years as a kid. And were it not for Michael Bay, I might have enjoyed it again as a result! But whatever… In the course of telling the story of machines that could transform to hide their true identities, one robot in particular truly stands out. Mainly because of his size! His name is Unicron, a massive machine that can transform from a robot to a planet-sized sphere, and which preys on smaller planets. A pretty cool concept, really, especially for a children’s cartoon! Unlike other planet killer devices though, Unicron was unique in that he was a sentient being, and not a simple machine that was under the control of others. His first and only appearance was in Transformers: The Movie, where he was also destroyed. He did not appear again in the course of the original series, but was mentioned several times, particularly in the CGI-animated spinoff, Beast Wars.

The Doomsday Machine:
Gene Roddenberry weighed in on the planet killer thing back in the late 60’s with his own version of a doomsday weapon. It was known simply as the Doomsday Machine, a massive, lamprey-like device that was capable of consuming entire planets into its massive maw. In the course of the episode where it makes its appearance (episode 35, of the same name), the crew of the Enterprise learns that the machine is drawn to populated worlds which it then destroys and converts into fuel so that it can keep going. The process is entirely automated, the ship itself having destroyed its masters and sterilized its own region of the universe a long time ago.

Airing in the late 60’s, the Doomsday Machine was clearly a commentary on the Cold War and the creation on doomsday weapons which were intended for use as a “deterrent”. In fact, at one point Captain Kirk theorizes that the machine was never intended for use, merely to serve as a instrument to inspire fear in an enemy. However, once it was activated, it ran amok and destroyed its enemies and those who created it. In the end, the crew manages to destroy it by (ironically) letting it ingest a ship which they rig to go thermonuclear once its inside.

Halo Array:
Gamers are no doubt familiar with this one! In the Halo universe, much of the focus is on alien artifacts which were built by a race known as the Forerunners. The Covenant, the alien antagonists in the game, believe them to be holy, particularly the Halo devices which are central to the plot. These devices, it turns out, are “weapons of last resort” which the Forerunners built to sterilize all worlds of sentient life that are within range. Their reason for this have to do with a hostile organism known as the Flood, a parasitic life form that infects sentient organisms and turns them into zombie-like creatures.

Unfortunately, the Forerunners died off shortly after concluding their war with the Flood, leaving the Halos and several other artifacts behind. In time, these were stumbled upon by the Covenant who began to reverse-engineer the devices and used them to advance significantly. In time, the Convenant came to believe that the artifacts had been left behind by a holy race and built a religion and even a theocracy around this belief.

The Halo is apparently the crowning piece of the Convent faith. They believe that activating them will lead them on the “Great Journey” (aka. entrance into the hereafter). However, the main characters in the story quickly learn that this would actually cause the destruction of Earth and every inhabited planet in the sector. Inspired by Larry Niven’s Ringworld series, the concept of the Halo devices and the thematic elements which drive the story (i.e. blind faith, theocracy, evolution and ancient alien artifacts) are all prime examples of classic science fiction. Nice to see that they make their way into the gaming world once in awhile!

The Necromongers:
The Chronicles of Riddick is yet another example of theocracy, apocalypticism, and doomsday devices. Within the context of the story, we have a faction of hostile force known as Necromongers, a faction of humanity that worships death and believes that better world (known as Underverse) lies at the edge of the known universe. Leading them is a man known as the High Marshall, a person who apparently traveled to Underverse and returned half-man, half… something else. No kidding, this is how he’s described in the movie, verbatim!

In any case, in their drive to reach the edge of the universe, the Necromongers conquer, pillage and convert every planet in their path. The final step in this process, before moving on, is the use of a planet-killing device of their own, one which leaves the planet itself intact, but destroys all remaining life on the surface. In short, after they replenish their ranks and bring in fresh converts from the conquered populace, they commit whats called the “Final Protocol” before dusting off. Basically, it involves a series of ships standing up on end and releasing payloads into the air which then explode, unleashing a massive shock wave that kills everything in its path. This process gives literal meaning to the words: “Convert, or fall forever!”

The Inhibitors:
As I final example, I have included one of my personal favorites: the hostile alien species known as the Inhibitors, which come to us from Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space universe. According to the first novel in the series, the Inhibitors are all that remains of several ancient alien races which went extinct long ago. These machines, which are semi-intelligent and automated, are programmed to seek out and destroy sentient life.

The reason for their existence apparently has to do with a series of terrible events that are collectively known as the Dawn War. This war was apparently fought by all the earliest sentient races in the Milky Way Galaxy which began shortly after they discovered each other, but which lasted for eons. Finally, what was left of the various races decided to merge their consciousness with a series of specialized machines which they then programmed to ensure that no such wars ever happened again. These machines take the form of tiny black boxes which are capable of multiplying, replicating and seem next to impossible to kill.

Ostensibly, these machines were designed to nip the development of sentient life in the bud by sterilizing any planet that supported a potentially star-faring race. In short, they were meant to inhibit the growth of sentient life, hence their name. However, in books II and III, their motivations are explained further. In addition to wanting to prevent another major war from taking place, the Inhibitors were also concerned about the eventual galactic collision which is scheduled to take place between the Andromeda and Milky Way Galaxies several million years from now. When that happens, our two galaxies will merge, but the consequences for any lifeforms living within either of them will be disastrous.

The only way to prevent this, it is said, is to either ensure the development of a single race that has the requisite technological development to resist the destruction brought on by the collision, or to inhibit the growth of any sentient species until after the collision takes place. Once the collision is complete and the galaxy returns to a state of gravitational equilibrium, life can resume, but not before. Sounds crass, but the way they see it, they are doing sentient beings a favor by making sure they don’t get off the ground, rather than letting them die by the billions when the stars all come crashing together!

In the end, these machines destroy planets through various means. In fact, much attention is given to how the Inhibitors employ a great deal of creativity in designing ways to sterilize worlds. Instead of just parking a giant gun in orbit around a planet or covering with a toxic blanket, they will use the system’s natural resources to construct tools and weapons which they will then use to take planet’s or suns apart, bit by bit. The process can take years, even centuries for them. But they plan ahead, and are very patient…

Ultimately, the Inhibitors are not defeated in the Revelation Space universe, but are beaten back, pushed to the fringes of known space where humanity fights an ongoing fight with them that lasts beyond the final novel in the series. They do this by incorporating technology from other extinct races as well as one’s that have developed extremely clever ways to survive. And like with everything else in Reynold’s universe, it all comes down to technology that is both plausible and fascinating to read about!

Well, that’s about all the planet killing I can stand for now. Sure, there are plenty more examples in the realm of sci-fi, but these are the ones that stand out for me. Plus, if I were to take the time to research and list them all, we’d both be stuck on this one post forever. Remember, it takes longer to write than it does to read! So in keeping with the theme of this post, let me leave you with some words of advice:

No matter what you’ve done, its not the end of the world. Unless it is, in which case, it probably didn’t matter anyway 😉