Space Elevators!

space_elevatorWhen it comes to classic and hard science fiction, there are few concepts more inspired, more audacious, and more cool than the Space Elevator. Consisting of a cable (or tether) attached the Earth near the equator and a station in geosynchronous orbit, a structure of this kind would allow us to put objects, supplies and even people into orbit without the need for rockets and space ships.

And perhaps I am a bit biased, seeing as how one of the writer’s featured in the Yuva anthology happens to have written a story that features one – Goran Zidar, whose story “Terraformers” includes an orbital colony that is tethered to the planet by a “Needle”. But I’ve found the concept fascinating for as long as I have known about it, and feel like its time for a conceptual post that deals with this most awesome of concepts!

Here goes…

History:
The first recorded example of the space elevator concept appeared in 1895 when Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky was inspired by the Eiffel Tower in Paris. He considered a similar tower that extended from the ground into geostationary orbit (GSO) in space. Objects traveling into orbit would attain orbital velocity as they rode up the tower, and an object released at the tower’s top would also have the velocity necessary to remain in orbit.

space_elevator1However, his concept called for a compression structure, which was unfeasible given that no material existed that had enough compressive strength to support its own weight under such conditions. In 1959, another Russian scientist named Yuri N. Artsutanov suggested a more feasible proposal, a tensile structure which used a geostationary satellite as the base from which to deploy the structure downward.

By using a counterweight, a cable would be lowered from geostationary orbit to the surface of Earth, while the counterweight was extended from the satellite away from Earth, keeping the cable constantly over the same spot on the surface of the Earth. He also proposed tapering the cable thickness so that the stress in the cable was constant. This gives a thinner cable at ground level that becomes thicker up towards the GSO.

space_elevator_liftIn 1966, Isaacs, Vine, Bradner and Bachus, four American engineers, reinvented the concept under the name “Sky-Hook”. In 1975, the concept was reinvented again by Jerome Pearson, whose model extended the distance of the counterweight to 144,000 km (90,000 miles) out, roughly half the distance to the Moon. However, these studies were also marred by the fact that no known material possessed the tensile strength required.

By the turn of the century, however, the concept was revitalized thanks to the development of carbon nanotubes. Believing that the high strength of these materials might make an orbital skyhook feasible, engineer David Smitherman of NASA put together a workshop at the Marshall Space Flight Center and invited many scientists and engineers to participate. Their findings were published in an article titled “Space Elevators: An Advanced Earth-Space Infrastructure for the New Millennium”.

carbon-nanotubeAnother American scientist, Bradley C. Edwards, also suggested using nanotubes to create a 100,000 km (62,000 mile) paper-thin cable that would be shaped like a ribbon instead of circular. This, he claimed, would make the tether more resistant to impacts from meteoroids.  The NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts began supporting Edwards’ work, allowing him to expand on it and plan how it would work in detail.

In Fiction:
arthurcclarke_fountains-of-paradiseIn 1979, the concept of the Space Elevator was introduced to the reading public thanks to the simultaneous publications of Arthur C. Clarke’s The Fountains of Paradise (1979) and Charles Sheffield’s The Web Between the Worlds. In the former, engineers construct a space elevator on top of a mountain peak in the fictional island country of Taprobane, which was loosely based on Clarke’s new home in Sri Lanka, albeit moved south to the Equator.

In an interesting and fact-based twist, the purpose for building the elevator on Earth is to demonstrate that it can be done on Mars. Ultimately, the protagonist of the story (Dr Vannevar Morgan) is motivated by his desire to help a Mars-based consortium to develop the elevator on Mars as part of a massive terraforming project, something which has been proposed in real life.

Sheffield- The Web Between the WorldsSimiliarly, in Sheffield’s Web, which was his first novel, we see a world famous engineer who has created extensive bridge networks all over the world using graphite cable. In hoping to achieve the unachievable dream, he begins work on a space elevator code named the “Beanstalk”. This brings him into an alliance with a corrupt tycoon who wants to make rockets obsolete, and intrigue ensues…

Three years later, Robert A. Heinlein’s novel Friday features a space elevator known as the “Nairobi Beanstalk”. In Heinlein’s vision, the world of the future is heavily Balkanized, and people exist in thousands of tiny nation states and orbital colonies which are connected to Earth via the Beanstalk, which as the name suggests, is located in equatorial Africa.

ksr_redmarsIn 1993, Kim Stanley Robinson released Red Mars, a sci-fi classic that remains a quintessential novel on the subject of Mars colonization. In the novel, the Martian colonists build a space elevator that allows them to bring additional colonists to the surface, as well as transport natural resources that were mined planetside into orbit where they can be ferried back to Earth.

In 1999, Sid Meier’s, creator of the famed Civilization gaming series, released the sci-fi based Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri that deals with the colonization of the planet “Chiron” in the Alpha Centauri system. In the course of the turn-based strategy game, players are encouraged to construct special projects as a way of gaining bonuses and building up their faction’s power.

One such project is the Space Elevator, which requires that the faction building first research the technology “super tensile solids” so they have the means of building a super-tensile tether. Once built, it confers bonuses for space-based unit production, allows orbital drop units to be deployed over the entire planet, increases production rates for satellites, and removes the need for aerospace facilities. spaceelevator_alpha_centauriIn David Gerrold’s 2000 novel, Jumping Off The Planet, we are again confronted with an equatorial space elevator, this time in Ecuador where the device is once again known as the “beanstalk”. The story focuses on a family excursion which is eventually revealed to be a child-custody kidnapping. In addition to this futuristic take on domestic issues, Gerrold also examined some of the industrial applications of a mature elevator technology.

Chasm_City_coverIn 2001, Alastair Reynolds, a hard sci-fi author and creator of the Revelation Space series, released Chasm City, which acted as a sort of interquel between the first and second books in the main trilogy. At the opening of the novel, the story takes place on Sky’s Edge, a distant world where settlers travel to and from ships in orbit using a space elevator that connects to the planetary capitol on the surface.

And in 2011, author Joan Slonczewski presented a biological twist on the concept with her novel The Highest Frontier. Here, she depicts a college student who ascends a space elevator that uses a tether constructed from self-healing cables of anthrax bacilli. The engineered bacteria can regrow the cables when severed by space debris, thus turning the whole concept of tensile solids on its head.

Attempts to Build a Space Elevator:
Since the onset of the 21st century, several attempts have been made to design, fund, and create a space elevator before the end of this century. To speed the development process, proponents of the concept have created several competitions to develop the relevant technologies. These include the Elevator: 2010 and Robogames Space Elevator Ribbon Climbing, annual competitions seeking to design climbers, tethers and power-beaming systems.

space_elevator_nasaIn March of 2005, NASA announced its own incentive program, known as the Centennial Challenges program, which has since merged the Spaceward Foundation and upped the total value of their cash prizes to US$400,000. In that same year, the LiftPort Group began producing carbon nanotubes for industrial use, with the goal of using their profits as capital for the construction of a 100,000 km (62,000 mi) space elevator.

In 2008, the Japanese firm known as the Space Elevator Association, chaired by Shuichi Ono, announced plans to build a Space Elevator for the projected price tag of a trillion yen ($8 billion). Though the cost is substantially low, Ono and his peers claimed that Japan’s role as a leader in the field engineering could resolve the technical issues at the price they quoted.

obayashi-2In 2011, Google was reported to be working on plans for a space elevator at its secretive Google X Lab location. Since then, Google has stated that it is not working on a space elevator. But in that same year, the first European Space Elevator Challenge (EuSEC) to establish a climber structure took place in August.

And in 2012, the Obayashi Corporation of Japan announced that in 38 years it could build a space elevator using carbon nanotube technology. Their detailed plan called for a 96,000 long tether, supported by a counterweight, that could hold a 30-passenger climber that would travel 200 km/h, reaching the GSO after a 7.5 day trip. However, no cost estimates, finance plans, or other specifics were made at this point.

space-elevator-schematics-largeDespite these efforts, the problems of building are still marred by several technical issues that have yet to be resolved. These include the problems of tensile strength, dangerous vibrations along the tether line, climbers creating wobble, dangers posed by satellites and meteoroids, and the fact that such a structure would be vulnerable to a terrorist or military attack.

Other Possibilities:
Though we may never be able to resolve the problems of building a space elevator on Earth, scientists are agreed that one could be made on other planets, particularly the Moon. This idea was first devised by Jerome Pearson, one of the concepts many original proponents, who proposed a smaller elevator that would be anchored by Earth’s gravity field.

LiftPort1This is a necessity since the Moon does not rotate and could therefore not maintain tension along a tether. But in this scenario, the cable would be run from the moon and out through the L1 Lagrangian point. Once there, it would be dangled down into Earth’s gravity field where it would be held taught by Earth gravity and a large counterweight attached to its end.

Since the Moon is a far different environment than planet Earth, it presents numerous advantages when building a space elevator. For starters, there’s the strength of the materials needed, which would be significantly less, thus resolving a major technical issue. In addition, the Moon’s lower gravity would mean a diminished weight of the materials being shipped and of the structure itself.

space_elevator_lunarAs Pearson explained:

[T]o lift a thousand tons per day off the lunar surface, it would take less than 100,000 tons of elevator to do it — which means it pays back its own mass in just 100 days, or somewhere between three and four times its own mass per year — which is not a bad rate of return… You don’t need nanotubes and very, very high strength materials. But the higher the strength, the more of the ratio you can get for hauling stuff on the moon.

In fact, LiftPort is already deep into developing a “Lunar Elevator”. Plans to build one by 2020 were announced back in 2010, and since that time, the company launched a Kickstarter campaign to get the funding necessary to conduct tests that will get them closer to this goal. These consisting of sending a tethered robot 2km from the surface to conduct stress and telemetry tests.

Ultimately, the company estimates that a Lunar Elevator could be made at the cost of $800 million, which is substantially less than a “Terran Elevator” would cost. Similarly, it is likely that any manned missions to Mars, which will include eventual settlement and plans to terraform, will involve a Martian elevator, possibly named the “Ares Elevator”.

Much like SpaceX’s attempts to resolve the costs of sending rockets into space, the concept of a space elevator is another means of reducing the cost of sending things into orbit. As time goes on and technology improves, and humanity finds itself in other terrestrial environments where resources need to be exported into space, we can expect that elevators that pierce the sky will become possible.

In the meantime, we can always dream…

space_elevator_conceptSources: en.wikepedia.org, gizmag.com, io9.com, forbes.com, universetoday.com, futuretimeline.com

Absolution Gap

Good afternoon all – or morning or evening, as the case may be – and welcome to the final installment in my Revelation Space review. Today, I shall be covering the third and final installment in the trilogy, otherwise known as Absolution Gap. As the conclusion to the series, it brought together the apocalyptic trends established by the first two and wrapped them up pretty nicely, while also introducing some ideas and threads of its own.

These included the threat of the Inhibitors, the attempts by Neville Clavain and his rogue group of Conjoiners, Hyperpigs and refugees to stop them, and the growing awareness of those within the universe at large of their approaching doom. And, true to form, Reynold’s also tells the story through multiple threads which seem unrelated at the beginning, but ultimately come together to reveal a single plot arc that brings everyone and everything together.

And last, but not least, this book also brought the series full circle in terms of the quasi-religious motifs that play an important role in the story. As I mentioned in a previous post, concerning sci-fi and religion, Alastair Reynolds was not one to shy away from the subject of spirituality and religion. One look at the titles in this series (Revelation Space, Redemption Ark, Absolution Gap) are proof enough of that. However, Reynolds went a step beyond, weaving a narrative which begins with knowledge, proceeds to contrition, and then culminates in a sort of forgiveness for all humanity. In the end, the acts of the few who would risk all to save others provides the whole with a sort of reprieve, a second chance for them to contemplate their ambiguous future.

I also should mention that, much like in Redemption Ark, Reynolds chose to include characters and/or elements from his short stories and prequels into this book. In Redemption‘s case, this involved bringing Sky Haussmann back in the form of H, the man who helped Clavain and his friends find their way to Resurgam in time to witness the Inhibitors at work and help save the population. Here, we see hints of how the Revelation Space universe will end, which comes to us from the short story “Galactic North” which is to be found in the collection of the same name. But more on that later! In the meantime, let’s get into this book from the beginning…

Plot Synopsis:
The story opens in 2615, with aboard a lighthugger known as the Gnostic Ascension, a freelance treasure-hunter which is run by a sado-masochist named Jasmina. After waking her crewman Quaiche from reefersleep, she informs him that his attempts to lead them to valuable artifacts have failed for the last time. In order to ensure his success during their next stop, a planet in orbit of 107 Piscium, she places his lover Morwenna (an Ultra and fellow crewmember) in a scrimshaw suit on the outside of his exploratory ship until he returns with some goods.

While surveying a moon in orbit of the gas giant Haldora, he discovers what appears to be an alien bridge in a chasm, but is then attacked by automated defense systems. He then crashes on the planet and sends out a distress signal, knowing that since his ship is on the other side of Haldora, it will not be notified in time to save him. He begins to succumb to an indoctrination virus which he has been carrying for some time, and then notices a miracle has occurred. His shuttle has arrived in time to save him, tough the acceleration has killed Morwenna. During recovery, he realizes it was because Haldora disappeared for a fraction of a second, allowing his radio signal to reach his ship directly…

In the second thread, events take place on Ararat in 2675, twenty three since the crew of the Nostalgia for Infinity landed on the planet. After receiving a capsule from space, Scorpio seeks out Clavain, who has withdrawn from society and left him in charge. This was apparently due to the death of his daughter Felka, who wandered into the sea to contact the Pattern Jugglers and never returned. They discover that the capsule is from Ana Khouri, whom they have not seen since events around Resurgam took place.

Ana informs them that they are fighting the Inhibitors using advanced tech that they have retrieved with the help of Ana’s daughter, Aura. Having come into contact with the Hades Matrix, the alien moon which was an actual data storage device, she now has visions and is able to convey alien technology to their forces which they have begun to incorporate. Unfortunately, Skade has returned from where they had left her last time and kidnapped Auna from Ana’s womb, and is now holding her hostage. After being attacked by Inhibitors, her ship crashed on Ararat.

Making their way to the ship, Skade demands that they kill Clavain in exchange for Auna. Clavain agrees and asks Scorpio to do it for him, since he trusts him as a comrade as arms. He also asks that his body be thrown into the ocean so it might join with Felka and Galiana, his daughter and wife. After killing Clavain and rescuing Auna, the ship is attacked by Inhibitors, but they are saved by the Conjoiner Remontoire who defends them from orbit.

Back at the colony, the leaders decide that its time to load up the Nostalgia and leave the planet and confer with Captain Brannigan (now part of his ship) who reveals that he has been preparing to do so for some time. Apparently, he has been aware of what’s been going on in space, the mounting fight between Inhibitors and their allies, and knew the day would come when he had to lift them off Ararat. Bringing what colonists they can with them, they break for orbit and are met by Remontoire who helps outfit them with their new weapons.

After debating their ultimate destination, they decide to go to Yellowstone to help evacuate the people there before the Inhibitors lay it to waste. Aura tells them to go to a moon called Hela, though they don’t understand why and choose to ignore her advice. When they arrive at Yellowstone, they find the planet overrun and few, if any, ship attempting to depart the system are uninfested by Inhibitor machinery. As a result, Scorpio’s leadership is challenged and a new council is formed, which elects to go to Hela as Aura suggested.

In the third and final thread, the place is Hela and the year is 2727. On this world, a young 17 year old named Rahsmika Els runs away from home to find her long lost brother Harbin, who joined the “Cathedrals” long ago. This is basically a mobile city made up of religious institutions that travel the planet, keeping its eyes on the sky so they may witness what their leader – Quaiche – witnessed many years ago. The disappearance of Haldora, which is the basis of their faith, is something they are waiting on, and all initiates are injected with Quaichist blood to receive the same virus that converted him.

When Quaiche becomes aware of her, he becomes very interested. Els apparently has the ability to discern lies from truth. What’s more, her principle interest lies in xenoarchaelogy, and her theories on the extinct insectoids which were indigenous to the planet (the Scuttlers) are quite fascinating. Apparently, this race was also wiped out by the Inhibitors, and their whereabouts are another subject of fascination for the cult that has grown up around Quaiche. Because of all this, he lures her to his Cathedral and takes her on as an apprentice, never revealing that her brother is in fact dead.

Meanwhile, Els becomes plagued by nightmares about a race known as the “Shadows”, a people that live in a brane (dimension or universe) parallel to our own. In the course of speaking to them through her dreams, she learns that their universe was consumed by a rogue terraforming agent and they are trying to pass through into our own. Eons back, they had showed the Scuttlers how to build a machine that could bring them across, which was apparently hidden inside Haldora. Hence, the gas giant is not a natural planet, but a giant cloaking field which sometimes malfunctions. Hence its disappearance from time to time.

Shortly thereafter, the Nostalgia shows up and begins entering into negotiations with Quaiche to protect the planet. While this is happening, he attempts to seize the ship, but Scorpio and his people defeat them. He then takes Khouri and Els hostage, who we now learn is actually Aura (now 17 years old). Her identity was a cover to infiltrate the planet and learn all she could about their society, and her gifts the result of her enhanced mind. Quaiche then reveals that he wants the Nostalgia to anchor itself to Hela and stop it from rotating, so that he may watch Haldora permanently. Brannigan agrees and lands the ship, but also deploys a Cache Weapon which fires on Haldora, destroying its cloaking field and revealing the machine within.

A fight ensues, in which Quaiche is killed and Nostalgia/Brannigan is destroyed. Aura and Khouri are rescued and reunited with the crew. However, the question remains of what to do about the Shadows. When a digital envoy enters into a scrimshaw suit and begins to speak to them, it claims the offer to destroy the Inhibitors is still open. However, Scorpio claims that their is a better way. He claims that materials found on Ararat match ones found on Hela, which they originally took to be massive seashell deposits, but which turned out to be advanced building materials.

He now knows that these were left behind by a race known as the Nestbuilders, an ancient species which move unseen throughout our galaxy to elude the Inhibitors. He suggests appealing to them for help against the Inhibitors, rather than trusting in these Shadows. He advised Remontoire to tell Aura and Khouri of this, and they escape the Cathedrals before it is destroyed. Scorpio, injured and having gone through cryogenics too many times, dies out on the planet surface…

In the epilogue, the year is 3125 and the place is a Pattern Juggler planet. This brings the story full circle, back to the beginning where this same woman was standing on the world right before it was to be evacuated. She reflect on everything that has happened and realizes Scorpio was right. After finding the Nestbuilders, which had been hiding between stars, they used their weaponry and eventually pushed the Inhibitor menace back. The war is still not over, but victory seems assured. However, in doing so, they created a greater problem: the so called “Greenfly” machines. These are a self-replicating race of terraformers that programmed to destroy every object in a solar system and reorganize them into trillions of vegetation-filled habitats.

Apparently, the Inhibitors had kept them in check, but without the Inhibitors, the Greenfly are now out of control. This is very similar to what the Shadows described as having destroyed their own universe, which leads Aura to conclude that they were not from a parallel brane, but from the future. As such, humanity is evacuating towards the Pleiades, but before they leave, Aura decides that she will swim with the Pattern Jugglers one last time. In so doing, she hopes to warn and warn the people they have assimilated about what is coming, and enters the water just as the story ends…

Summary:
I should start this last section by stating that this was my least favorite book of the three. This does not mean I didn’t enjoy it, but as usual, there were the elements I had come to know and expect from Reynolds which detracted from the overall story. These include his use of convoluted plots, multiple twists, and some rather weird and out there concepts.

For starters, Clavain and Skade are both killed off pretty quickly in the beginning in a way that suggests that they were simply being done away with. In reality, Skade’s involvement in the story pretty much ended in book II when her ship blew up. Bringing her back and having her take Clavain with her just seemed like a way to write Clavain out, which I really didn’t see the need for (aside from making him a Jesus-like figure). Also, the concept of Ana’s daughter, which is the source of their ideas for fighting the Inhibitors, also seemed a bit weird. I mean a psychic, talking baby?

The Hades Matrix being a source of valuable information I could see, but why not just have it that they went back there to get as much information as they could in the intervening 23 years? And if they were going for a messiah-type figure in her daughter, why not let her grow up before she becomes this impressive psychic figure. It would go a long way to furthering the Judea-Christian elements that are prevalent in the story.

Which brings me to the next issue, that of the many plot twists. For starters, why was it necessary to blank out Aura’s mind so she could pretend to be a 17 year old native to Hela? Why not just send her in as is, posing as a religious convert who had come from off world? All kinds of people came to Hela everyday for this exact reason, so why not simply slip her in with them? Or, why didn’t they simply contact Quaiche directly when they got there instead of going through all this cloak and dagger? Things really didn’t materialize until they did anyway, so why go through all that? Granted, it tied the threads together quite succinctly, but by the time it is revealed, I began to feel that the story was trying to do too much.

And finally, there is the matter of the twist ending. At the time of reading, I felt like it came out of nowhere. Who were these Nestbuilders? Why hadn’t we heard of them until now? And why the last minute introduction of them? Naturally, I would later learn that the Nestbuilders did not so much come out of nowhere, but were instead an adaptation of something from an earlier work. Essentially, they are a species who make an appearance in “Galactic North” and who are related to the “Slugs” from Chasm City – i.e. the species that had taken to hiding between star systems to avoid the Inhibitors. This made sense and wrapped things up nicely by tying it back to his previous work. But much like with the character of H in the Redemption, I felt that things had not been explained fully.

What’s more, this does not explain how Scorpio was able to discern their existence and learn all he needed to know – like the fact that they could trust them or they would be able to help them beat the Inhibitors – from one tiny shard of shell they left behind. Perhaps if he revealed that Felka told them as much after meeting with the Pattern Jugglers one last time, or that Galiana had conveyed some hints in one of her visions before dying. But as I recall, no explanations were made and we’re simply handed this solution shortly before the book ends. Again, not well explained, and kind of comes off as a third act twist that feels contrived.

And now for the things I liked! As usual, Reynold’s characteristic knack for combining cool technology, hard science, a gritty take on the universe, and some interesting conceptualizations of alien civilizations proved very interesting. On top of all that, there was a rather intriguing commentary on organized religion and apocalypticism which ran through the entire story, which achieved a truly artistic climax in the way he envisioned the “Cathedrals”. I am forced to wonder if he adapted that from somewhere, or it was a Reynold’s original. Either way, very cool!

And in hindsight, I actually appreciate the way he managed to weave elements from Chasm City and Galactic North into this story. The way it ended on a note of uncertainty, due to the fact that their universe was beginning to resemble the very one the Shadows had told them about, really brought the story home and gave the impression of a tightly knit universe. Lastly, the way Reynolds took this opportunity (again) to get into some hard scientific concepts, most notably membrane theory (aka. M-theory), was quite welcome. Much like how he incorporating Galactic Collisions in volume two, it was not only educational but enjoyable to see real scientific theories being adapted into fiction.

All in all, I consider the Revelation Space trilogy to be one of the most influential and poignant series I have ever read. While it might not rank up there with Dune or LOTR, it remains a source of inspiration and ideas for me. Hell, Reynolds practically taught me all I know about nanotechnology, not to mention time dilation and relativistic space travel. Without his hard scientific  influence, I would still be believing in a universe where FTL had to happen in order for good sci-fi to occur!

Note: Alas, I have yet to read the Prefect, the fifth and final novel in the Revelation Space universe. And in point of fact, several short stories make up the universe as well, some of which I believe I have yet to read. So really, I cannot say in all honesty that I’ve read the entire series or have commented on it fully. However, the novels of Revelation Space, Redemption Ark, and Absolution Gap are the only ones in the series that have a common plot and characters, hence why I refer to them as a “trilogy” and treat them as a contained set. And in that respect, I have finished with the Revelation Space Universe and my review thereof. Anything else at this point would just be gravy… 😉

Religion in Sci-Fi

Since its inception as a literary genre, religion has played an important role in science fiction. Whether it took the form of informing the author’s own beliefs, or was delivered as part of their particular brand of social commentary, no work of sci-fi has ever been bereft of spirituality.Even self-professed atheists and materialists had something to say about religion, the soul and the concept of the divine, even if it was merely to deny its existence.

And so, I thought it might make for an interesting conceptual post to see exactly what some of history’s greats believed and how they worked it into their body of literature. As always, I can’t include everybody, but I sure as hell can include anyone who’s books I’ve read and beliefs I’ve come to know. And where ignorance presides, I shall attempt to illuminate myself on the subject. Okay, here goes!

Alastair Reynolds:
Despite being a relative newby to the field of sci-fi authors, Reynolds has established a reputation for hard science and grand ideas with his novels. And while not much information exists on his overall beliefs, be they religious or secular, many indications found their way into his books that would suggest he carries a rather ambiguous view of spirituality.

Within the Revelation Space universe, where most of his writing takes place, there are many mentions of a biotechnological weapon known as the “Indoctrination Virus”. This is an invasive program which essentially converts an individual to any number of sectarian ideologies by permeating their consciousness with visions of God, the Cross, or other religious iconography.

In Chasm City, these viruses are shown to be quite common on the world of Sky’s Edge, where religious sects use them to convert people to the official faith of the planet that claims Sky Haussmann was a prophet who was unfairly crucified for his actions. In Absolution Gap, they also form the basis of a society that populates an alien world known as Hela. Here, a theocratic state was built around a man named Quaiche, who while near death watched the moon’s gas giant disappear for a fraction of a second.

Unsure if this was the result of a strain he carries, he created a mobile community that travels the surface of the planet and watches the gas giant at all times using mirrors and reclining beds, so that they are looking heavenward at all times. Over the years, this community grew and expanded and became a mobile city, with each “believer” taking on transfusions of his blood so they could contract the the strain that converted him and allowed him to witness all that he did.

While this would indicate that Reynolds holds a somewhat dim view of religion, he leaves plenty of room for the opposite take. All throughout his works, the idea of preserving one’s humanity in a universe permeated by post-mortal, post-human, cybernetic beings remains a constant. In addition, as things get increasingly dark and the destruction of our race seems imminent, individual gestures of humanity are seem as capable of redeeming and even saving humanity as a species.

In fact, the names of the original trilogy allude to this: Revelation Space, Redemption Ark, Absolution Gap. Like with everything else in his books, Reynold’s seems to prefer to take a sort of middling approach, showing humanity as an ambiguous species rather than an inherently noble one or foul one. Religion, since it is a decidedly human practice, can only be seen as ambiguous as well.

Arthur C. Clarke:
At once a great futurist and technologist, Clarke was nevertheless a man who claimed to be endlessly fascinated with the concept of God and transcendence. When interviews on the subjects of his beliefs, he claimed that he was “fascinated by the concept of God.” During another interview, he claimed that he believed that “Any path to knowledge is a path to God—or Reality, whichever word one prefers to use.”

However, these views came to change over time, leading many to wonder what the beliefs of this famed author really were. At once disenchanted with organized religion, he often found himself subscribing to various alternative beliefs systems. At other times, he insisting he was an atheist, and nearing the end of his life, even went so far as to say that he did not want religious ceremonies of any kind at his funeral.

Nowhere were these paradoxical views made more clear than in his work. For example, in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the theme of transcendence, of growing to the point of becoming god-like, is central. Early hominid’s evolution into humanity is seen as the direct result of tampering by higher forces, aliens which are so ancient and evolved that they are virtually indistinguishable from gods. Throughout the series, human beings get a taste of this as they merge with the alien intelligence, becoming masters of their own universe and godlike themselves.

In the last book of the series – 3001: Final Odyssey, which Clarke wrote shortly before his death – Clarke describes a future where the Church goes the way of Soviet Communism. Theorizing that in the 21st century a reformist Pope would emerge who would choose to follow a similar policy as Gorbachev (“Glasnost”) and open the Vatican archives, Clarke felt that Christianity would die a natural death and have to be replaced by something else altogether. Thereafter, a sort of universal faith built around an open concept of God (called Deus) was created. By 3001, when the story is taking place, people look back at Christianity as a primitive necessity, but one which became useless by the modern age.

So, in a way, Clarke was like many Futurists and thoroughgoing empiricists, in that he deplored religion for its excesses and abuses, but seemed open to the idea of a cosmic creator at times in his life. And, when pressed, he would say that his personal pursuit for truth and ultimate reality was identical to the search for a search God, even if it went by a different name.

Frank Herbert:
Frank Herbert is known for being the man who taught people how to take science fiction seriously all over again. One of the reasons he was so successful in this regard was because of the way he worked the central role played by religion on human culture and consciousness into every book he ever wrote. Whether it was the Lazarus Effect, the Jesus Incident, or the seminal Dune, which addresses the danger of prophecies and messiahs, Frank clearly believed that the divine was something humanity was not destined to outgrow.

And nowhere was this made more clear than in the Dune saga. In the very first novel, it is established that humanity lives in a galaxy-spanning empire, and that the codes governing technological progress are the result of a “jihad” which took place thousands of years ago. This war was waged against thinking machines and all other forms of machinery that threatened to usurp humanity’s sense of identity and creativity, resulting in the religious proscription “Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind.”

Several millennium later, the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood, a quasi-religious matriarchal society, are conspiring to create a messianic figure in the form of the Kwisatz Haderach. The name itself derives from the Hebrew term “Kefitzat Haderech” (literally: “The Way’s Jump”), a Kabbalic term related to teleportation. However, in this case, the name refers to the individual’s absolute prescience, the ability to jump through time in their mind’s eye. In preparation for the arrival of this being, they have been using their missionaries to spread messiah legends all over the known universe, hoping that people will respond to the arrival of their superbeing as if he were a messianic figure.

When the main character, Paul Atreides – the product of Bene Gesserit’s breeding program – arrives on the planet Arrakis, where his family is betrayed and killed, he and his mother become refugees amongst the native Fremen. They are one such people who have been prepped for his arrival, and wonder if he is in fact the one who will set them free. In order to survive, Paul takes on this role and begins to lead the Fremen as a religious leader. All along, he contends with the fear that in so doing, he will be unleashing forces he cannot control, a price which seems too high just to ensure that he and his mother survive and avenge themselves on their betrayers.

However, in the end, he comes to see that this is necessary. His prescience and inner awareness reveal to him that his concepts of morality are short-sighted, failing to take into account the need for renewal through conflict and war. And in the end, this is exactly what happens.By assuming the role of the Kwisatz Haderach, and the Fremen’s Mahdi, he defeats the Emperor and the Harkonnens and becomes the Emperor of the known universe. A series of crusades followers as his followers go out into the universe to subdue all rebellion to his rule and spread their new faith. Arrakis not only becomes the seat of power, but the spiritual capital of the universe, with people coming far and wide to see their new ruler and prophet.

As the series continues, Paul chooses to sacrifice himself in order to put an end to the cult of worship that has come of his actions. He wanders off into the desert, leaving his sister Alia to rule as Regent. As his children come of age, his son, Leto II, realizes the follies of his father and must make a similar choice as he did. Granted, assuming the role of a God is fraught with peril, but in order to truly awaken humanity from its sleep and prepare it for the future, he must go all the way and become a living God. Thus, he merges with the Sandworm, achieving a sort of quasi-immortality and invincibility.

After 3500 of absolute rule, he conspires in a plot to destroy himself and dies, leaving a huge, terrible, but ultimately noble legacy that people spend the next 1500 years combing through. When they come to the point of realizing what Leto II was preparing them for, they come to see the wisdom in his three and half millennia of tyranny. By becoming a living God, by manipulating the universe through his absolute prescience, he was preparing humanity for the day when they would be able to live without Gods. Like the Bene Gesserit, who became his chosen after the fact, he was conspiring to create “mature humanity”, a race of people who could work out their fates moment by moment and not be slaved to prophecies or messiahs.

As you can see, the commentary ran very deep. At once, Herbert seemed to be saying that humanity would never outlive the need for religion, but at the same time, that our survival might someday require us to break our dependency on it. Much like his critique on rational thought, democracy and all other forms of ideology, he seemed to be suggesting that the path to true wisdom and independence lay in cultivating a holistic awareness, one which viewed the universe not through a single lens, but as a multifaceted whole, and which was really nothing more than a projection of ourselves.

For those seeking clarity, that’s about as clear as it gets. As Herbert made very clear through the collection of his works, religion was something that he was very fascinated with, especially the more esoteric and mystical sects – such as Kaballah, Sufism, Zen Buddhism and the like. This was appropriate since he was never a man who gave answers easily, preferring to reflect on the mystery rather than trying to contain it with imperfect thoughts. Leto II said something very similar to this towards the end of God Emperor of Dune; as he lay dying he cautions Duncan and Siona against attempts to dispel the mystery, since all he ever tried to do was increase it. I interpreted this to be a testament of Frank’s own beliefs, which still inspire me to this day!

Gene Roddenberry:
For years, I often found myself wondering what Roddenberry’s take on organized religion, spirituality, and the divine were. Like most things pertaining to Star Trek, he seemed to prefer taking the open and inclusive approach, ruling nothing out, but not endorsing anything too strongly either. Whenever religion entered into the storyline, it seemed to take the form of an alien race who’s social structure was meant to resemble something out of Earth’s past. As always, their was a point to be made, namely how bad things used to be!

Behind the scenes, however, Roddenberry was a little more open about his stance. According to various pieces of biographical info, he considered himself a humanist and agnostic, and wanted to create a show where none of his characters had any religious beliefs. If anything, the people of the future were pure rationalists who viewed religion as something more primitive, even if they didn’t openly say so.

However, this did not prevent the subject of religion from coming up throughout the series. In the original, the crew discovers planets where religious practices are done that resemble something out of Earth’s past. In the episode “Bread and Circuses”, they arrive on a planet that resembles ancient Rome, complete with gladiatorial fights, Pro-Consuls, and a growing religion which worships the “Son”, aka. a Jesus-like figure. This last element is apparently on the rise, and is advocating peace and an end to the cultures violent ways. In “Who Mourns Adonais”, the crew are taken captive by a powerful alien that claims to be Apollo, and who was in fact the true inspiration for the Greek god. After neutralizing him and escaping from the planet, Apollo laments that the universe has outgrown the need for gods.

In the newer series, several similar stories are told. In the season one episode entitled “Justice”, they come Edenic world where the people live a seemingly free and happy existence. However, it is soon revealed that their penal code involves death for the most minor of infractions, one which was handed down by “God”. This being is essentially an alien presence that lives in orbit and watches over the people. When the Enterprise tries to rescue Wesley, who is condemned to die, the being interferes. Picard gains its acquiescence by stating “there can be no justice in absolutes”, and they leave. In a third season episode entitled “Who Watches the Watchers”, Picard becomes a deity to the people of a primitive world when the crew saves one of their inhabitants from death. In an effort to avoid tampering with their culture, he lands and convinces him of his mortality, and explains that progress, not divine power, is the basis of their advanced nature.

These are but a few examples, but they do indicate a general trend. Whereas Roddenberry assiduously avoided proselytizing his own beliefs in the series, he was sure to indicate the ill effects religion can have on culture. In just about every instance, it is seen as the source of intolerance, injustice, irrationality, and crimes against humanity and nature. But of course, the various crews of the Enterprise and Starfleet do not interfere where they can help it, for this is seen as something that all species must pass through on the road to realizing their true potential.

George Lucas:
Whereas many singers of space opera and science fiction provided various commentaries on religion in their works, Lucas was somewhat unique in that he worked his directly into the plot. Much like everything else in his stories, no direct lines are established with the world of today, or its institutions. Instead, he chose to create a universe that was entirely fictional and fantastic, with its own beliefs, conflicts, institutions and political entities. But of course, the commentary on today was still evident, after a fashion.

In the Star Wars universe,religion (if it could be called that) revolves around “The Force”. As Obi-Wan described it in the original movie “It is an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.” In Empire, Yoda goes a step farther when he says “Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.”Sounds rather pantheistic, doesn’t it? The idea that all life emits an essence, and that the fate of all living things is bound together in a sort of interdependency.

What’s more, the way the Force was governed by a Light Side and a Dark Side; here Lucas appeared to be relying on some decidely Judea-Christian elements. Luke’s father, for example, is a picture perfect representation of The Fall, a Faustian man who sold his soul for power and avarice. The way he and the Emperor continually try to turn Luke by dangling its benefits under his nose is further evidence of this. And in the end, the way Darth Vader is redeemed, and how he is willing to sacrifice himself to save his son, calls to mind the crucifixion.

In the prequels, things got even more blatant. Whereas Anakin was seen as a sort of Lucifer in the originals, here he became the prodigal son. Conceived by the “Will of the Force”, i.e. an immaculate conception, he was seen by Qui Gonn as “The Chosen One” who’s arrival was foretold in prophecy. The Jedi Council feared him, which is not dissimilar to how the Pharisees and Sanhedrin reacted to the presence of Jesus (according to Scripture). And of course, the way Anakin’s potential and powers became a source of temptation for him, this too was a call-back to the Lucifer angle from the first films.

All of this was in keeping with Lucas’ fascination with cultural mythos and legends. Many times over, Lucas was rather deliberate in the way he worked cultural references – either visually or allegorically – into his stories. The lightsaber fights and Jedi ethos were derived from medieval Europe and Japan, the architecture and many of the costumes called to mind ancient Greece, Rome and Byzantium, the setting and gun fights were regularly taken from Old Westerns, and the Imperial getup and rise to power of the Emperor were made to resemble Nazi Germany.

However, Lucas also dispelled much of the mystery and pseudo-religious and spiritual quality of his work by introducing the concept of the “midi-chlorians”. This is something I cannot skip, since it produced a hell of a lot of angst from the fan community and confounded much of what he said in the original films. Whereas the Force was seen as a mystic and ethereal thing in the originals, in the prequels, Lucas sought to explain the nature of it by ascribing it to microscopic bacteria which are present in all living things.

Perhaps he thought it would be cool to explain just how this semi-spiritual power worked, in empirical terms. In that, he failed miserably! Not only did this deprive his franchise of something truly mysterious and mystical, it also did not advance the “science” of the Force one inch. Within this explanation, the Force is still a power which resides in all living things, its just these microscopic bacteria which seem to allow people to interact with it. Like most fans, I see this as something superfluous which we were all better off without!

H.G. Wells:
Prior to men like Herbert and the “Big Three” (Asimov, Clarke, and Robert A. Heinlein), Wells was the master of science fiction. Since his time, during which he published a staggering amount of novels, short-stories and essays, his influence and commentaries have had immense influence. And when it came to matters of faith and the divine, Well’s was similarly influential, being one of the first sci-fi writers to espouse a sort of “elemental Christian” belief, or a sort of non-denominational acceptance for religion.

These beliefs he outlined in his non-fiction work entitled God the Invisible King, where he professed a belief in a personal and intimate God that did not draw on any particular belief system. He defined this in more specific terms later in the work,  aligning himself with a “renascent or modern religion … neither atheist nor Buddhist nor Mohammedan nor Christian … [that] he has found growing up in himself”.

When it came to traditional religions, however, Wells was clearly of the belief that they had served their purpose, but were not meant to endure. In The Shape of Things to Come, he envisioned the creation of a global state (similar to Zamyatin’s “One State” and Huxley’s “World State”), where scientific progress was emphasized and all religions suppressed. This he saw as intrinsic to mankind’s progress towards a modern utopia, based on reason and enlightenment and the end of war.

In War of the Worlds, a similar interpretation is made. In this apocalyptic novel, one of the main characters is a clergyman who interprets the invasion of the Martians as divine retribution. However, this only seems to illustrate his mentally instability, and his rantings about “the end of the world” are ultimately what lead to his death at the hands of the aliens. Seen in this light, the clergyman could be interpreted as a symbol of mankind’s primitive past, something which is necessarily culled in the wake of the invasion my a far more advanced force. And, as some are quick to point out, the Martians are ultimately defeated by biology (i.e. microscopic germs) rather than any form of intervention from on high.

Isaac Asimov:
Much like his “Big Three” colleague Clarke, Asimov was a committed rationalist, atheist and humanist. Though he was born to Jewish parents who observed the faith, he did not practice Judaism and did not espouse a particular belief in God. Nevertheless, he continued to identify himself as a Jew throughout his life. In addition, as he would demonstrate throughout his writings, he was not averse to religious convictions in others, and was even willing to write on the subject of religion for the sake of philosophical and historical education.

His writings were indicative of this, particularly in the Foundation and I, Robot series. In the former, Asimov shows how the Foundation scientists use religion in order to achieve a degree of influential amongst the less-advanced kingdoms that border their world, in effect becoming a sort of technological priesthood. This works to their advantage when the regent of Anacreon attempts to invade Terminus and ends up with a full-scale coup on his hands.

In the Robot series, Asimov includes a very interesting chapter entitled “Reason”, in which a robot comes to invent its own religion. Named QT1 (aka. “Cutie”) this robot possesses high-reasoning capabilities and runs a space station that provides power to Earth. It concludes that the stars, space, and the planets don’t really exist, and that the power source of the ship is in fact God and the source of its creation.

Naturally, the humans who arrive on the station attempt to reason with Cutie, but to no avail. It has managed to convert the other robots, and maintains the place in good order as a sort of temple. However, the human engineers conclude that since its beliefs do not conflict with the smooth running of the facility, that they should not attempt to counterman it’s belief system.

What’s more, in a later story entitled “Escape!” Asimov presents readers with a view of the afterlife. After developing a spaceship that incorporates an FTL engine (known as the hyperspatial drive), a crew of humans take it into space and perform a successful jump. For a few seconds, they experience odd and disturbing visions before returning safely home. They realize that the jump causes people to cease exist, effectively dying, which is a violation of the Three Laws, hence why previous AI’s were incapable of completing the drive.

Taken together, these sources would seem to illustrate that Asimov was a man who saw the uses of religion, and was even fascinated by it at times, but did not have much of a use for it. But as long as it was not abused or impinged upon the rights or beliefs of others, he was willing to let sleeping dogs lie.

Philip K. Dick:
Naturally, every crowd of great artists has its oddball, and that’s where PKD comes in! In addition to being a heavy user of drugs and a fan of altered mental states, he also had some rather weird ideas when it came to religion. These were in part the result of a series of religious experiences he underwent which began for him in 1974 while recovering from dental surgery. They were also an expresion of his gnostic beliefs, which held that God is a higher intelligence which the human mind can make contact with, given the right circumstances.

Of Dick’s hallucinations, the first incident apparently occurred when a beautiful Christian woman made a delivery to his door and he was mesmerized by the light reflecting off of her fish pendant, which he claimed imparted wisdom and clairvoyance. Thereafter, Dick began to experience numerous hallucinations, and began to rule out medication as a cause. Initially, they took the form of geometric patterns, but began to include visions of Jesus and ancient Rome as well. Dick documented and discussed these experiences and how they shaped his views on faith in a private journal, which was later published as The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick.

As he stated in his journal, he began to feel that his hallucinations were the result of a greater mind making contact with his own, which he referred to as the “transcendentally rational mind”, “Zebra”, “God” and “VALIS” (vast active living intelligence system). Much of these experiences would provide the inspiration for his VALIS Trilogy, a series that deals with the concept of visions, our notions of God and transcendent beings.

In addition, many of Dick’s hallucinations took on a decidedly Judea-Christian character. For instance, at one point he became convinced that he was living two parallel lives; one as himself, and another as “Thomas” – a Christian persecuted by Romans in the 1st century AD. At another point, Dick felt that he had been taken over by the spirit of the prophet Elijah. These experiences would lead him to adapt certain Biblical elements into his work, a prime example being a chapter in Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, which bore a striking resemblance to the a story from the Biblical Book of Acts, which Dick claimed to never have read.

All of this is a testament to the rather profound (and possibly nuts!) mind of PKD and his fascination with all things divine and spiritual. Though not a man of faith in the traditional sense, he was very much a part of the counter-culture in his day and experimented with drugs and alternative religious beliefs quite freely. And while most of his ideas were dismissed as outlandish and the result of drug abuse, there were many (Robert A Heinlein included) who saw past that to the creative and rather gifted artistic soul within. It is therefore considered a tragedy that PKD died in relative obscurity, having never witnessed how much of an impact and influence he would have on science fiction and modern literature.

Ray Bradbury:
Next up, we have the late great Ray Bradbury, a science fiction writer for whom all literature was of immense import. This included the Bible, the Tanakh, the Koran, and just about any other religious text ever written by man. What’s more, many of his works contain passages which would seem to indicate that Bradbury held religion in high esteem, and even believed it to be compatible (or at least not mutually exclusive) with science.

For example, in his seminal novel Fahrenheit 451, one of the most precious volumes being protected by the character of Faber, a former English professor, is the Bible itself. When Montag confronts him and begins ripping the pages out of it, Faber tells him that it is one of the last remaining copies in the world that actually contains God’s words, instead of the newer versions which contain product placements.

As the story progresses and World War III finally comes, Montag joins Faber and a community of exiles, all of whom are responsible for “becoming a book” by memorizing it. In this way, they hope to preserve whatever literature they can until such a time as civilization and the art of writing re-emerges. Montag is charged with memorizing the Book of Ecclesiastes, and joins the exiles on their journey.

In the Martian Chronicles, Bradbury is even more clear on his stance vis a vis religion. In the short story “-And the Moon Be Still as Bright”, the Fourth Expedition arrives on Mars to find that the majority of the Martians have died from chickenpox. A disillusioned character named Jeff Spender then spends much time in the alien ruins and comes to praise the Martians for how their culture combined religion and science.

Humanity’s big mistake, according to Spender, was in praising science at the expense of religion, which he seemed to suggest was responsible for modern man’s sense of displacement. Or has Spender put it: “That’s the mistake we made when Darwin showed up. We embraced him and Huxley and Freud, all smiles. And then we discovered that Darwin and our religions didn’t mix. Or at least we didn’t think they did. We were fools. We tried to budge Darwin and Huxley and Freud. They wouldn’t move very well. So, like idiots, we tried knocking down religion.”

In short, Bradbury saw humanity as lost, largely because of it deification of reason at the expense of faith. However, he did not appear to be advocating any particular religion, or even religion over science. When it came right down to it, he seemed to be of the opinion that faith was important to life, an outlet for creativity and inspiration, and needed to be preserved, along with everything else.

Robert A. Heinlein:
As yet another member of the “Big Three”, Heinlein’s own religious view bear a striking resemblance to those of his contemporaries. Much like Clarke and Asimov, he was a committed rationalist and humanist, and varied from outright atheism to merely rejecting the current state of human religion. According to various sources, this began when he first encountered Darwin’s Origin of the Species at the age of 13, which convinced him to eschew his Baptist roots.

These can be summed up in a statement made by Maureen, one of his characters in To Sail Beyond the Sunset, when she said that the purpose of metaphysics was to ask the question why, but not to answer. When one passed beyond the realm of questions and got into answer, they were firmly in religious territory. Naturally, the character of Maureen preferred the former, as the latter led to intolerance, chauvinism, and persecution.

In Stranger In A Strange Land, one of the most famous science fiction novels of all time, plenty of time is dedicated to the main character’s (the Martian Smith) experiences with religion. After becoming disillusioned with humanity’s existing institutions, he decides to create a new faith known as the “Church of All Worlds”. This new faith was based on universal acceptance and blended elements of paganism, revivalism, and psychic training. In short, it was an attempt to predate major religions by reintroducing ancient rites, nature worship, and the recognition of the divine in all things.

What’s more, Stranger’s challenge to just about every contemporary more, which included monogamy, fear of death, money, and conventional morality could only be seen by religious authorities as an indictment of traditional values. In that respect, they were right. Heinlein plotted out the entire novel in the early fifties, but did begin writing it for a full decade. He would later of say of this, “I had been in no hurry to finish it, as that story could not be published commercially until the public mores changed. I could see them changing and it turned out that I had timed it right.”

But just in case his work did not suffice, Heinlein expressed his opinions quite clearly in the book entitled Notebooks of Lazarus Long (named after one of his recurring characters): “History does not record anywhere at any time a religion that has any rational basis. Religion is a crutch for people not strong enough to stand up to the unknown without help. But, like dandruff, most people do have a religion and spend time and money on it and seem to derive considerable pleasure from fiddling with it.” These and other quotes illustrated his issues with religion, which included their irreconcilable nature with reason, their inherent contradictions, and the ludicrous things done in their names.

Summary:
And that’s what the masters had to say on the subject, at least those that I chose to include. As you can plainly see, their opinions ran the gambit from outright condemnation of religion (but not necessarily of faith) to believing that religion had it’s place alongside science as an equally worthy form of expression. And of course, there were those who fell somewhere in the middle, either seeing religion as an ambiguous thing or something that humanity would not outgrow – at least not for the foreseeable future. Strangely, none of them seemed to think that religion trumped science… I wonder why 😉

Redemption Ark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cool Ships (volume XI)

Armageddon:
armageddonBack once more to the Eve universe, thank you Mr. Zidar for suggesting it in the first place! Here we have the Armageddon Battleship, the main heavy warship of the Amarr Empire. Packing a lot of firepower into its long, heavy frame, command of one of these is considered the greatest honor an Amarrian Captain can acheive within the Empire.

In terms of armaments, the Armageddon is studded with heavy turret batteries. Its forward section is also heavily reinforced, giving it the ability to ram into enemy ships while pulverizing them with weapon’s fire. It is also heavily shielded in addition to its armor, making it virtually impregnable to all but the most heavily armed cruisers.

Battle Galaxy Carrier:
battlegalaxy-carrierMuch like the SDF-1 from the Macross universe, the Galaxy Carrier is massive transforming ship that comes in two modes. In carrier mode, it is a massive ship that is capable of space flight and sea faring. In its battle mode, it takes the form of a massive mecha which is capable of kicking some very serious ass!

Build in the early-mid 21st century by the New United Nations government, its primary purpose was to act as a colonization vessel for the Macross fleet. And unlike previous colonization vessels, it boasted many new technologies – such as cybernetics and implants – which were meant to continually evolve as the ship traveled through space. On top of all that, it possesses cutting edge stealth technologies that make it capable of slipping past Zentraedi forces and blockades.

battlegalaxy-attackIn terms of armaments, the Battle Galaxy lives up to its name! In addition to an advanced Gunship Type Macross Cannon, which converts into its main firearm when in battle mode, it also has 12 heavy beam cannons (also available in battle mode), multiple phalanx beam cannons and missile launchers, and a compliment short range micro-missile batteries for point-defense.

Firstborn Monolith:
monolithIt would be an understatement to call this one a classic. Taken from the Arthur C. Clarke novel and the movie of the same name, the Monolith was the mysterious aliens means of transport in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Known as the Firstborn, this race was basically the first species to achieve sentience in the galaxy, making them many millions of years old. After eons of evolution and space exploration, these beings had basically evolved to the point where they were no longer flesh and blood.

So really, these monoliths were not so much ships as chariots to carry their uploaded consciousness to the stars. Composed of unknown material and impenetrable to everything from scanners to nuclear detonators, they were a mystery to humanity of the 21st century. It also didn’t help that the only man get within spitting distance of an operational one disappeared, his last words being “My God, it’s full of stars!”

GTF Ulysses:
gtf_UlyssesThis ship, taken once again from the Freespace gaming universe, was one of the fastest and most maneuverable ships in the known universe. A collaborative effort between Terran and Vasudan scientists, it possessed the best design features and technologies they could muster. The Ulysses was designed for service in the Great War, but because of its assets, it saw service with GTVA forces long after the Lucifer was destroyed and the last of the Shivans routed.

In terms of armaments, it was lightly armed compared to other fighters, with four gun mounts, but only two ordinance bays. In the end, its greatest assets were its speed and maneuverability which made it highly effective against faster Shivan ships. In a dog fight, few things could catch it, or get around fast enough to hit it!

Inhibitor Square:
black_cube_world-1024x768These are the mysterious, dark and malevolent machines from the Revelation Space universe. Also known as “The Wolves”, they are a semi-sentient race of machinery that is designed to locate sentient star-faring cultures and exterminate them. However, the Inhibitors didn’t do this using lasers or photon weapons.

Much like the Firstborn from Clarke’s Space Odyssey series, they relied on a series of natural processes. The only real difference was they did it for destruction purposes. For example, when they became alerted to the presence of humanity on Resurgam, they chose to disassemble the planet’s gas giant bit by bit in order to create a massive trumpet like device in space. This was basically a gravitational weapon which they began using to shake the system’s sun to pieces.

Megathron:
megathronAnother Eve warship, the Megathron is the battleship of choice for the Gallente faction. It accelerates quickly, has a high armor capacity, and is very versatile due to its seven turret slots and two launcher hardpoints. This last feature is rare in Gallente ships, which tend to focus on energy weapons.

Because of its many weapons slots, the Megathron can be adapted to long range fire, known as the “Sniperthron”. This vessel is capable of engaging enemies at a distance of 150 km, but leaves it vulnerable to close range attacks and strips of the ability to heal. Another common build is the “Blasterthron” where the weapons of choice or short-range blasters, making it one of the toughest battleships around.

NTF Iceni:
ntf_iceniOnce more onto the Freespace franchise, dear friends. Here we have the one-of-kind prototype vessel known as the Iceni, the brainchild of the Neo-Terran Federation’s commander, Admiral Aken Bosch. Designed to be a command ship and mobile research platform, the Iceni was also a highly capable attack vessel, boasting mutiple turrets, beam mounts and missile batteries.

As part of project ETAK, the Iceni was the only vessel capable of communicating with the Shivans. After being mistaken for a command facility in an asteroid belt, Bosch was forced to deploy this ship prematurely. After shedding it’s housing asteroid, it set course for Gamma Draconis, where it used an Ancient jump gate to flee into unknown space. After making contact with the Shivans, the ship was boarded and most of the crew killed. Once the survivors were rescued, the ship engaged its self-destruct sequence and was lost.

In addition to being faster and more maneuverable than most ships its size, the Iceni also packed as much firepower as a Deimos-class frigate. These included 3 large beam emitters, 7 heavy turrets, 9 defenses turrets, 2 flak batteries, and 4 defensive missile batters. As such, it was capable of standing toe-to-toe with any comparable ship in the Terran or Vasudan armadas, and outrunning anything larger.

Prometheus:
prometheus_shipJust to be clear, I haven’t seen the movie… yet! I wanted to, but I dragged into seeing another film last night which also rocked (see below)! Luckily, I have seen enough trailers and promotional videos to know a few things about the eponymously named vessel. So here she is, just one day (finger crossed) before I see her on the silver screen! As an exploration vessel, the USCSS Prometheus was a designed for deep-space expeditions to alien worlds.

As a full-service space taxi, it was designed for both atmospheric and space flight and could therefore forgo the need for landing pods and shuttles. This was all made possible thanks to its reinforced hull, four multi-vector thrusters that allowed for verticle take off and landing, and an observation deck that allowed the crew a panoramic view of space and whatever landscapes they were surveying. During takeoff and atmospheric entry, these are enclosed by a series of protective shields.

Prometheus_ship_rearOn top of all that, it was packed with amenities for its crew. These included a large bay for heavy equipment and expedition vehicles, a full-service mess hall, a medical bay, recreational facilities, a built-in basketball court, long-range communications systems, crew quarters, cryogenic chambers, and holographic display windows. And of course, the ship’s own laboratory which served as its main research center. No doubt about it, ships like this, courtesy of the Weyland Corporation, ensured that crews could travel in style and comfort before being horribly killed by extra-terrestrials!

Special Mention: The Avenger Helicarrier!
Yes, I managed to get out last night to the movie theater. But instead of catching Prometheus as I originally hoped, I was coaxed into seeing the Avengers instead. It-was-awesome! Tons of cool action, a respectable, multi-layered plot, and lots and lots of cool shit! Kudos to Joss Whedon, I think he just became my hero!

And one of the things I liked best about this movie was S.H.I.E.L.D.’s own big-ass helicarrier! When they hinted that it was both a carrier and a sub, I was like “Whoaaaa! Like something out of Robotech!” But then, out came those massive turbofans and it took off! I just sat and stared for several, sustained minutes. My wife laughed at me. At that point, I said, “Okay, maybe you were right to want to see this.”

Anyhoo, much like something out of Robotech, this carrier was a massive machine that came in two modes. In its standard mode, it was your basic aircraft carrier similar in appearance to a Nimitz-class carrier. In its other mode, it is a freaking hovercraft, where four massive turbofans and two sets of jet engine clusters allow it to fly! It also has a comprehensive camouflage system where a series of reflector panels obscure it from sight, similar to adaptive camouflage.

And of course, as an aircraft carrier, it also has the usual amenities, which include several squadrons of F-22 and F-35 fighters and quinjets. And though armament didn’t come up in the movie, we can also assume that it has a full compliment of Phalanx point-defense cannons and Harpoon anti-ship missiles. But knowing S.H.I.E.L.D., I’m sure the list doesn’t end there. Most likely, they also got some cool stuff like an EMP, some rail guns, or laser devices in there too!

The Revelation Space Universe

Lighthuggers, Inhibitors, Ultras, Hyperpigs, Conjoiners Drives, Demarchists, Chasm City… Few science fiction authors have come up with as many weird and intriguing concepts as Alastair Reynolds. The author of the Revelation Space series, Pushing Ice, Blue Remembered Earth, Century Rain, House of Suns, Terminal World, and a slew of short stories and articles, Reynolds is not only a hard science fiction author but an actual scientist.

Yes, from 1991 to 2004, Reynolds worked as an astronomer for the European Space Research and Technology Center, which is part of the European Space Agency, in Noordwijk, Holland. So when it comes to matters of science and space – be it exploration, travel, or the physics thereof – this guy really knows what he’s talking about.

To start my review of his work off right, I’d like to cover his first full-length novel. Known as Revelation Space, this story became the basis for the universe of the same name and the setting of most of his books. It also advanced a lot of ideas and concepts which would inspire yours truly 😉

Revelation Space (2000):
The story opens with three separate but interrelated strands, though their connection is initially unclear. The first takes place on a planet known as Resurgam in 2551, where an archaeologist named Dr. Dan Sylveste is leading an expedition to uncover the remains of the Amarantin. This alien species, which were a winged-humoid race, existed for over 900,000 years on the planet before some cataclysmic event wiped them out.

The most recent discovery of the excavation team proves that the Amarantin were far more technologically developed than previously thought. Retiring to his den, Dan begins to commune with the beta-level simulation of his deceased father, Calvin Sylveste. Often, he consults his father, who died on Yellowstone, for advice in matters scientific and political. However, Dan soon learns that coup has taken place due to his obsession with uncovering the Amarantin, and a party shows up at the site to arrest him.

Cut to 2540 aboard the Nostalgia for Infinity, a “Lighthugger” vessel that is the mainstay of the universe in this time (the name refers to the fact that it can fly to within an inch of the speed of light.) Here,Triumvir Ilia Volyova is awake while the other crew members are in reefersleep (cryogenic suspension). They are en route to the Epsilon Eridani system and the planet of Yellowstone to find Dan Sylveste, not knowing that he departed for Resurgam some 15 years previously.

Its crew of Ultras (modified spacers) is desperate to find Sylveste since their Captain is a victim of the Melding Plague – a nanovirus that has infected all of Yellowstone. Basically, they are seeking his services yet again since his last treatment did not seem to take. Ilia also plans to pick up a new gunner since their last one apparently went insane and had to be spaced, the only clue he left behind was the name “Sun Stealer”, which he wrote on a wall in his own blood.

Last, the scene switches to 2524 and the surface of Yellowstone, where professional assassin Ana Khouri is hired by a wealthy recluse known as The Mademoiselle. Apparently, she wants Dan Sylveste found and killed, and she knows the Nostalgia for Infinity will go to the ends of the universe to find him. As such, she orders Khouri to go into stasis and meet up with the crew 20 years later when they arrive in orbit.

Meanwhile, we learn a few things of importance. For one, the Nostalgia appears to have been infected by virus other than the one that’s got their Captain in cryo-sleep. This virus appears to be what drove the last gunner insane and is threatening to kill Ilia now. During a training exercise where they test their landing suits, another glitch results in the death of another crewman, leaving only the Triumvirs – Ilia, Hegazi, Sajake – and the Captain.

We also learn that the cargo hold of the ship is holding a large supply of Cache Weapons, what are apparently referred to as Hell-class, all of which appear to be a bunch of Doomsday devices. Ilia secured these weapons from sources unknown, but in time it is suggested that they are of Conjoiner manufacture – the same advanced faction that built the Nostalgia’s engines (aka. Conjoiner Drives).

Artist concept of Ana Khouri

And finally, we learn why Sylveste is on Resurgam and why the Mademoiselle wants him dead. As it turns out, the Sylveste family maintained a research institute on Yellowstone dedicated to the study of alien civilizations. Many extinct cultures were discovered by humanity as it spread into space, no living ones aside from two exceptions. The first were the Pattern Jugglers, a planet-wide sentient species that comprised massive kelp nets that seemed to preserve the neural patterns of anyone who walked into them. The second were known as the Shrouders, aliens that were presumed to exist within a bunch of anomalous space-time bubbles.

Sylveste became interested in these when a colleague of his became the first to survive contact with a “Shroud” but was left insane. After years of doing nothing but scrawl images on the floor, he spoke and told Sylveste that he actually made contact with an alien intelligence inside the Shroud. This area of space-time, he said, was known as “Revelation Space”. He told him further that they held information about a great mystery that would explain the deaths of all alien civilizations in the quadrant, and that he had to go to the Jugglers to get it. As preservers of memories, they held the secrets of many dead alien worlds in their massive neural nets.

Having completed all this, Sylveste finally flew into the Shroud and survived. However, his partner in the expedition, a female researcher, was lost and presumed dead. In truth, she survived, but just barely, and returned to Yellowstone where she became a recluse known as… wait for it… the Mademoiselle! Hence why she wants Sylveste dead, because she blames him for her accident and the fact that she is now forced to live in a containment apparatus.

Ah but there’s more! After he made contact with “Revelation Space”, Sylveste was told to go to Resurgam where he would find his answers. He did not know why, but it seemed the Amarantin were the final piece of the puzzle. Before that happened though, he was brought aboard the Nostalgia to help the Captain for the first time. And years later, his work would be interrupted when the colony rose up against him.

Hints are also given as to what is going on vis a vis the extinction and the virus aboard the Nostalgia. Essentially, eons and eons ago, the first intelligent races of the Galaxy met up and began a prolonged conflict known as the Dawn War. After millions of years of fighting, the remaining civilizations, exhausted and cynical about sentient life, combined their intelligences with machinery to create a series of specialized weapons. Collectively, they came to be known as the Inhibitors, a race of machine-like intelligences that sought out sentient life and exterminated it once it achieved a high level of technical development.

Sun Stealer by bartolomeusz

Meanwhile, on Resurgam, Sylveste is given a reprieve from house arrest to see the latest results of the excavation, which have proceeded in his absence. It seems that the crews turned up a massive underground city containing many ruins, and hints as to what happened. Featured over and over are an Amarantin idol which is reaching towards the sun. Hints are also given that Resurgam’s moon, Cerberus, was also particularly significant to the Amarantin people. After learning of all this, Sylveste proposes marriage to his new sweatheart and they prepare to have their marriage in the city ruins.

By 2566, Khouri is brought aboard as the ships new gunner and they arrive at Resurgam. However, before they make orbit, a nearly catastrophic situation occurs when one of the ship’s doomsday weapons suddenly becomes active and has to be released. It detonates off their bow and creates an artificial singularity which very nearly consumes their ship. Having just made it away, Ilia concludes that the virus is stepping up its game!

Once they make orbit, the crew establishes contact and demands Sylveste be turned over. To make their point, they stage a ruse where they pretend to level an outlying settlement, and the colony responds by handing Sylveste over. This they do by attacking him during his wedding and taking him and his wife prisoner. The crew fly down in their special suits to retrieve him and announce that they plan to bring him and his wife aboard. However, Sylveste turns the tables by saying his artificial eyes contain a pinhead antimatter device that will destroy their ship. He lists new terms, which include letting his wife go and taking him to Resurgam’s moon of Cerberus. In exchange, he promises to help their Captain any way he can.

As Sylveste and the crew of the Nostalgia for Infinity approach Cerberus, Sylveste realizes the massive celestial body isn’t a planet at all—but rather, a massive space station. They fly inside and begin to be set upon by the devices defenses, but eventually make it down inside. Once in there, Sylveste realizes what it really is. Basically, the moon was built eons ago by the Inhibitors which served as a beacon to alert them of the emergence of a star faring intelligence. Once activated, it would signal the Inhibitors to launch their machines to the system so they could exterminate whichever species found them. Sylveste concludes that this is what happened to the Amarantin.

Aboard the Nostalgia, Ilia also is confronted by the truth when the virus threatens to finally take over the ship. Appearing on the ships main display, an Amarantin who identifies himself as “Sun Stealer” explains their purpose to her. Apparently, the Amarantin are the Shrouders! These bubbles in space time have been their protection against the Inhibitors for hundreds of thousands of years, and their means of drawing out new sentient races to find them and do their bidding. When Sylveste’s colleague passed into them, they realized their time had come, and as such, tried to manipulate him into discovering if the Inhibitors were still alive out there.

Unfortunately, this case of first contact went poorly. Not being able to recognize his neural patterns, the Amarantin nearly drove Sylveste’s friend completely mad with their message. Luckily for them, he was able to make sense of it in time and delivered it to Sylveste, who then came back to the Shroud where they were able to imprint a series of clues in his mind as well as a virus that would monitor him. These, they hoped would eventually lead him back to their homeworld and the moon of Cerebrus.  Their intent all along was to have someone else make contact with the Inhibitor machine, thus they could see if it was safe to emerge from hiding. If so, they planned to retake their homeworld. If not, it would be a different race who was exterminated and they would wait until the next came along.

However, that plan changed when Sylveste came aboard the Nostalgia for the first time and unknowingly planted the virus in the ship’s hardware. Hence why the gunner went mad and why its been threatening to take over the ship. Cut off from Sylveste, it was beginning to go mad. However, once he was aboard, it saw an opportunity to complete its mission. Having taken the helm, Sun Stealer now kept the ship in orbit around the moon and began reporting everything it saw back to the Amarantin Shroud.

Down on the station, Sylveste realizes that the beacon has become active and that he has been played. Rather than allow the Inhibitors to emerge, he detonates the bombs in his eyes to destroy the facility. Back on the ship, Ilia decides to unleash the Melding Plague that’s been consuming their Captain and let  Sun Stealer do battle with it. Sun Stealer loses and the ship begins transforming into a gothic nightmarish version of itself. But at least they’ve restored control of it to themselves. The story ends with the crew reuniting and setting course for Resurgam again.

Good Points and Bad:
Well, I don’t know if you could tell from my description, but the plot of this book was pretty damn complicated and mighty layered. And personally, I thought that was a good thing! It is not unusual for an author to have distinct points of view in a story that seem unrelated but inevitably come together, but Reynolds was really working overtime with this one. How and where the plots overlapped could produce headaches due to the sheer effort of keeping track of it all, but I for one felt it worked pretty well.

In addition, the inventions and futuristic concepts were a real mind-blower for me at the time. In fact, I specifically picked up this book in order to research modern sci-fi and get a dose of the latest hard science, and that’s exactly what I got. Beta-level simulations, Alpha constructs, nanotechnology, servitors, Lighthuggers, inertia, controlled singularities, and the like. It all called to mind numerous other classic sci-fi franchises, many of which Reynolds himself acknowledged a debt to.

For example, his Inhibitors sounded very much like the Firstborn of the Space Odyssey series. Here and there, you had aliens who were so advanced that they could download their consciousness into machinery that would preserve them for eternity, making for effective space travel in a universe that didn’t permit FTL. Reefersleep also called to mind cryogenic pods from Alien and other franchises. Cybernetic implants, augmentation and nanobots are all concepts one can find elsewhere too. Still, the way Reynolds combined these things together was quite masterful, and very much in keeping with the tradition of space opera.

And finally, I found the story downright intriguing. The concept of an ancient race that prevents the rise of space-faring sentient life because it knows from experience that such life will likely engage in prolonged war with other sentients seemed quite believable. One need only look at the process of human history to know that conflict is a defining feature, and that peace on a grand scale only seems to follow in the wake of terrible, exhausting wars. Consider Europe after two world wars, Japan after the Shogunate wars, or China after its Warring States period (and even after that!) Like it or not, peace and consensus are very often the result of war, war, and more war.

Okay, now for the weak stuff. As I said already, the plot can be convoluted. For the most part, this works in the story’s favor. However, something which comes up in other Reynold’s works as well, is his tendency to throw in too many plot twists, especially towards the end. Already we have a very complicated and layered story which really didn’t need any more curve balls, but some are thrown even as the other plot threads are culminating. In this story, the unnecessary twists involve last-minute revelations.

In Sylveste’s case, this happens just before he is captured by his own people and he takes the opportunity to unburden himself to his wife. He tells her that his father once had an alpha-level simulation of himself, as opposed to the beta that he frequently talks to. He gave this alpha to the Pattern Jugglers in exchange for the info they gave him. It is also revealed that Dan Sylveste is in fact a clone of his father. Hence his vanity and obsessive nature, they were retained from a father who wanted a duplicate of himself.

Last, there’s the revelation that the Captain of Nostalgia – John Brannigan – went into the Jugglers sea himself and used them to imprint his mind on Sajaki, one of the Triumvirs. His reasons had to do with the fact that he knew he needed to go into reefersleep until they found a cure for the Melding Plague. Unable to stand the idea of being out of it for so long, he decided to get the Jugglers to erase Sajaki’s mind and replace it with a copy of his own, that way he could be aware of everything that was going on while he was under. This twist seemed quite unnecessary too, as it really didn’t advance the plot any, just added another complication.

But overall, I was very pleased with this book and was sure to pick up its sequel. In fact, Revelation Space was the second Reynold’s book I had read at this point (the first was Century Rain) and I consider his writing to be a highly educational experience. In fact, much of his ideas and hard scientific basis served to inspire my own writing, particularly when it came to Source. So when it comes to authors I owe a debt to, he’s right up there! Stay tuned for more reviews of Reynolds and the Revelation Space Universe!

More Utopian Science Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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