And I’m back with another entry in the Ten Day Book Challenge. I’ve been very bad at keeping up with these, but I am determined to share my choices for the top ten most influential books I’ve ever read. So what I lack in punctuality, I hope to make up in sincerity and selection :).
Okay, so as usual, here are the rules of this challenge:
Thank whoever nominated you with big, bold print. If they have a blog, link to the post where you got tagged there.
Explain the rules.
Post the cover of a book that was influential on you or that you love dearly.
Explain why it was so influential to you.
Tag someone else to do the challenge, and let them know they’ve been tagged.
Thanks once again to RAMI UNGAR for the nomination, and you can find him at ramiungarthewriter.com. And here’s my third selection for the challenge, the post-cyberpunk classic The Diamond Age!
This book takes place in the 21st century after the world has been fundamentally changed by the introduction of nanotechnology. If Eric K. Drexler’s book The Engine of Creation was the authoritative treatise on how nanotechnology would change our lives, The Diamond Age was definitely the fictional counterpart. In this novel, Stephenson treated fans to his usual mix of weirdness, genius, historical and social commentary, education and growth.
For me, this book remains immensely influential, not because it introduced me to the concept of nanotechnology, but because it did so in a way that had such depth. Anyone who reads this is sure to feel that this book came along at exactly the right time to offer commentary on a concept that was slowly moving from the realm of science-fiction to science fact. And as this concept becomes more and more realized, I feel that this book will become required reading for people looking to understand the evolution of nanotechnology.
But, as I said, this book went beyond mere technological commentary, and contained some very interesting thoughts on social change, historical patterns, and the role of culture in development. While I didn’t agree with everything he asserted, it was interesting to see Stephenson detail how specific cultures may go about embracing technology differently, and how the pendulum of history can swing back and forth depending on the time and place and what means are available to people.
If nothing else, it got me thinking in a very serious way, like most of his works. And it was also delightfully fun to read and inspired me as a science fiction writer to take more risks and tackle issues I felt were previously inaccessible to me. Again, I highly recommend this book.
Okay, now for my nomination. This time around, I nominate the Tousled Apostle herself and a long-time friend and colleague of mine, Jamie A. Hughes!
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.”
Plot Synopsis: 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.
Summary: 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!
It’s called a Utility Fog, swarms of networked microscopic robots that can assume the shape and texture of virtually anything. Originally proposed by J. Storrs Hall, a speculative science writer back in 1993, the concept has gone on to inspired futurists and science fiction writers for years. These include Warren Ellis’s foglets in Transmetropolitan and Neal Stephenson’s personal nanodefense systems in The Diamond Age, among others.
As an extension of the nanotechnological principle – where microscopic machines are able to self-replicate and construct just about anything – the Utility Fog idea goes a step further by proposing that we have a series of robots linked, arm and arm, to form a solid mass that can assume the shape of anything we need. Another term that is often used is “Smart Matter”, because it entails the creation of materials that are capable of responding to input, storing info, and thereby predicting what a users desires.
And since they are composed by tiny robots that could be capable of computing and networking with larger machines, they could even form interfaces that allow us to store information, send emails, or take pictures. Each “foglet” would function as its own discreet computer network, in this model, making sure that separate clouds are discernible and perform different tasks. The possibilities are truly limitless, and though it may be a few decades away at this point (by liberal estimates), we can only imagine how it will alter our daily lives.
During a recent interview with IO9, Hall reminisced about how he first came up with the idea:
“I came up with this vision of form fitting foam — one that could take on the shape of anything inside it and on the fly, which got me to wondering if we could ever possibly build something like that.”
The answer, according to Hall, came to him by considering the nascent field of molecular nanotechnology. By designing and creating objects at the molecular scale, Hall envisioned a fog that could quickly morph along with the movements of anything around it — including the passengers of cars. However, the greatest potential, to Hall lies in the creation of virtual environments. In truth, there could come a day when utility fogs will blend seamlessly with the real and virtual worlds, creating a kind of hybrid reality in between.
“You could actually push this technology to the point of creating a virtual world around you. You’d essentially get Star Trek’s holodeck — one that could actually cut you and make you bleed.You could put yourself in a virtual environment where you’re interacting with something that leads to a real environment, and it’s this interface between what’s real and virtual that will prove to be the most important thing about it.”
However, the most radical possibility could be in the field of clinical immortality. Amongst science fiction writers such as William Gibson, the idea that human beings could upload their minds into constructs and interfaces has been toyed with for some time. However, why upload your mind into a box or some kind of portable hard drive when you could render it seamlessly into the form of a fog?
“You could very realistically imagine uploading into it, and then you’d be this sort of formless data amoeba controlling this formless physical amoeba and take any size or form you wanted.”
Of course, there are limitation to the whole concept, not the least of which is the fact that the constituent components of the technology are still any decades away. For starters, there’s the ability to construct robots on the scale required, then the need to fashion computers that are small enough to fit. Then there’s the software required to program such machines. Hall figures that it could take a team of experts as much as a half decade to come up with the first set of algorithms required for the most basic functions.
“To navigate that hairy interface between the continuous and the discreet — that’s more difficult, the foglets will have to link up hands, let go, walk, crawl, and so forth — it’ll be like a three dimensional square dance.”
But above all, the main issue is one of cost:
“The system will have to be capable of keeping track of any changes to the environment and to keep track of you — and this will require incredibly sophisticated simulation, sensing, and interfacing software and that’s going to be tremendously expensive.”
Not surprising really. At this juncture in time, the greatest leaps in technology that will forever alter the future and make it impossible to predict – to a point anyway – are still highly speculative. But then again, major breakthroughs are being made all the time, and are occurring at a greater and greater pace. Who’s to say when the future will arrive. It never seems to show up on schedule!
Came across this article in Io9 recently, then again over at Scoop.it. You can tell something is important not only when it speaks to you, but when like-minded individuals begin referencing it! And if you own a blog, you definitely want to get on that! In any case, I found the list especially interesting for two reasons. One, many of the books I have already read. And two, I haven’t even heard of the rest.
I’d say a list like this is long overdue, but it’s still highly subjective isn’t it? The books we pretend we’ve read all comes down to what we consider important and relevant, not to mention popular. And even within the genre of sci-fi, I’d say that list is too big to boil down to a simple top ten. Even so, it’s interesting to read and compare, and find out just how many you’ve read yourself. So please, check this out and tell me which of these you have read and which you think you’ll want to check out:
1. Cryptonomicon: Read it! This book is Neal Stephenson’s groundbreaking piece of historical fiction, combining narratives involving World War II cryptographers with modern day IT geeks who are looking to establish a data haven in the South Pacific. The story tells the tale of a massive shipment of Nazi gold that got lost on its way to Japan, ran aground in the Philippines, and remained hidden until the late 90’s.
Personally, I loved this book because of the way it weaves history, both recent and distant, into a seamless narrative and draws all the characters into the same overarching plot. One would think that Stephenson was making a point about how we are all subjects of our shared history, but it could just be he’s that good a writer!
2. Dune: Read it thrice! In Dune, Frank Herbert draws upon an immense store of classical sci-fi themes, a grand awareness of human nature and history, and a keen grasp of ecology and the influence environment has on shaping its inhabitants to create the classic that forever established him as one of the greatest sci-fi minds of all time.
Sci-fi geeks everywhere know this one and it saddens to me to think that it’s even on this list. Anyone who’s willing to pretend that they read this book clearly considers it important, which is why they should have read it, dammit! Not only is it a classic, it’s from the guy who literally wrote the book on science fiction that was meant to be taken seriously.
3. Gravity Rainbow: Never heard of it! Apparently, the story came out in 1974 and deals with the German V2 rocket program near the end of World War II. Pat Murphy, author of The City, Not Long After and The Wild Girls, went so far as to compare this book to James Joyce, a the great Irish modernist writer who was also renowned for being brilliant and inaccessible.
In addition to be classified as enriching, it is known for being odd and hard to get through, with many authors themselves claiming to have started it several times but never being able to finish it. The plot is also rather unique, combining transgressive sexuality with the idea of total war and technological races. But one look at the dust jacket will tell you all of that, right? Crazy Germans!
4. Foundation: Read it myself, and also am somewhat sad that it made the list. Sure, the fact that it’s a classic means that just about everyone who’s eve shown the slightest interest in sci-fi would want to read it. But I can’t for the life of me understand why people would claim to have read it. Jesus, it’s not a hard read, people. And Amazon sells used copies for cheap and handles shipping. No excuses!
And having just reviewed it, I shall say nothing of the plot, except that it in many ways inspired fellow great Frank Herbert in his creation of Dune. Like Frank, Asimov combined the idea of a Galactic Empire with a keen awareness of human history, eternal recurrence, and prescient awareness.
5. Johnathon Strange & Mr. Norrell: Now this one I have heard of, but never felt compelled to pick up and read. Apparently, its size and bulk are the reason many people react the same. This 2004 book is the first novel by British writer Susanna Clarke which deals with the nature of the English character and the boundary between reason and irrationality.
Set in 19th-century England during the time of the Napoleonic Wars, the story is an alternative history that is based on the idea that at one time, magic existed in England and has thanks to the help of two men – the namesakes of the story, Jonathan Strange and Gilbert Norrell. At once interesting and speculative, it also presents the rather romantic vision of romance returning to a world increasingly characterized by modernity and cold reason.
6. 1984: Yep, read this one thrice as well! And given it’s reputation and place in the annals of literary history, I can totally see why people pretend to have read it. Oh, and let’s not forget the way people love to reference and abuse it’s message for the sake of making a quick and easy political point! But none of that excuses not reading it.
Set in an alternate history where WWIII and revolution have led to totalitarian governments in every corner of the world, the story tells the tale of one man’s quest to find answers and facts in a world permeated by lies and absolute repression. Of course, this meager description doesn’t do it justice. In the end, so much comes into play that it would take pages and pages just to provide an adequate synopsis. Suffice it to say, it’s a book that will change your life. READ IT!
7. First and Last Men and Star Maker: Another one which I’m not too sure about. Much of what is described within are concepts I have heard of in other places, and some of the content sounds familiar. Still, can’t say I’ve ever heard of Stapledon or these two works by name. But after reading about his work, I’m thinking I ought to check him out now. Tell me if you’d agree…
Published in 1930 and 1937, these two books tackled some rather broad ground. The first deals with the history of humanity, covering 18 species of humanity from the present to two billion years into the future. Based on Hegelian concept of history, humanity goes through several different types of civilizations and passes between stability and chaos over the course of it all. However, undeniable progress is made, as each civilization reaches further the last, culminating in leaps in evolution along the way.
In Star Maker, the plot revolves around a man who is able to leave his body and venture throughout the universe. He is able to merge with more minds along the way, a snowballing effect which allows him and his companions to explore more and worlds through time and space. This leads to a climax where a cosmological mind is created and makes contact with the “Star Maker” – the creator of the universe.
Sounds cool huh? And they appear to have no shortages of accolades. For example, Arthur C. Clarke called Star Maker one of the finest works of science fiction ever written, and the concept explored therein had a profound influence on many subsequent sci-fi minds, not the least of which were Gene Roddenberry and J.M. Straczynski.
8. The Long Tomorrow: This one, I have heard of, mainly because it’s on my list as an example of post-apocalyptic fiction. I have yet to read it, but after reading about it, I think I would like to. Set in a post-apocalyptic world devastated by nuclear war, the story takes place within a society that is controlled by religious groups preaching a technophobic message.
Inevitably, the story comes to a head when young people, intrigued by stories of a neighboring community, go out in search of it, braving punishment and even exile. Sounds familiar? Well, it should. This book, which was published in 1955, has gone on to inspire countless variations and pop culture renditions. It also attempts to illustrate the connection between natural disasters and regression, traditionalism and repression.
9. Dhalgren: Yet another book that’s compared to James Joyce, largely by people that haven’t read it. I’m one of them! Apparently, this 1975 story by Samuel R. Delany takes place in a fictitious Midwestern town that has become cut off from the outside world by an event horizon. All communications are cut off, and the population become frightened by the night sky reveals two moons, and the morning sun is many times larger than our own.
More strange is the fact that street signs and landmarks shift constantly, while buildings that have been burning for days are either never consumed or show signs of damage. Gangs also begin to roam the nighttime streets, their members hidden within holographic projections of gigantic insects or mythological creatures. Against this backdrop, a group of people come together and try to make sense of what has happened as they struggle to survive.
Told from the point of view of a partial amnesiac, dysmetric, schizophrenic, as well as a bunch of other people who find themselves stranded in the city, the story is an exercise is confusion, dissociation, and a really just a big mystery. In the end, what is truly going on is never revealed, thus leaving the reader with their own interpretations. This is one of the selling points of the book, with William Gibson himself saying that it was “A riddle that was never meant to be solved.” Yeah, I definitely need to read this one!
10. Infinite Jest: This last novel is more recent, having been released in 1996. Once again, haven’t heard of it, but given its content, praise, and the fact that the author’s low life was cut tragically short, it doesn’t surprise me that its one of those books that everyone feels they must read. But given the length, complexity and the fact that story contains 388 numbered end notes, I can see why they’ve also held back!
The story focuses on the lives of a celebrity family known as the Incandezas, a clear pun on their, shall we say… luminous fame? The family is deeply involved in tennis, struggles with substance abuse, and in a state of disrepair since the father – a famous film director – committed suicide with a microwave. His last work was apparently a film (entitled “Infinite Jest”, but known throughout the story as “The Entertainment”) which is so entertaining, it causes viewer to lose all interest in everything besides watching the movie.
Clearly meant as a satire on North American culture, particularly celebrity families, entertainment, substance abuse and the sideshow that is celebrity rehab, the story is all about various people’s search for the missing tape of “The Entertainment” and what they plan to do with it. The novel received wide recognition and praise after its publication and became a testament to Wallace’s talent after he committed suicide in 2008.
Okay, that’s four out of ten for me. How did you do? And even if you could say that you’ve read most of the books on this list, or at least the one’s you’ve heard of, I’d say we’ve all come away with a more additions to our reading lists, hmmm? Yeah, I guess its back to Amazon for me!
Believe it or not, Hollywood actually has some movies that are now playing, or coming in the near future, that are not just reboots, reimaginings, or rehashings of old ideas. Much of this info comes from the online source Io9, and I have to say, I was quite impressed. To know that original ideas and long-overdue adaptations are actually in the works… wow. Still, don’t expect that this makes us even Hollywood! You’ve still wasted a ton of my and a good deal more people’s time and money!
Anyhoo, onto the list of coming or playing attractions:
Safety Not Guaranteed:
A time-traveller takes out an ad in the paper, looking for a companion to go back in time with him. A journalist, played by deadpan comedian Aubrey Plaza (of Parks and Recreation, Scott Pilgrim versus the World and Funny People), is tasked with finding a man who’s taken out the ad and determining just what his deal is. As time goes on, she becomes infatuated with the man because of his sincerity and the fact that he’s a true believer.
Produced by the same people who brought you Little Miss Sunshine and based on an actual ad, the movie explores the fine line between cynicism and realism, truth and belief. In the end, it remains a mystery whether or not the man is for real, and whether or not he is a harmless eccentric or a total nut! This movie has already been released and was screened at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival where it won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award.
A story of a humanoid robot that contains the consciousness of its designer, a man obsessed with achieving the Singularity, as predicted by men like Ray Kurzweil. After a successful run where his mind is placed into “the prototype” robot, it escapes from its facility and is chased by government agents who believe it to be a malfunctioning military drone. Though it does look a tad cliche and over the top, it nevertheless explores some issues which are only increasing in relevance and getting closer and closer to being real.
Enders Game: I’m not kidding! After decades of waiting, it seems that sci-fi geeks and Card fans will finally be getting a chance to see Ender adapted to the big screen. As someone who thoroughly enjoyed the original, but never got into the sequels, I can tell you that I will be waiting on this movie’s Nov. 2013 release date with eager anticipation.
According to the buzz, Director Gavin Hood (of Tstosi, Rendition and X-Men Origins:Wolverine) is taking great pains to keep it as loyal to the book as possible. In addition, such big names as Harrison Ford and Ben Kingsley are attached to play Colonel Graff and Mazer Rackham, and Asa Butterfield (of Hugo fame)will be playing the lead role of Ender Wiggin.
Life of Pi: Now this is one I didn’t expect to see on the silver screen! Director Ang Lee, who brought us such hits as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain and The Hulk will be directing this adaptation of Yann Martel’s magical novel about a boy, a lifeboat, and a handful of animals as they visit a strange island.
World War Z: Not surprisingly, all this zombie-fanaticism of late has encouraged the good folks in LA LA land that it’s time to adapt one of the best zombie novels of all time. Written by Max Brooks, son of famed comedian Mel Brooks and master of all things zombie, the book tells the oral history of the Zombie War and was released as a follow-up to his satirical The Zombie Survival Guide.
According to the studio-related buzz, Marc Forster (Finding Neverland, The Kite Runner, and Quantum of Solace) is slated to direct it, Michael Straczynski (creator of Babylon 5) is attached as a screenwriter, and actor Brad Pitt will be starring as the film’s protagonist. Clearly, these folks aren’t pulling punches with this adaptation. I look forward to seeing it sometime in 2013!
Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters Look what you started, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter! Or was it you Snow White and the Huntsman with your decidedly violent take on a children’s classic? Perhaps it was Seth Grahame-Smith with his Pride and Prejudice and Zombies! I don’t know who’s to blame, but for some reason, it seems that fairy tales, classics of western lit and history are all getting the Buffy treatment these days.
But I digress, Jeremy Renner of The Avengers and the new Bourne Legacy movie stars alongside Gemma Arterton (Quantum of Solace and Clash of the Titans) in this sequel to the classic fairy tale. Apparently, the story takes place 15 years after the traumatic gingerbread house incident, and the now grown-up pair have become a leather-wearing witch hunting duo. Let’s just hope the producers of Van Hellsing don’t sue for plagiarism!
Neuromancer: I almost jumped out of my seat when I read about this one, but then I noticed the production notes where it said that this movie hasn’t even been green-lighted yet. Ah well, fingers crossed it get’s made, because it would be about freaking time! Much like with Enders Game, fans of this sci-fi, cyberpunk classic have been waiting FOREVER to see a film adaptation! Several attempts have been made, but none have gotten off the ground.
But some details are forthcoming. For one, Vincenzo Natali, the brilliant Canadian writer/director who brought us Cube and Splice, is rumored to be the man who will direct this bad boy, should it ever get made. No other news yet, but my ear is firmly pressed to the ground and I will find out if it’s happening. Bank on it!
Snow Crash: And another sci-fi movie that’s long overdue, but can never seem to get made! Well, it seems that writer/director Joe Cornish (Attack of the Block and The Adventures of Tin Tin) is set to adapt Neal Stephenson’s post-cyberpunk novel about the near future where America has been privatized, “franchulates” run everything, and a lone hacker named Hiro Protagonist investigates a potent new drug that infects users with a computer virus.
As a long0time fan of Stephenson’s, I for one will be awaiting this movie too with eager anticipation. In fact, I can scarcely believe that so many of my literary favorites are being adapted at the same time. One would think this was just a big tease, or some massive karmic payback!
This is a little off the beaten path right now, but lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time contemplating this big concept. In fact, it’s been informing the majority of my writing for the past year, and during my recent trip back to Ottawa, it was just about all my friend and I could talk about (dammit, we used to club!) And since I find myself explaining this concept to people quite often, and enjoying it, I thought I’d dedicate a post to it as well.
It’s called the Technological Singularity, and was coined in 1993 by sci-fi author Vernor Vinge. To put it concisely, Vinge predicted that at some point in the 21st century, human beings would be able to augment their intelligence using artificial means. This, he argued, would make the future completely unpredictable beyond that point, seeing as how the minds that contemplating the next leaps would be beyond anything we possess now.
The name itself is derived from the concept of the Quantum Singularity or Event Horizon, the region that resides at the center of a black hole beyond which, nothing is visible. In the case of a black hole, the reason you can’t see beyond this point is because the very laws of physics break down and become indistinguishable. The same is being postulated here, that beyond a certain point in our technological evolution, things will get so advanced and radical that we couldn’t possibly imagine what the future will look like.
Bad news for sci-fi writers huh? But strangely, it is this very concept which appears to fascinate them the most! Just because we not be able to accurately predict the future doesn’t stop people from trying, especially writers like Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, and Charles Stross. Frankly, the concept was coined by a sci-fi writer so we’re gonna damn well continue to talk about it. And besides, when was the last time science fiction writers were bang on about anything? It’s called fiction for a reason.
Men like Ray Kurzweil, a futurist who is all about achieving immortality, have popularized this idea greatly. Thanks to people like him, this idea has ventured beyond the realm of pure sci-fi and become a legitimate area of academic study. Relying on ongoing research into the many, many paradigm shifts that have taken place over time, he and others have concluded that technological progress is not a linear phenomena, but an exponential one.
Consider the past few decades. Has it not been a constant complaint that the pace of life and work have been increasing greatly from year to year? Of course, and the driving force has been constant technological change. Whereas people in our parents generation grew up learning to use slide rules and hand-cranked ammonia copiers, by the time they hit the workforce, everything was being done with calculators and Xerox printers.
In terms of documents, they used to learn typewriters and the filing system. Then, with the microprocessor revolution, everything was done on computer and electronically. Phones and secretaries gave way to voicemail and faxes, and then changed again with the advent of the internet, pager, cell phone and PDA. Now, all things were digital, people could be reached anywhere, and messages were all handled by central computers.
And that’s just within the last half-century. Expanding the time-frame further, let’s take a much longer view. As a historian, I am often fascinated with the full history of humanity, going back roughly 200,000 years. Back then, higher order primates such as ourselves had emerged in one small pocket of the world (North-Eastern Africa) and began to circulate outwards.
By 50,000 years ago, we had reached full maturity as far as being homo sapiens is concerned, relying on complex tools, social interaction, sewing and hunting and gathering technigues to occupy every corner of the Old World and make it suitable for our purposes. From the far reaches of the North to the Tropics in the South, humanity showed that it could live anywhere in the world thanks to its ingenuity and ability to adapt. By 15,000 years ago, we had expanded to occupy the New World as well, had hunted countless species to extinction, and began the process of switching over to agriculture.
By 5000 years ago, civilization as we know it was emerging independently in three corners of the world. By this, I mean permanent settlements that were based in part or in full on the cultivation of crops and domestication of animals. Then, 500 years ago, the world’s collided when the Spanish landed in the New World and opened up the “Age of Imperialism”. Because of the discovery of the New World, Europe shot ahead of its peer civilizations in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, went on to colonize every corner of the world, and began to experience some major political shifts at home and abroad. The “Age of Imperialism” gradually gave way to the “Age of Revolutions”.
100 years ago, the total population of the Earth reached 1 billion, industrialization had taken full effect in every developed nation and urban populations were now exceeding that of rural. 50 years ago, we had reached 3 billion human beings, were splitting the atom, sending rockets into space, and watching the world decolonize itself. And only 10 years ago, we had reached a whopping 6 billion human beings, were in the throws of yet another technological revolution (the digital) and were contemplating nanotechnology, biomedicine and even AI.
In short, since our inception, the trend has been moving ever upwards, faster and faster. With every change, the pace seems to increase exponentially. The amount of time between paradigm shifts – that is, between revolutionary changes that alter the way we look at the world – has been getting smaller and smaller. Given this pattern, it seems like only a matter of time before the line on the graph rises infinitely and we have to rethink the whole concept of progress.
Is your nooble baked yet? Mine sure is! It’s get like that any time I start contemplating the distant past and the not too distant future. These are exciting times, and even if you think that the coming Singularity might spell doom, you gotta admit, this is an exciting time to be alive. If nothing else, its always a source of intrigue to know that you are on the cutting edge of history, that some day, people will be talking about what was and you will be able to say “I was there”.
Whoo… deep stuff man. And like I said, fun to write about. Ever since I was a senior in high school, I dreamed of being able to write a book that could capture the Zeitgeist. As soon as I learned about the Technological Singularity, I felt I had found my subject matter. If I could write just one book that captures the essence of history at this point in our technological (and possibly biological) evolution, I think I’ll die a happy man. Because for me, it’s not enough to just have been there. I want to have been there and said something worthwhile about it.
Alright, thanks for listening! Stay tuned for more lighter subject matter and some updates on the latest from Story Time and Data Miners. Plus more on Star Wars, coming soon!
Well, after many, many suggestions on how my list of dystopian franchises could be augmented – this mainly consisted of poeple asking me “what about (blank)?” – I decided there were a few that I really couldn’t proceed without mentioning. This will be my last tour of the dystopia factory, lord knows that place gets depressing after awhile! But one thing at a time. Here’s my final installment in dystopian science fiction series, a hybrid list of novels, graphic novels, and movies!
A Clockwork Orange: This dystopian novella was originally written in 1962 and was adapted into film by the great Kubrick almost a decade later. In addition, it was adapted into play after the author realized he didn’t like how the adapted movie ended. Having experienced all three, I can tell you that the movie was probably the best. In addition to the rather ingenious ideas presented by Anthony Burgess, it also benefited from Kubrick’s directorial genius and the superb acting of Malcolm McDowell.
Set in the not-too-distant future, the story revolves around a British youth named Alex who is growing up in a world permeated by youth violence. He is the leader of a group of thugs known as “The Droogs”, young men who go about committing acts of “ultra-violence” which consists of them beating up homeless people, random strangers and other gangs, as well as committing theft and gang rape.
In time, Alex and his friends go to far (even for them!) and an innocent woman is murdered during a break-in. His friends, who are already angry over his bullying and strong arming of them, decide to betray him and leave him to the police. Once in prison, Alex decides to cut his sentence short by undergoing a radical government experiment – an artificially created conscience through Pavlovian conditioning!
The result of this conditioning is that Alex is no longer capable of committing any acts of violence. In fact, even the mere thought of violence produces a reaction so strong that he breaks down and is overwhelmed by nausea. This renders him benign, but also helpless. And in time, all his past crimes begin to catch up with him and he is nearly killed. Once he wakes up in the hospital, he discovers the conditioning has worn off, and he can either resume his old ways, or strike out on a new path…
Another interesting side effect of the conditioning is that he can no longer listen to Beethoven without getting sick either. This has to be one of the most curious and intriguing scenes in the movie, where a restrained and helpless Alex begs the doctors to turn off the symphony because he can’t stand the idea of not being able to listen to it. Much like everything else he does, it speaks volumes of his sociopathic nature.
Ultimately, the movie differed from the novel in that the final chapter was omitted. Immediately before this, we see how Alex is now freed from the conditioning. He also seems intent on blaming the current government, which will oust them from power. But beyond that it not quite clear what’s going to happen. However, the following chapter shows how Alex has realized, independently, that he doesn’t want to live a life of violence anymore. Human freedom, he’s determined, is the ability to make choices for oneself, free of persuasion and operate conditioning.
As I said, I truly think the movie was an improvement on the novel, which is a rare thing with adaptations. Still, it is was in the film that the point of the story really came through, thanks to Kubrick’s usual attention to detail and subtlety. Whether it was through those long, close-up shots of McDowell and his crazy eyes, the combination of wide angle action shots in slow motion, or the way that it played to the tune of Beethoven, you really got a sense of the odd combination of genius and madness that is the anti-hero Alex. The reliance on white, sterile settings also helped to punctuate the sociopathic nature of the story – how underneath the veneer of domesticity, brutality and violence can exist! And last, by leaving the ending a mystery, the moral was more ambiguous, which made for a far more effective dystopian feel!
A Scanner Darkly: Next up, we have Philip K Dicks seminal novel about drug abuse, self-destruction and the various hypocrisies arising out of America’s war on drugs. In this near-future scenario, which takes place in California in 1994 (seventeen years after it was written), a new drug has hit the streets known as Substance D – or SD, which stands for Slow Death. This powerful hallucinogenic is a great high, is violently addictive, and can render users brain damaged after too much use and abuse. And as a result of its popularity and impact, society is gradually becoming a full-blown police state, where cameras – or “Scanners” – are on every street corner and in the home of every suspected dealer.
Written from the point of view of an undercover narcotics agent, the story follows his descent into addiction and his eventual inability to tell reality from fantasy. Through repeated use of Substance D, he gradually becomes brain damaged himself, is released from the police department, and must go to a privately run recovery-center known as “New-Path”. There, he discovers that these centers, which operate like franchises, are actually growing the plant that Substance D is synthesized from. An interesting twist in which we learn that the people profiting from the side effects are the one’s providing the drugs. A stab at strong-arm governments or the pharmaceuticals industry, perhaps?
For the sake of adapting the movie to film, director Richard Linklater shot the entire thing digitally and then had it animated through the use of interpolated rotoscope. The effect of this was to render every single image in a vivid, almost cartoon-like format, which could only be interpreted as an attempt to mimic the effects of hallucinogens. This animation also came in handy with the rendering of the “scramble suit”, a sort of cloak-like device that PKD invented to ensure that undercover agents in his story could completely disguise their appearance, voice, and any other identifying characteristics.
In addition to being science fiction genius, these cloaks were a clear allegory to the anonymity of undercover agents and a faceless system of justice. While responsible for infiltrating and busting up the narcotics subculture, PKD clearly understood that this sort of profession can lead to an identity crisis, especially if the agents in question find themselves using drugs and becoming over-sympathetic to the people they are spying on. This, of course, is precisely what happens to the main character in the story!
In short, the novel was a commentary on the dangers of recreational drug use, but also on the reasons for why such subcultures come into existence in the first place. In addition to ruining lives and causing crime, repression, domestic surveillance, and other extra-legal practices can become quite commonplace. All of this mirrored PKD’s own experiences with the drug subculture and the law, which is why he dedicated the book to all the friends he had who succumbed to drug abuse and died as a result. Very sad!
And let’s not forget the name, a play on the words from the Biblical passage, 1 Corinthians 13:12 : “Through a mirror darkly.” In this day and age, where “scanners” are the means for monitoring society and police officers spend hours looking at their feeds, the scanner has become a sort of means through which people attempt to gaze into other peoples’ souls. But, as with the Biblical passage, this title is meant to refer to how, when we look at the problems of drug use in our society, we are seeing it all through a haze, the result of our own prejudices and preconceptions.
Akira: How the hell did I forget this one last time? I mean seriously, this is one of my favorite movies and one of the most inspired Mangas of all time! Not only that, it’s a pretty good example of a dystopian franchise. And yet, I forgot it! WHAT THE HELL WAS I THINKING?! But enough self-flagellation, I came here to talk about Akira! So, here goes…
In 1988, famed Japanese writer, director and comic book creator Katsuhiro Otomo undertook the rather monumental task of adapting his Manga series Akira to the big screen. Though some predicted that a two hour movie could never do justice to the six-volume series he had written, most fans were pretty pleased with the end product. And the critical response was quite favorable as well, with the film being credited for its intense visualizations, cyberpunk theme, its post-apocalyptic feel, and the exploration of some rather heavy existential questions.
To break it down succinctly, Akira takes place in Neo-Tokyo, a massive urban center that was literally build up from the ruins of the original. According to the story’s background, WWIII took place in 1989, and after twenty years of rebuilding, the world once again appears to be one the brink. However, as we come to learn, the destruction of Tokyo was not the result of the nuclear holocaust per se. It’s destruction merely heralded it in after the world witnessed the city’s obliteration, assumed it to have been the result of a nuclear attack, and starting shooting their missiles at each other. The real cause was a phenomena known as “Akira”, an evolutionary leap that scientists had been studying and lost control of…
Quite the story, but what I loved most about the adapted movie and the manga on which it was based was the level of detail. Set in 2019 (the same year as Blade Runner, coincidentally!) this series incorporated a lot of concepts which made for a far more intricate and interesting tale. First off, there’s the concept of a post-apocalyptic generation that is filled with unrest and angst, having grown up in a world permeated by the horrors of nuclear war. Second, there’s the ever-present element of gang warfare that has sprung up amidst the social decay. Third, there’s a government slouching towards dictatorship in response to all the protests, unrest and chaos that is consuming the city.
Into all this, you get a secret military project in which the Akira phenomena is once again being studied. Though motivated by a desire to control it and prevent what happened last time from happening again, it seems that history is destined to repeat itself. Once again, the survivors must crawl from the wreckage and rebuild, their only hope being that somehow, they will get it right next time… A genuine dystopian commentary if ever I heard one!
But what was also so awesome about the series, at least to me, was the underlying sense of realism and tension. You really got the sense that Otomo was tapping into the Zeitgeist with this one, relating how after decades of rebuilding through hard work and conformity, Japan was on the verge of some kind of social transformation. Much like in real life, the characters of the story have been through a nuclear holocaust and have had to crawl their way back from the brink, and a sense of “awakening” is one everybody’s lips and they are just waiting for it to manifest.
A clear allusion to post-war Japan where the country had been bombed to cinders and was left shattered and confused! Not to the mention the post-war sense of uniformity where politicians, corporations and Zaibatsu did their best to repress the youth movements and demands for social reform. Well, that was my impression at any rate, others have their own. But that’s another thing that worked so well about Akira. It is multi- layered and highly abstract, relying on background, visuals and settings to tell the story rather than mere dialogue. In many ways, it calls to mind such classics as 2001, Clockwork Orange, and other Kubrick masterpieces.
Children of Men: Made famous by the 2006 adaptation starring Clive Owen, this dystopian science fiction story was originally written by author P.D. James in 1992. The movie was only loosely based on the original text, but most of the particulars remained the same. Set in Britain during the early 21st century, the story takes place in a world where several subsequent generations have suffered from infertility and population growth has dropped down to zero. The current generation, the last to be born, are known as “Omegas” and are a lost people.
What’s more, the growing chaos of the outside world has also led to the creation of a dictatorial government at home. This is due largely to the fact that people have lost all interest in politics, but also because the outside world has become chaotic due to the infertility crisis. Much like in V for Vendetta, the concept of “Lifeboat Britain” makes an appearance in this story and acts as one of the main driving forces for the plot.
In any case, this also leads to the birth of a resistance which wants to end the governments tyrannical control over society, and which comes to involve the main character and his closest friends. In time, the plot comes to revolve around a single woman who is apparently pregnant. Whereas some of the rebels want to smuggle her out of Britain and hand her over to the international Human Project, others want to use her as a pawn in their war against the government. It thus falls to the main character to smuggle her out, protecting her from resistance fighters and the military alike.
Naturally, the movie drew on all the novels strongest points, showing how society had effectively decayed once childbirth effectively ended. It also portrayed the consequences of impending extinction very well – chaos, withdrawal, tyranny, etc. However, when it came time to adapt it to the screen, Mexican film director Alfonso Cuaron (who brought us such hits as A Little Princess, Y Tu Mama Tambien, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), also used a variety of visual techniques and sets to convey the right mood.
For example, most of the sets were designed to look like near-future versions of today. In Cuaron’s estimation, all technological progress would have ceased once the implications of the crisis had fully hit, hence all cars, structures, weapons and gadgets were only slightly altered, or used sans modification. So while the billboards, newspapers and signs were all updated and carried messages appropriate for the period, cars, guns and other assorted background pieces looked entirely familiar.
In addition, much of the movie is shot in such a way so that the images are grey and the light effect seems piercing. This conveys a general mood of drab sadness, which is very accurate considering the setting! Last, Cuaron and his camera crews made many continuous action shots using wide angle lenses in order to capture a sense of crisis and how it effected so many people. Never was there a sequence in which you only saw the main actors and their immediate surroundings. The focus, like the scope of the story, was big and far-reaching.
Ghost in the Shell: Much like Akira, this franchise comes to us by way of Japan and is cyberpunk-themed. In addition, it also came in the form of a manga, then onto a film, but with a television series to follow. And in many respects, it qualifies as dystopian, given that it took place in a dark future where technology has forever blurred the line between what is real and what is artificial. In addition, it also tapped into several cyberpunk trends which would prove to be quite apt (i.e. cyberspace).
Again, this story takes place in Japan in the early 21st century, a time when cybernetic enhancements and technological progress have seriously altered society. The main character is named Motoko Kusanagi, a member of a covert operations division of the Japanese National Public Safety Commission known as Section 9. She is affectionately known as “Major” given her previous position with the Japanese Self-Defense Forces. And did I mention she’s a cyborg? Yes, aside from her brain and parts of her spinal cord, she is almost entirely machine, and this plays into the story quite often.
In addition to facing external threats, Kusanagi and her companions also face conflicts that arise out of their own nature. These deal largely with issues relating to their own humanity, whether or not a person and their memories can even be considered real anymore if they have been replaced by digital or cybernetic enhancements. These questions were explored in depth in the movie, where events revolve around a sentient program that was developed by the government, but which has since gone rogue and is seeking an independent existence.
However, another thing that makes Ghost in the Shell a possible candidate for the category of dystopia is the setting. Whether it was the manga, the movie, or the television series, the look and feel of the world in which it takes place is quite telling. Always there is a dirty, gritty, and artificial quality to it all, calling to mind The Sprawl, Mega City One, and Neo-Tokyo.
As in these settings, things look futuristic, but also rustic, poor and improvised, hinting at extensive overcrowding and poverty amidst all the advanced technology. This is a central element to cyberpunk, or so I’m told. In addition to being futuristic, it also anticipates dystopia, being of the opinion that this “advancement” has come at quite a cost in human terms.
Logan’s Run: Considered by many to be a classic dystopian story, Logan’s Run takes place in a 22st century society where age and consumption are strictly curtailed to ensure that a population explosion – like the one experience in the year 2000 – never happens again. In addition, society is controlled by a computer that runs the global infrastructure and makes sure that the all the dictates of population and age control are obeyed.
In any case, the story revolves around this concept of an age ceiling, where people are monitored by a “palm flower” that changes color every seven years. When they reach 21 – on a person’s Lastday – the crystal turns black and they are expected to report to a “Sleepshop” where they will be executed. Those who refuse to perform this final duty are known as “Runners”, and it falls to “Deep Sleep Operatives” (aka. Sandmen) to track down and terminate these people.
The main character – Logan 3 – is one such operative. On his own Lastday, he is charged with infiltrated the underground railroad of Runners and finding the place they call “Sanctuary”. This is a place where they are able to live out their lives without having to worry about society’s dictates and controls. However, in time, Logan comes to sympathize with these people, due largely to the influence of a woman named Jessica 6. In the end, the two make plans to escape together for Sanctuary, which turns out to be a colony on Mars.
Right off the bat, some additional elements can be seen here. In addition to the concepts of Malthusian controls and ageism, there is also the timeless commentary on how rationalization and regimentation can lead to inhumanity and repression. Much like in We or Anthem (by Ayn Rand), people do not have names as much as designations. All life is monitored and controlled by a central computer, and it is made clear towards the end that the computer is in fact breaking down. I can remember this last theme appearing in an episode of Star Trek TNG, where a planet of advanced people are beginning to die off because their “Custodian” is malfunctioning and no one knows how to fix it.
Metropolis: A true classic of both film and expressionist art, this movie also has the added (and perhaps dubious) honor of being a classic of dystopian science fiction! Created in Weimar Germany in 1927 by Fritz Lang, this movie tells the story of a dystopian future where society is ruled by elites who live in vast tower complexes and the workers lives in the recesses of the city far below them where they operate the machinery that powers it all.
This physical divide serves to mirror the main focus of the story, which is on class distinction and the gap between rich and poor. To illustrate this artistic vision, director Fritz Lang relied on a combination of Gothic, classical, modern and even Biblical architecture. In an interview, Fritz claimed that his choices for the set design were based largely on his first trip to New York where he witnessed skyscrapers for the first time. In addition, the central building of the futuristic city was based on Brueghel’s 1563 painting of the Tower of Babel (right>).
The theme of class conflict is further illustrated by the fact that the workers who live in the bowels of the city are also responsible for maintaining the machinery that makes the city run. One is immediately reminded of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and the divide between the Morlocks and the Eloi. This comes through even more when the workers decide to revolt and begin ransacking the neighborhoods of the elites. Ultimately, it is only through the love of the two main characters – Freder and Mariah – that the gulf between the two is sealed and order is restored, a fitting commentary on how society must come together in order to survive and achieve social justice.
In another act of blatant symbolism, we learn early on in the movie that the workers have taken to congregating in a series of tunnels that run under the city. It is here that they meet with Maria, their inspirational leader, and makes plans to change society. So in addition to tall, Babel-like buildings illustrated the gap between rich and poor, we have workers who are literally meeting underground! Wow…
In addition, several other dystopian elements weave their way into the story. The line between artifice and reality also makes an appearance in the form of the robot which the movie is best known for. This robot was created by Rotwang, a scientist who is in the service of the main character’s father – Joh Fredersen, the master of the city. Apparently, this robot is able to take human form and was created to replace his late wife. Once this robot was released into the city, she began sowing chaos amongst men who begin to lust after her, and is the very reason the workers began revolting in the first place. She even causes the character of Rotwang to go insane when he can no longer distinguish between the robot and the woman she’s impersonating.
Neuromancer/Sprawl Trilogy: Gibson is one of the undisputed master’s of cyberpunk and future noire lit and it was this novel – Neuromancer – that started it all for him. In it, he coined the terms cyberspace, the matrix, and practically invented an entire genre of Gothic, techno-noire terminology which would go on to inspire several generations of writers. His work is often compared to Blade Runner given the similar focus on urban sprawl, cybernetic enhancements, the disparity between rich and poor, and the dark imagery it calls to mind.
The first installment in the “Sprawl Trilogy”, this book takes place in the BAMA – the Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis (aka. The Sprawl). In this world of the 21st century, cyberspace jockeys or cowboys use their “decks” – i.e. consoles – to hack into corporate databases and steal information. The purpose is, as always, to sell off the information to the highest bidder, usually another corporate power. In addition, guerrilla tactics and domestic terrorism are often used to get employees out of their contracts, seeing as how most companies have no intention of ever letting their talent go!
Also, there is the massive gulf that exists between the rich and the poor in these novels. Whereas the main characters tend to live in overcrowded tenements and dirty neighborhoods, the rich enjoy opulent conditions and control entire parts of the world. In addition, the richest clans, such as the Tessier-Ashpools and Vireks, actively use cloning and clinical immortality to cheat death, and often live in orbital colonies that they have exclusive rights to. Much like in his “Bigend Trilogy”, much attention is dedicated to the transformative power of wealth and how it affords one better access to the latest in technology.
But always, the focus is on the street. Here, jockeys, freelancers and Yakuza agents are at work, pulling jobs so they can buy themselves the latest enhancements and the newest gear. In the case of Molly Millions, a freelance lady-ninja, this includes razor nails that extend from her fingertips. In the case of Yakuza enforcer from the short-story (and movie) Johnny Mnemonic, it consists of a filament of monomolecular razor wire hidden inside his thumb. For others, it might consist of artificial limbs, new organs, implants of some kind. Whatever ya need, they got it in the Sprawl. If not, you go to Chiba City or Singapore, chances are it was made there anyway!
*Interesting Fact: according to Gibson, Blade Runner came out when he was still tinkering with the manuscript for this novel. After seeing it, he nearly threw the manuscript out because he was afraid Ridley Scott had pre-empted him! Funny how things work out, huh?
Final Thoughts: Gee, there really isn’t much more to say is there? One thing I have noticed is that much of modern dystopia comes to us in the form of the cyberpunk genre. Though the definition of cyberpunk appears to constantly be evolving, it is generally acknowledged that it is a postmodern form of science fiction that combines “high tech and low life.” Having sorted through several modern examples of dystopian sci-fi, I can say that this is certainly an apt description.
In essence, it assumed that the presence of high tech would entail the emergence of a dystopian society, that the endless march of progress would lead to the destruction of the environment, the devaluing of human life, the elimination of privacy, and the line between real and fake. This last aspect was especially important, embracing cybernetics, virtual reality, and things like cloning and clinical mortality. Since the 1980’s, all of these notions have infiltrated science fiction movies, television, and have even become cliches to some extent.
This genre has given rise to new kinds of science fiction as well. For example, it is generally acknowledged that a sub genre known as post-cyberpunk emerged in the 1990’s which broke away from its predecessor in one key respect. Whereas it too focused on the rise of technology, it did not anticipate dystopia as part of the process. This is best exemplified by books such as Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, a 21st century bildungsroman which predicted vast social and political changes as a result of nanotechnology.
Other sub genres that have emerged in recent years include “Steampunk”, a literary form that combines Victorian era technologies with the punk genres noire sensibilities. Other derivatives include Dieselpunk, Nanopunk, Biopunk, and even fantasy-punk crossovers like Elfpunk. Yes, like most things in the post modern era, it seems that literary genres are becoming fragmented and tribalistic!
But alas, I still feel the need to ask the question, what’s happened to dystopian literature of late? In my initial post, I got a lot of people asking me if I could include some more modern examples. You know, stuff that’s come out since 1984 and The Handmaids Tale. But unfortunately, what I’ve found tends to be more of the same. Just about every example of dystopian fiction appears to draw its inspiration from such handy classics as the one’s I’ve already mentioned, or is in some way traceable to them. Does this mean that we’ve hit bottom on the whole genre, or could it just be we’ve moved away from it for the time being?
Well, I recently learned from an article on IO9 that Neal Stephenson himself stated that science fiction needed to stop being so pessimistic and had to start getting inspirational again. Perhaps he’s onto something… Maybe we’ve gone too far with the whole cautionary tale and need to steer things back towards a brighter future, urging people on with common sense and technological solutions rather than laments. Maybe we need to let them know that such problems as world hunger, overpopulation, pollution, climate change, poverty, war, licentiousness and greed can all be overcome.
Then again, I’m working on a couple dystopian tales right now… Is it too much to ask that this craze last just a few years longer?
Thanks to all who’ve written in and “liked” my dystopian series! Hope to see y’all again soon as I get into ore cheerful things…
I’m getting hooked on writing conceptual posts, mainly because it gives me the chance to explore a lot different franchises of sci-fi without being too constrained. Not only that, I really like digging into subject matter of finding the common elements; in this case, the stuff that makes cool stuff cool! So far, I’ve covered the concepts of Galactic Empires, Planetkillers and Ancient Aliens. But today, I thought I’d tackle something a little simpler that’s been known to make sci-fi geeks experience collective nerdgasms! Today the topic is: COOL GUNS!
BFG 9000: Starting off this review right is the BFG (Big F***ing Gun) that comes to us from the Doom universe. Fans of that old franchise know this one by heart, and I’m sure they remember with some nostalgia what it was like firing this thing. Given that Doom was like most first-person shooters, this weapon would turn up late in the game as a way of dealing with the more tenacious evil critters. And it worked! One shot released a big cloud of green plasma which killed everything in the vicinity. Unless it was a boss, in which case, it might take two or three… Apparently, Quake II and Quake III Arena pay homage by including their own version, known as the BFG10K.
“Blow Dryer”: Also known as a “burner” or plasma caster, this weapon was the mainstay of the Predator aliens and is featured in the many movies, comics, video games, and novels of the franchise. Mounted on the shoulder, this weapon would discharge a ball of red-hot plasma into objects, causing damage akin to an explosive device, but with none of the messy shrapnel. Though the standard model is shoulder mounted and aimed using a heads-up-display and laser sight, the Predators in later movies were also known to carry wrist-mounted versions of this weapon as well. Like their claws and wrist bombs, they were embedded in the cuffs and served as a backup. One of these makes an appearance in Predator 2 during the meat locker shoot-out.
BR55 Battle Rifle: This baby is a Halo universe invention, and is the mainstay of the UNSC infantry. Aesthetically, this rifle is based on several bull-pup assault rifles designs from the modern era, a design which is clearly growing in popularity. Some potential sources for inspiration include the Austrian-made Steyr AUG, the French FAMAS, the British L85, the Belgian F2000, and the experimental PAPOP design. Like all bull-pup rifles, this gun loads from the rear and can cut through Covenant opposition with ease! Even when I’m playing as the Covenant, this was my second favorite weapon to be carrying (the first was either two submachine guns or two pistols, or a combinati0n thereof!)
Blade Runner Gun: In the classic move Blade Runner, Detective Rick Deckard was responsible for locating and “retiring” replicants. And the weapon he used to do just that is featured here. This is the model of a Blade Runner service revolver, for which little information exists, but whose appearance and performance pretty much speaks for itself. Based on a standard service revolver with several extra bits added on for effect, this gun pretty much screams cyberpunk.
In addition, there are several scenes in the movie where Deckard’s gun turned flesh (artificial though it was) into mush! Recall the scene where Deckard uses this gun to punch several holes in Zhora? Or how about the scene immediately thereafter where Leon is beating the crap out of him, and Rachael manages to save him by using his own weapon? Yeah, whenever this gun was brought out of his holster, some big holes resulted!
Blasters: When asked about his idea for a “Galactic Empire”, George Lucas said that he wanted to create something that was as aesthetically similar to Nazi Germany as possible. This was reflected in the weapons as well. Numerous guns that were modified and used as props in the movie were based on WWII vintage weapons. The first and most recognizable is Han’s blaster, aka. the DL-44. Based on the German C96 Mauser pistol, this weapon was apparently a popular item amongst smugglers and traders, being very powerful and compact. It was also quick on the draw, which comes in handy when in a bar and looking down the barrel of a bounty hunter’s gun (Han shot first!)
The next was the standard issue blaster used by both the Stormtroopers and the heroes, especially in the first movie during their daring breakout from the Death Star. This blaster, known as the E-11, was based on the Sterling submachine gun of WWII. Simple, consisting of little more than a barel, a handle, and a side-mounted magazine, the gun was easily altered with a few pieces of molded plastic and a scope that made it look suitably futuristic.
The heavier T-21 Blaster Rifle was yet another WWII adaptation. Built around a Lewis machine gun, it was featured in the first movie during the Mos Eisley scene where Stormtroopers were seen walking through the streets searching for Luke and Obi Wan.
Last, there was the DLT-19 Heavy Blaster, the heaviest infantry weapon in the Star Wars franchise. In keeping with his love of WWII kit, Lucas’ set designers used a German MG42 to fashion this one. This blaster appeared aboard the Death Star in the hand of the search party that went over the Millenium Falcon, and again when Chewy commandeered one to take out the remote blasters and cameras in the cell block.
GE M134 Minigun Handheld: How could I have forgotten this one? I mean really, is there a better visual representation of sheer badassery than the handheld minigun from Predator? Sure, the mere idea of a man carrying a minigun around by hand is so unbelievable its makes me want to laugh out loud. Considering the weight of the weapon, even before you factor in all the ammo, coupled with the killer recoil that no human could withstand – all of this makes the physics totally implausible! But what the heck? It was fun to watch! I can’t imagine anyone not feeling the hair on the back of their neck stand on end as those barrels started whirling and the bullets streamed out, so fast it sounded like a turbine! And I know from talking to actual pilots who’ve seen this baby in action that if you add tracers to the mix, its like watching a laser show. WHURRRRRRRRRRRR! Total carnage!
Grammaton Cleric Pistol: Though it was not my favorite movie, there were undeniably cool aspects to the movie Equilibrium. One of which was all the cool Gun Kata moves pulled by Christain Bale, Angus Macfadyen, and the other Grammaton Clerics with their special pistols. These guns were clearly souped-up versions of the Beretta 92FS. They clearly fire in both semi-automatic and automatic bursts, and were retrofitted in one scene with impact hammers on the handles.
In addition, some rather curious reloading tricks were devised. One involved arm-rails that would deliver fresh magazines from inside the cleric’s sleeve. Another included magazines that could be balanced upright, which gave the cleric the ability to simply slam his gun down on the fresh magazine once the empty ones had been ejected and go right on shooting. It’s all about rate of fire in this movie, making sure the bullets (and dust) keep flying!
The Lawgiver II: Also known as the Judge Dredd gun, this pistol is also a modified version of the Beretta 92FS, with molded plastic and LED lights giving it a future-city look. In addition to a rapid-fire setting, the gun also boasts a grenade launcher, signal flare launcher, and a special dual round known as the “double-whammy”. It also has a taser device built into the handle so that only a Judge can operate it, and a DNA tagging system that ensures that every slug fired can be traced back to the person operating it.
M41A Pulse Rifle:
The franchise Alien gave so much to the world of sci-fi geeks, not the least of which came in the form of cool guns. And the Pulse Rifle was arguably the mainstay of that contribution. In fact, it was this gun that inspired entire generations of futuristic weapons, and the name itself has been used many times over to refer to energy and slug-thrower weapons in sci-fi franchises.
This is an important disctintion seeing as how “pulse”, to most sci-fi acolytes, refers to weapons that fire out pulsing beams of energy (most likely plasma). But in this case, it referred to pulses of caseless ammo, big bursts of projectiles that would tear through acid-spewing aliens by the dozen. And let’s no forget the grenade launcher that was attached to the underside, how cool was that? The signature, click-click, BOOM! combination was as pleasing to the ears as it was to the eyes.
But in addition to being just so freaking cool to look at, the amount of creative energy and ingenuity that went into making it was quite impressive. For example, the people in charge of set design wanted a prop that would actually fire, so they built their rifle concept around the M1A1 Thompson submachine gun, a WWII vintage weapon that was small and sturdy enough to get the job done. To simulate the grenade launcher, they attached a cutdown Remington 870 shotgun beneath it and mounted the foregrip of the SPAS 12 shotgun on top of that. Then, they applied pieces of molded plastic and a little LED display to the side to make it look especially badass! Remember that scene where Ripley used it to level that room full of egg’s with the Alien queen inside? Iconic!
M56 Smart Gun: I know, I’m shoving two examples from a single franchise into one post. But I think it’s worth it. And for fans of Aliens and sci-fi junk, you just can’t make a list of cool guns and not include the Smart Gun! Much like the Pulse Rifle, this weapon was the perfect marriage of aesthetics and ingenuity.
To fashion it, the set designers for Aliens used another vintage WWII weapon (like Lucas, they used the German MG42 machinegun) some motorcycle handles, and the arms from a Steadicam mount. The result, once again, was pure badassery! And the name, according to the expanded Aliens universe, comes from the fact that these weapons could aim themselves. Marines would simply employ their eyepieces and helm cameras, and the guns would pick up movement and target it. Oh, and that scene where Vasquez opens fire in the Alien lair… classic! “Let’s roooooock!”
PPG’s: The PPG, or Phased Plasma Gun, is the standard weapon of security officers and soldiers in the Babylon 5 universe. According to franchise sources, the PPG fires a small charge of superheated helium which retains its shape and small volume via a residual magnetic field. Upon impact with an object, the magnetic field is dissipated and the heat discharged. PPG bolts also cause visible distortion as they travel through air, hence the blurred effects when people in the show fire off their weapons.
The PPG comes in several standard models. First, there’s the service pistol which every security officer and member of station personnel. The heavier rifles are busted out during riots and times of war, along with the vests and riot helmets. In two episodes (S01E20 Babylon Squared and S05E19 Wheel of Fire ) Garibaldi has scenes where he busts out the BFG version.
Reason: This weapon is both deadly and cheekily-named, and is taken from Neal Stephenson’s smash-hit novel Snow Crash. This picture doesn’t quite do it justice, but its a close approximation. In the novel, Reason was a gatling gun that was the property of Uncle Enzo’s Mafia, an organization that ran a series of franchulates along the west coast of the former US. But unlike your conventional gatler, it fired caseless depleted-uranium slugs, bullets that are incredibly dense and very heavy. Hence, the weapon packed a massive punch and a mad recoil.
During one of the later chapters, Enzo’s men use the gun to take out a pirate yacht while firing from a life raft. A single burst demolished the pirate ship, but the recoil sent their boat about fifty meters in the opposite direction! This scene also had a hilarious set up when the mafiosos first broke it out, saying that if they ran afoul of any privateers, they were sure they’d “listen to Reason.”
Over the years, Star Trek has been a source of many weapons designs. However, some were arguably more cool than others, at least in my opinion. These came largely from the later spinoffs and movies, in particular DS9 and Voyager. Prior to this, phaser designs were either too boxy, too bulbous, or just too… Buck Rogers-y! When you’re repelling boarders, or on an away mission, one thing you want is a kick-ass weapon to bolster your confidence and inspire fear in your enemies.
These requirements were met by a new model of weapon, known as the type 3 Phaser Rifle. This weapon went through many variations throughout the course of the show. The first design was very boxy-looking, whereas later models tended to be more sleek and menacing (as shown above). Then came a whole new design, known as the Compression Rifle (seen below), which was apparently an even more powerful model. These weapons were specifically created for use on starships where heavy combat was expected, or in times of war.
Man, that was a long list! But that’s the thing with cool ideas, they tend to get around. And as usual, I noticed some key patterns in the mix which I think should be pointed out. In all of these cases, there were apparently two classes that each weapon fell into.
Directed-Energy Weapons:Arguably the more science-fictiony of the two. These weapons first made their appearance in Saturday morning serials like Buck Rogers from the 1950’s. They come in many forms – ray guns, death rays, beam guns, blasters, laser guns, and phasers – but the core concept is the same. Phased or directed energy, usually in the form of plasma, that is focused into a tight beam and then emitted. The ironic thing is, since the 1950’s, sci-fi franchises have moved away from these seemingly farfetched devices and come to rely on ballistic weapons designs more and more. Meanwhile, Directed Energy Weapons have become more and more feasible, with several prototypes being explored by military contractors today.
Ballistic Weapons: In the context of sci-fi, these often take the form of weapons that use caseless ammunition, electromagnetically-propelled ammunition, or just standard bullets. But in each case, the weapons that use them are adapted to look more futuristic. Interestingly enough, the future seems to be coming sooner than we thought. In just about every developed nation, firearm technologies are being explored under the banner of the “Future Soldier” program. Having studied many of these, I can tell you that they put much of what was shown in Aliens to shame, especially where Heads-Up-Displays and portable computers are concerned! Again, the future seems to be coming sooner than we thought!
Having covered Snow Crash and Diamond Age awhile back, I thought it was time to move on to the third installment in my Neal Stephenson series. Today, for consideration, the historic techno-thriller Cryptonomicon! This story took me close to a year to read, in part due to interruptions, but also because the book is pretty freaking dense! However, the read was not only enjoyable and informative, it was also pretty poignant. As a historian and a sci-fi buff, there was plenty there for me to enjoy and learn from. And for those who enjoy techno-thrillers and dissertations on mathematics, this book is also a page turner! Little wonder then why this novel was dubbed the “ultimate geek novel”.
The name is derived from H.P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, a fictitious book that has been referenced numerous times in western literature and pop culture. The name is indicative of the book’s main theme, cryptology, as well as the unofficial manual used by cryptologists during and after World War II. In addition to featuring fictionalized versions of real events, it is also chock-full of fictionalized personalities drawn from history. They include Alan Turing, Albert Einstein, Douglas MacArthur, Winston Churchill, Isoroku Yamamoto, Karl Dönitz, and Ronald Reagan, as well as some highly technical and detailed descriptions of modern cryptography and information security, with discussions of prime numbers, modular arithmetic, and Van Eck phreaking.
Unlike his other novels, Cryptonomicon was much more akin to historical fiction and techno-thriller than actual sci-fi, mainly because its narratives take place in the past and present day. However, this is a bit of an arbitrary designation. As most fans of science fiction know, a story need not take place in the future in order to explore the kinds of themes common to the genre. And really, all science fiction is actually about the time period in which it is written, and actively draws on the past to create a picture of the future. So putting aside the question of where it falls in the literary spectrum for now, allow me to delve into this bad boy and what was good about it!
The story contains four intertwining plotlines, three of which are set in the Second World War, and a fourth which takes in the late 90’s. The first follows the exploits of a man named Bobby Shaftoe, a decorated Marine who has just survived the battle of Gaudacanal and is being transferred to the OSS’s counterintelligence division. The second follows Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, a mathematician and cryptologist working for the joint American and British cryptology unit 2702. This work involves breaking German codes and leads him to several interesting encounters with famous people. including Albert Einstein and Alan Turing. The third involves a Japanese man named Goto Dengo, an Imperial Army officer and a mining engineer who becomes involved in a a secret Axis project to bury looted gold in the Philippines. The fourth and final perspective which takes place in the 90’s centers on Randy Lawrence Waterhouse, an expert programmer working for an IT company (Epiphyte) that is been doing business in the Philippines.
As the story develops, we see Shaftoe become marooned in Finland where he meets up with some unlikely compatriots. The first is a Catholic priest and physician named Enoch Root, who is attached to 2702, while the second is a Kriegsmarine Captain named Günter Bischoff, who is the commanding officer of an experimental rocket-propelled U-Boat. We learn that an alliance has formed between these individuals, mainly because Bischoff, who became marooned in Finland with the rest of them, has learned that the Kriegsmarine has been given the task of smuggling gold to Japan in order to buy their continued cooperation in the war. He and the others decide to work together to get their hands on some, and soon find themselves back in the Philippines. Before the war, Shaftoe had a sweetheart there named Glory, who he has not seen since the Japanese invaded, and whom he is eager to get back to.
Meanwhile, Waterhouse is bounced around the globe in his efforts to break the Axis’ codes. First, he is sent to a fictional island in the English Channel known as Qwghlm (pronounced ???). On this island, the people wear incredibly thick wool sweaters and speak a language that is loosely related to Gaelic, and incredibly hard to understand. He is then sent off to Brisbane, Australia, to work on breaking the Japanese’s codes. While there, he finds a community of Qwghlmians, who he learns are serving as operators for the British. Whereas the US had their “Wind Talkers”, Navaho signal officers who used their native languages to confuse Japanese listeners, the British had Qwghlmians. Here, he falls in love with, and eventually marries, a young woman named Mary cCmndhd.
At the same time, Goto Dengo is nearly drowned when his troop ship is sunk in the South Pacific. He narrowly survives and drifts to an island where he is forced to survive amidst squalor, decay, and a group of Japanese soldiers who are pillaging and raping amongst the natives. In time, he is found by his fellow officers and is sent to the Philippines where he is put to work on the construction of a series of underground caverns. The purpose of these caves is to store the vast amounts of looted gold which is being shipped from Germany since the Germans are now losing the war and fear being overrun. After many years, the caves are completed and the Americans invade, during which time Dengo is reunited with Shaftoe. Having reenlisted with the Marines, Bobby was sent ahead to organize the resistance, and has learned that he has a son. After convincing Dengo to surrender and defect, he heads off for what turns out to be his final mission. Meanwhile, the sub carrying Gunter Bischoff and a hoarded supply of gold runs aground in the Philippines and the crew drown.
Fast forward to 1997, we come to meet Lawrence Waterhouse as he begins his work in the Philippines. Ostensibly, this involves selling Pinoy-grams to migrant Filipinos, a sort of fiber-optic communication system that allows migrants to speak with family instantaneously. However, he soon learns that his friend and CEO of Epiphyte, Avi Halaby, is interested in using this stream of capital to fund the building of a data haven in the nearby (and fictional) island of Kinakuta. At this point, his job description changes to surveying the laying of the underwater fiber optic cables that will run from the Philippines to Kinakuta, a job which leads him to enlists the help of a Vietnam veteran and mariner named Douglas MacArthur Shaftoe and his daughter, America “Amy” Shaftoe. These people, we quickly learn, are the son and granddaughter of Bobby Shaftoe. In addition, on the island of Kinakuta, the company that is contracted to build the underground facility that will house the haven is run by a Japanese man named Goto Furudenendu, who just happens to be the son of Goto Dengo.
Over time, there plans to create a haven free of repression and scrutiny comes under fire from various quarters. At this point, Amy and Doug begin to help Lawrence and his company find an alternative source of revenue – a hidden cache of gold rumored to be at the bottom of a Philippine harbor. They find the gold and have the money they need, but in the course of it, they also uncover the plot involving detachment 2702, the Japanese, the Nazis, and an unbreakable code named Arethusa. This discovery makes them more enemies, people who want the gold for themselves, or just revenge, and things start to get dicey! However, through this they also get to meet an aged Goto Dengo, CEO of the construction company and man who buried the gold. He agrees to show them where the cache is hidden so that it can be repatriated; and with his help, they find it, Randy and Amy get together, the haven is built, and just about everyone lives happily ever after!
Strengths: From the description alone, I’m thinking people will assume that this story was dense, well-conceived and came together quite nicely. And they would be right! One thing that is immediately clear about it is how well Stephenson weaves past and present together to create a grand narrative that is chock-full of suspense, intrigue and history. This last element is especially prevalent. I can’t tell you how many historical cameos made it into the novel. Through the character of Randy Waterhouse, Albert Einstein and Alan Turing make an appearance. Through his German counterpart, Rudy von Hacklheber, Hermann Goering makes several. Gunter Bischoff, though he never meets Karl Doenitz in the story, repeatedly references him since it he whom he is blackmailing and gets all his orders from! And through Bobby Shaftoe and Goto Dengo, Douglas MacArthur and Isoroku Yamamoto are also woven into the story.
In addition, the way he brings past and present together is done masterfully through his main characters, all of whom are apparently related. Lawrence Waterhouse is the son of Randy Waterhouse and Mary cCmndhd, Doug and Amy are the and granddaughter of Bobby Shaftoe respectively, and Furudenendu is the son of Goto. Hell, even Lawrence ex-girlfriend ends up shacking up with the son of a character in the story! In this way, the sense of connection between past and present is made more clear, as is the sense that destiny or some kind of long-term plan is being fulfilled. The evolution between cryptology and modern computing, how one grew out of the other, is also made abundantly clear.
As more than one critic observed, this book tends to appeal to the techno geeks in the crowd. In fact, that aspect of the novel can be quite oppressive at times. In several parts, the descriptions of mathematical concepts as they apply to various things (even the everyday), can go on and on and on. Two examples come to mind: the equation Randy comes up with to describe the rotation of a bicycle wheel, and the section where Lawrence and his peers are conducting some Van-Eck phreaking email surveillance. I mean really, page after page after page of inane detail! I got that the intent was to be comical in the sheer geekiness of it all, but for the non-geeky, the only way to survive these sections was to skip ahead or just keep reading and pray there was a point in there somewhere. Other than that, the sheer length of the book can feel somewhat stifling, which is why it took me a few months to finish it.
However, this book goes far beyond the mere technical. History buffs, fans of sci-fi and people who just plain like a good, complex and interwoven story will find something to enjoy here. Not only was it a good read, it previewed Stephenson’s ability to combine historical fiction and sci-fi, something he would reprise with the Baroque Cycle trilogy and the more recent Mongoliad, all of which I have yet to read! However, one thing at a time. I have yet to finish Anathem, and I’ve been eyeing Readme with keen interest lately…
Yesterday, I got into one of my all-time favorite sci-fi novels, Snow Crash! And, as I believe I mentioned, that was the novel that put Neal Stephenson on everyone’s radar as the new voice of post-cyberpunk. Well, if that novel established that reputation for him, it was his very next novel, The Diamond Age, that cemented it for him. Years back, a friend recommended I check it out. It was the first of Stephenson’s novels I would ever pick up, and since that time, I’ve been pretty much hooked on what he has to say.
In fact, a little over a year later, I picked this book back up and re-read it. It’s narrative, themes and content are rich to the point that you can read it multiple times and still feel entertained, intrigued and even a little blown away. What’s more, the premise of the book, which is of nanotechnology and the effect it will have on politics, economics and human interaction, could not have been more timely. Whereas Snow Crash came to us in 1992 and predicted the rise of internet communities, information control and the breakup of the US, The Diamond Age came out in 1995 and tackled what is sure to be the “technological singularity” of the coming century, the big game changer that will forever alter the course of human development.
The story opens in the Leased Territories, a slum-like community that exists outside of New Chusan – an artificial island built off the coast of Shanghai. This setting is clearly meant to allude to the European trading colonies of the 19th century, which is something the story comes back to repeatedly. Here, we see Bud, a “thete” (tribeless person) making his way through the world of freelance thuggery, body enhancements and tribal loyalties. This is another ever-present theme of the novel – the sense of ethnic and synthetic tribalism that has arisen now that the nation-states of the world have ceased to exist.
We also meet Nell, the main character of the novel and the daughter of Bud’s girlfriend, Tequila. Through a confluence of events, she finds herself in possession of a revolutionary piece of technology, The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. This is a fully-interactive book meant to educate young girl’s by taking elements of their own lives, combining them with culturally-relevant mythology, and serving as a source of primary education. How she inherits this piece and technology and its role in the story provides the inciting event to the story and helps to introduce the other main characters.
There’s John Percival Hackworth, an engineer who designed the Primer and was trying to smuggle an advanced, illegal copy to his daughter when he was mugged by Nell’s brother, Harv. He is a member of the Victorian phyle, a group of Anglo-Americans looking to recreate a golden age of stability, morality and technological advancement. His activities on the side bring him into contact with Doctor X, a Chinese nanotechnologist and Confucian leader looking to reunite China and free it from foreign entanglements. He manufactures the book for Hackworth, but when he gets into trouble, uses this to blackmail him into designing similar primer’s for the thousands of orphaned Chinese girls he takes care of.
Then there’ Judge Fang, the criminal prosecutor who lives in the Coastal Republic of China and who sentences Bud to death after he’s caught mugging some people. He is also suspicious of Dr. X and is looking to arrest him for what he suspects is human trafficking. However, when he learns that Dr. X has actually created a haven for orphaned girls and is using copies of the Primer to raise them, he comes to enlist with him. Finally, there’s Miranda, a “ractor” (actor in interactive movies) who performs for various clients out of a theater in the Leased Territories. However, her work soon involves performing in the stories of Nell’s Primer, and in time she comes to know her and develops a strong emotional attachment to her.
In between all this, we get a full account of what life is like in a world dominated by nanotechnology. In addition to the phyles and “claves” (enclaves) which have replaced the old system of nation states, people also rely on MC’s (Matter Compilers) to manufacture all of their needs. This has freed people from the traditional problems of manufacturing, supply and demand; but there is still the problem of access, as all MC’s require Feeds (lines that connect them to supplies of raw material) and the more desirable items still cost money.
Things come together when Nell, on the Primer’s urging, leaves her home and joins the clave of New Chusan, effectively becoming a Victorian. Meanwhile, Hackworth, once his own people realize he’s being blackmailed, begins playing the role of double agent so he can find out what Dr. X is up to. His efforts soon lead to his disappearance outside of Vancouver, where he is taken in by a strange society known as “The Drummers”. These people operate in underwater compounds located off the coasts of major centers, perform rhythmic, hypnotic dances and engage in ritualized sex. This act, we learn later, is actually for the sake of information exchange, which is done through the transmission of nanomachines contained within their bodily fluids.
These particular Drummers are working for Dr. X, their purpose being to tap Hackworth’s vast knowledge of engineering so he will be able to complete Dr. X’s secret project for him. For years, Hackworth is amongst them, contributing his knowledge (unwittingly) before he finally wakes up and returns to his people. In that time, he finds that his own daughter, who is roughly Nell’s age, has grown up and his people have all but disavowed him. However, his newly acquired knowledge proves quite useful and he is grudgingly readmitted to Victorian society.
Shortly thereafter, Nell is shown to be all grown up and decides to leave the clave of New Chusan and head back to the Coastal Republic, becoming a ractor just like Miranda. However, before this happens, we continue to see her interaction with the Primer. Gradually, it enhances her numeracy, literacy and problem solving skills. Turing machines make an ongoing appearance, and its clear that Nell is being educated on the evolution of technology by being made to understand increasingly complex machines. Eventually, the story culminates with “Princess Nell” becoming the leader of the “Mouse Army”, a army that when freed, becomes an army of young women. As it turns out, this army are the young girls Dr. X was raising who are in contact with her through their own Primers.
All this takes place against a background of increased tensions as the “Fists of Righteous Harmony” (a reference to 19th century China’s “Boxer Rebellion”) are growing in power and threatening to revolt. Shortly before this happens, Hackworth meets with Dr. X one last time to discuss his plans and what’s to come. Dr. X reveals his intentions which take the form of “The Seed”, a nanotechnological device that grows things out of the Earth like a real seed, and does not rely on Feeds the way the Victorian nanotechnological devices do. The purpose of all this was to arm China with technology that is consistent with its “Chi” (Qi), thus freeing them from having to import foreign technologies that are not compatible with their culture.
Things all come together when the Fists mount their final assault on the Coastal Republic. Hackworth is caught behind their lines and Nell and several clients and coworkers are trapped in their building. They fight their way out, but Nell and her companions are saved with the appearance of the Mouse Army. Seems the girls are now grown, like Nell, and have mobilized to find their leader (Nell) and defeat the Fists. Their army defeats the Fist rebellion just as Hackworth and the other characters escape the violence by heading to another “Drummer” compound located off the coast.
However, there entrance into the compound coincides with another act of ritualized sex. During these rituals, the female participant has sex with several male partners in turn, receiving a store of information which they have in their fluids. When it is done, said female usually undergoes combustion from the sheer amount of heat and energy involved in the process. Hackworth and the others are temporarily pulled in by the hypnotic music, but manage to break away just in time. The story ends with them emerging on the shores of the Leased Territory of New Chusan, hearing the bells coming from the Victorian clave in the background.
Needless to say, I-loved-this-book! It’s exploration of science, society, epistemology, technology, and its many cultural and historical references were both profoundly interesting and downright cool! One could also feel the literary inspirations just piling up throughout, ranging from Charles Dickens and H.G. Wells to the Wizard of Oz and other old Hollywood classics. But what I loved best was the profound sense of historicism that made it into this book.
Take for example the repeated allusions to 19th century China, a time marked by rapid change, growing resentment, and attempts at cultural revival. Stephenson’s predictions for the future played a key role in this respect, predicting that China would split between the interior and the coastal regions, that Communism would be denounced as a “Western philosophy” and the country would return to the state of division and confusion wherein it would be vulnerable to foreign influences. The concept that it would also need or want to find its own way, that it would desire technology that was compatible with its sense of culture, was also very interesting.
In addition, the actual references to historical periods – 19th century China, the original Boxer Rebellion, Confucianism, the Cultural Revolution – were also VERY interesting. As was his explanation of how the moral relativism of the previous century (i.e. 20th) is what led to the creation of the Victorian phyle, a group built on the idea of discipline and moral absolutes (much like their predecessors). His exploration of cultural differences, and how some were “better than others” was also though-provoking, though its not entirely clear if this was a rhetorical or a firm statement.
I was somewhat confounded by this last aspect of the book. True, Stephenson’s predictions have so far been wrong, rather than experiencing collapse and division, China has taken to the path of rapid industrialization and privatization that is likely to make it a solid, albeit polarized and radicalized, competitor in any future world. In addition, I was not entirely clear on whether or not he believed in the idea of cultural superiority, namely how through a commitment to hard work, repression of emotion and the imposition of moral strictures. However, I do believe the point here was meant to be rhetorical and allegorical. Mainly, I think he meant to show how history is full of repeats, how the pendulum swings back and forth and how technology can have a regressive as well as progressive effect on cultures. And in this respect, he was quite apt!
This is not to say that I didn’t love the technological aspects too. Holy crap were they cool! Feeds, Matter Compilrers, nanomachines, rod logic, nanomaterials, etc etc etc. It was to have a profound influence on my own writing as well!
I’ve already mentioned one of the main weaknesses of the book, and that is the predictive aspects which felt like they missed. But as I indicated, it’s not exactly a weakness. Nevertheless, for anyone who was old enough to remember the nineties and has seen what’s become of modern-day China, the notion that they would regress to a revamped 19th century version of themselves, or indeed that they would look backwards for solutions instead of forwards, seemed a tad off. But as they say, hindsight is 20-20 and you can’t exactly fault an author for making predictions that didn’t come true. More often than not, these things are meant to illustrate a point, not as valid predictions they would stake their career on!
And this really was not the big weakness of this book, which was (once again) the ending! As I mentioned in the previous review, Snow Crash established Stephenson’s reputation for writing awkward endings. And this book cemented that too! This time around, the ending was even more truncated and odd, the reader being left with the feeling that not one but several chapters were being left out! For example, what became of Nell and the other main characters? Did she stick around in China to lead the Mouse Army, did the country reunite, and what became of Hackworth and his fellow Victorians once they washed up on shore? What happened with Dr. X’s plans for the Seed? Did China become a powerhouse in its own right like the Victorians, Japan, Hindustan, et al?
There was plenty of room for things to still go wrong and several key decisions that felt like they still needed to be made. In addition, readers were given the distinct impression that Miranda and Nell would come together in the end, but this really didn’t happen. Like everything else, I guess we were meant to imagine what would take place next, being left with a cliffhanger of sorts. Still, even the last sentence felt like the closing scene out of The Sopranos, where everything just ends abruptly and no one has any idea what’s supposed to happen.
The story can also be a bit hard to follow at times and feel a bit hokey. This latter part can easily be forgiven simply by reminding oneself that this is Stephenson, a man who mixes wit, satire and genius so freely that it can oftentimes feel a bit comical. But the complexity of the story and narrative is somewhat more daunting. This is one of the reasons I re-read the book, hoping it would be less vague the second time around. I was marginally correct.
Still, these weakness hardly detract from what it a work of genius and in my opinion, a thumping good read! For anyone interested in what the next great technological leap will look like, or who’s interested in a futuristic tale full of cultural/philosophical/technological/psychological and educational departures, I strongly recommend this novel!