THE DERVISH HOUSE by Ian McDonald

Did you ever read a book just because you liked the cover?  Yeah, me, too.  That is why I sometimes comment on the cover, especially those I think are awful, or cheesy or didn’t fit either the quality of the writing or the atmosphere of the work.  Well, here is a book I started to read because of the cover.

It is set in 2027 in Istambul, the Queen of Cities.  Good start.  Lots of robots, and especially nanobots and the police use swarms of them for surveillance and crowd control.

But the problem for me is that it is set in Istambul.  With all that entails, which is lots of references to things I have no knowledge of, lots of Turkish words tossed in, but the atmosphere!  The Atmosphere!  Really great atmosphere building, and gives us the feel of this ancient city, with its ancient neighborhoods and its ultra modern sections, its diverse population of Turks, Greeks, indigenous outer tribes, Europeans.

It stars the Dervish House, perhaps the oldest all wooden monasteries of the ancient dervishes, now profaned and turned into a hodgepodge of apartments and shops.  Everything that happens revolves around the Dervish House and its inhabitants and neighbors.

It features 8 main characters, and each chapter alternates character perspectives.

  • Necdet, an underachieving pothead who is on the bombed bus and subsequently sees djinn while experiencing a confusing religious awakening.
  • Can Durukan, a homebound boy with Long QT syndrome, who feels the vibrations of the distant blast. He sets his monkey-bot to investigate the scene and stumbles onto some dangerous clues.
  • Georgios Ferentinou, member of the Greek minority and retired experimental economist. Georgios is mentor to young Can, and participates in an intellectual think tank tasked to anticipate future terrorist plots. He is also a member of a group of older Greek men who frequent the neighborhood tea house.
  • Adnan Sarioğlu, a scheming big money trader who, along with his “Ultralord” buddies, devises a scam to sell tainted gas from Iran to his corrupt investors.
  • Ayşe Erkoç, wife of Adnan, and atheist curator of an upscale religious artifact shop, which is located near the dervish house. A mysterious buyer entices Ayse to locate the legendary mellified man.
    Leyla Gültaşli, a recent marketing graduate whose big interview is thwarted by the aftermath of the bomb. A distant cousin offers her a position in his experimental nanotech company, the success of which is threatened by a contract set upon the lost half of a miniature Koran.

I found it confusing learning about the characters, and keeping them straight until I printed out a list of them, partly I think because of the ‘foreign’ names, and partly because there are two main threads:

(1) the terrorist bombing on a tram on which Necdet was a passenger.  He watches while a woman touches her necklace and her head explodes.  Somehow, he escapes being killed, but begins to experience what seem to be hallucinations, djinn, (are supernatural creatures in early Arabian and later Islamic mythology and theology) and then the green god appears to him and offers advice and commentary.  He also sees a karin, the mirror image in the earth of people and he can now make predictions.  His brother has set himself up in their Dervish House quarters as a community judge and now he sees his brother as a kind of holy person because of the visions.

Ten-year-old Cam with Long QT syndrome (a heart rhythm condition that can potentially cause fast, chaotic heartbeats. These rapid heartbeats might trigger a sudden fainting spell or seizure. In some cases, the heart can beat erratically for so long that it causes sudden death), has been treated with earplugs that deadened all sound, so that sudden noises do not trigger a seizure and possibly death.  He is a smart kid with a nanobot system that he controls from his computer and tablet, that is a swarm of nanobots that can form a snake, or rat, or bird, and he uses it to snoop on the residents and neighbors of the Dervish House.  When he senses the bomb explosion, he sends his nanobot to investigate, setting off a series of events what I am not going to tell you because read the book.

He becomes friends with the isolated, overweight and depressed out of work professor of experimental economics, Georgios Ferentinou, a Greek expat who lives in a room in the Dervish House.  He has a multiscreen computer set up on which he surveys the city.  He also has tea daily with some other old Greed retirees across the street in a cafe.

Necdet gets kidnapped, Cam sees it, and sets off as Boy Detective to solve the case.

(2) The other thread as about money, greed, corruption and the search for the things that do not exist.  This is the thread with Adnam, the futures trader, who together with his three friends concocts a scheme to sell tainted gas to the corrupt pipeline company, sell the futures, get out after making a huge fortune, and live happily ever after.

His wife, the religious artifacts dealer, is approached by a man asking her to find a mellified man.  This is a honey infused corpse.  It is a sweet, human medicine, said to cure any illness. An elderly man would diet on, and bathe in, nothing but honey, until he became ‘mellifluous’.  His body would be interred in a stone coffin, also filled with honey, and sealed for a hundred years. After the allotted time, the result was a mummified human corpse, preserved in a sweet substance – a much sought after medicine, capable of curing a wide range of ailments.

This is for me the most interesting of the threads, following her search.  She eventually comes in contact with a young man, obsessed with finding the seven letters of God, and has decided that they can been seen in an overview of the city.  He can find 6 but cannot find the final letter, and it is through him that Ayşe finally finds the mellified man.

In this thread also are Lyla and the two guys with there bionano startup and their search for funding.

The two main themes/threads come together in the end in a finale that is fun, predictable and satisfying.

So basically the book is about searching.  Everyone in the book is looking for something, and the ending allows them all to find what they need.  Once you get the characters set in your mind, it is really a good book.  Actually, it is one of those books you like better after you have read it, rather than while you are reading it.  It kind of stays with you.


ANTARTICA by Kim Stanley Robinson

This was written in 1997, after his Mars Trilogy (which by the way I LOVED LOVED LOVED.) In Antartica he does what I think Robinson does best –vivid, living descriptions of the land, the landscape, the environment. He makes the readers feel that we are there. That’s why I loved the Mars Trilogy. The characters were fascinating, but the descriptions of the planet were just wonderful. It made be believe in Mars. lol  The same for Antarctica — I had to put on a sweater to read this book! Yeah, that good.

Set in a future that is about 50 years from now, where the earth’s population has grown to 10 billion, the story is built on a peripatetic U. S. Senator whose focus is the environment, and the Senator’s staff guy. The Senator learns of some illegal groups searching for oil in Antarctica so he sends his staff guy Wade to investigate, see what he can find out. Wade travels to McMurdo Station, the only sizable settlement on the continent and checks in with the woman in charge.

The characters  each have a storyline of their own, and the interest is in how they come together.  There is Val,  an Amazon of a woman who leads tours in the Footsteps program, where groups follow the routes of Scott, Shackleton, and Amundsen, some groups trying to replicate not only the route but with the same kind of equipment.  There is X, shortened from Ex, as in ex boyfriend, a man who came to the Antartic to find something interesting in life, and who was dumped by Val, hence his nickname.  These are the most prominent in a big cast, but the basic plotline is the idea that Antarctica belongs to no one, no one owns it, but a multi-nation treaty has established strict guidelines as to who can visit the continent and what activities they may engage in and where they may go.  There is a small group attempting to live primarily off the land, leaving no footprint, as an experiment, but it is difficult because the continent has no sources of food except the penguins and a large fish which can be caught.

But really, the principle character of the book is the continent itself, its vastness, its intense cold, its unending whiteness, and its emptiness, “a fifth element beyond space and time, emptiness in its supreme degree.”  And the effect that global warming or climate change is having on the various features of the continent.  Secondary to this is the history of the exploration of the continent, told through a Chinese tourist who is a feng shui master, visiting different landscapes of the world, and through Val on her Footsteps treks.  There really is quite a lot of painless history of the explorers, and I loved it.

There is also a lot about the greed and corruption of nations and individuals, which we saw in the Mars Trilogy, and about what is happening to the earth, and some exposition about capitalism, the dominant economic order, which subsumes everything else.

Really liked it.  I didn’t feel it was as strong as the Mars Trilogy, which felt like a passionate undertaking, nor as strong as 2312, which was about Mercury,  but I found it a page turner in its own right.

THE FALL OF MAN by Rob McLean

A sci if offering somewhat in the style of the 50s and 60s sci if . By that, I mean it is built on the premise that the society is nothing but greed and self-interest, corrupt, with the people of great wealth having gained their wealth through corruption, stealing, and caring nothing for the common people. Their greed is destroying the earth, but they care nothing about this as long as they can continue to fill their pockets.

We are introduced to eight individuals who have become disenchanted with life, and are at some kind of crossroads in their lives. They are each approached by a well dressed, obviously wealthy, man or woman, who say they work for an organization that needs their services for the next two weeks, and will pay that person the equivalent of $50 million dollars. The people are from several different countries and walks of life. they are told their bank account will be credited immediately with several million dollars just for hearing out the person, and a quick check through their phones show that indeed, they now have the money. Without my going into the details of the conversations and money transfers, the eight agree, and leave immediately for California where they will gather and be taken to an undisclosed location. There is a lawyer, a therapist, a writer, a brilliant mathematician, a retired military special ops guy, a priest, a drugged out rock and roll star, and I forget what the other one was.

They are taken to a submersible vehicle, and are told they are going to a station that is 36000 feet deep in the ocean. It is a vast complext, mysterious, but contains a city and and lots of lab area. It even has a 20-some floor subbasement.

They are told they there because a mysterious man claims he has a virus which will destroy the entire population because it is complex on the DNA level, gives the infected person no symptoms, and suddenly, the person will simply drop dead. It has an incubation period of 6 months, so it is impossible to know someone is infected until they actually die. There is no antidote for this.

He says he will not release it if he can be convinced that there is still something worth saving in mankind, and is using these 8 as representatives to talk him out of it.

OK, it is a ridiculous premise, and leads inexorably to that deplorable parade of moralizing, and philosophizing which I truly dislike. I prefer my characters to live their particular belief systems, rather than sermonize about them. So we slog our way through a couple of the interviews with Mr. White, who is being housed in a glass cage, where he has a comfortable chair, a bed desk and chair, etc.

At one point two of the 8 go exploring and discover more subfloors, and eventually the lab people tell them that this is a place where everyone goes when they die. There are two men operating two different virtual reality programs. One is pleasant and the other is basically a virtual reality hell. Where you end up is determined by some big mathematical program which assigns a rating to all your actions during your lifetime.

They are taken on a tour of the two virtual realities, and because hell is so awful, they come away with a different view of things.

Then Mr. White sets up what is simply a version of game theory, pitting the 8 against each other.

It was all very tedious, and if I hadn’t been working on reupholstering an office chair, and listening to the story on the text-to-speech option on my Kindle, I probably would not have finished the book. It has a predictable ending, and two more volumes in the series.

See, this is a good example of why there is chocolate and vanilla. I found it tedious, predictable, and annoyingly moralizing. My sweetie, however, LOVED it. This is why a review can never say a book is bad, or good, etc., but can only say it was good FOR ME, or bad FOR ME. I have read some books that I thought were absolute horrors, and checked out the reviews on Amazon and was amazed to find that people loved them.

So, final analysis:  too heavy handed in the moralizing department, too heavy-handed with the symbolism, and a B+ for the sci fi structure on the bottom of the ocean. and a B+ for the concept of storing brains to produce memories.    This is a trilolgy, and I cannot face slogging through two more of these.

I am not sure in what genre to place this, so I am calling it sci fi/speculative fiction.

TIMELIKE INFINITY by Stephen Baxter

This is the next in the Xeelee Sequence, a sprawling series of hard science fiction space opera novels, novellas, and short stories  which spans billions of years of fictional history, centering on humanity’s future expansion into the universe, its cosmos-spanning war with an enigmatic and supremely powerful Type IV alien civilization called the Xeelee, and the Xeelee’s own war with dark matter entities called Photino Birds. The series features many other species and civilizations that play a prominent role, including the Squeem (a species of group mind aquatics), the Qax (beings whose biology is based on the complex interactions of convection cells), and the Silver Ghosts (symbiotic organisms encased in reflective shells). Several stories in the Sequence also deal with humans and posthumans living in extreme conditions, such as at the heart of a neutron star (Flux), in a separate universe with considerably stronger gravity (Raft), and within eusocial hive societies(Coalescent) .  The Xeelee Sequence is notable for its treatment of ideas stemming from the fringe of theoretical physics and futurology, such as exotic-matter physics, naked singularities, closed timelike curves, multiple universes, hyperadvanced computing and artificial intelligence, faster-than-light travel, and the upper echelons of the Kardashev scale.

Whew. This is a series with a lot of hard science matters, terms and ideas involved and tossed around like confetti. The first is Raft,  which you can read about hereRaft is not so riddled with quantum physics stuff, so is not too hard to understand.  But Timelike Infinity really tests your knowledge base of (and possibly even your tolerance for) all those quantum science ideas and terminology.  Although Raft was the first written and published,(1992)  and Timelike Infinity the second (1992),  Baxter recommends if you are now just starting the journey, that you read Timelike Infinity third, and Raft sixth in the series as it finally was constructed.   But he also says that he feels each book or story or novella should be a stand alone, and able to be read in any order, just as time is not linear.  Neat idea.

OK, to the story line.  This is not a sequence to RaftRaft is set in AD 104,858.  Timelike Infinity is set  in 5407 AD, so it actually predates the events in Raft.

The human race has been conquered by the Qax, a truly alien turbulent-liquid form of life.  OK; what does that mean?  It means that the turbulence of a liquid IS the lifeform.  They travel in what is essentially a giant aquarium in which the liquid is constantly in motion, and communicate through some kind of voice simulator.  They now rule over the few star systems of human space – adopting processes from human history to effectively oppress the resentful race. Humans have encountered a few other races, including the astoundingly advanced Xeelee, and been conquered once before – by the Squeem – but successfully recovered.

In this book, we are introduced to the ambassador for the humans to the Qax, and they watch as a wormhole begins to form, and then they see the firing of particles which preceeds a ship from …. the past?  The future?   Meanwhile, a group of young people have built a ship with a hyperspace drive secretly under the earth in what we today would call England.  Right under Stonehenge, as a matter of fact.  They manage to take off right under the nose of the Qax, assuming the Qax have a nose,  into the wormhole and travel back 1,500 years in time.  They call themselves the Friends.

The Friends believe that quantum wave-functions do not collapse like the Copenhagen interpretation holds, nor that each collapse actually buds off separate universes (like the quantum multiverse hypothesis holds) but rather that the universe is a participatory universe: the entire universe exists as a single massive quantum superposition, and that at the end of time (in the open universe of the Xeelee Sequence, time and space are unbounded, or more precisely, bounded only at the Cauchy boundaries of “Time-like infinity” and “Space-like infinity”), when intelligent life has collected all information (compare the Final anthropic principle and the Omega Point), and transformed into an “Ultimate Observer”, who will make the “Final observation”, the observation which collapses all the possible entangled wave-functions generated since the beginning of the universe.

This is a deep and complex book, involving a LOT of physics, philosophy and a complicated universe of various time periods.  There is a lot about black holes and singularities, a great deal of which tests my layman’s knowledge.  But I did enjoy this:

If you had a black hole in your kitchen you could just throw in the waste and see it compressed to invisibility in a fraction of a second, releasing floods of usable short-wavelength radiation.    Of course you’d have to find some way of keeping the singularity from eating the Moon.

Then there is the matter of exotic matter.  (See what I did there?)

Exotic matter is mass/energy that is compressed to singularity densities, almost, so that the superforce emerges to bind it together — and then allowed to cool and expand so that the superforced breaks open in a controllable manner, to give us the negative-energy characteristics we want.

How far could we take this?  I’d anticipate the manufacture of singularities themselves, on the scale of a few tons up to maybe, asteroid masses.

See what I mean?  It has a number of plot threads for different people/groups of people and different time periods.  It is a lot of fun to read, and it really exercises your brain trying to keep it all organized in your head.   I looked up timelike infinity, and it basically is a kind of measurement for singularities, because you know, your tapemeasure is just not going to cut it.

 

RAFT by Stephen Baxter

I have been on a sci fi binge, lately.  Just finished the Spin Trilogy, and now have embarked on what looks to be another fine series of hard science sci fi books called the Xeelee Sequence.  Raft is book #1 of this series.

A spaceship from Earth accidentally crossed through a hole in space-time to a universe where the force of gravity is one billion times as strong as the gravity we know. Somehow the crew survived, aided by the fact that they emerged into a cloud of gas surrounding a black hole, which provided a breathable atmosphere. Five hundred years later, their descendants still struggle for existence in the Nebula.

In the Nebula, are three human species locations.  One is the raft, a motley collection of edifices, topped by a control room, all built on the remains of the original space ship.  The folks there have some kind of machine that makes food, and there is a scientist class of people devoted to trying to understand the universe through physics and retro engineering stuff.    The second is the Belt.  This is a small collection of shacks in orbit around a dead sun, which they mine for iron and other materials.  The gravity within the core of this sun is so great that the miners sit in special chairs because they cannot stand in the gravity, and operate robot mining machines. They trade their mined stuff for food and goods from the Raft.

The third location is a hoot, but almost the most interesting of them all.  It is a tiny planetoid, with a strange surface of what looks like leather.  They are cannibals, who occasionally improve their diet by luring in a passing ‘whale’, a giant creature that floats around in the sky.  It turns out that the core of the planetoid is a space ship control center, upon which years, generations, of bones have been piled, actually creating the planetoid. In the ultra high gravity there, it was not actually possible to throw anything away into space, so the original stranded crew on or in their brokendown ship left the bodies to rot and the bones to pile up.  After they ran out of food, they found a way to process the meat from the dead bodies so the toxins, etc were destroyed and what was left was edible and drinkable. They used the skin to cover the surface.  After a while, as the bones added up, they had to live on top of them, and when our protagonist first met them , the Bonies, the pile was about 15 meters deep.  The small bonies population were all the descendants of that original crew.   Fascinating concept, the most original I have come across in my sci fi readings.

A spaceship from Earth accidentally crossed through a hole in space-time to a universe where the force of gravity is one billion times as strong as the gravity we know. Somehow the crew survived, aided by the fact that they emerged into a cloud of gas surrounding a black hole, which provided a breathable atmosphere. Five hundred years later, their descendants still struggle for existence.

Our protagonist, Rees, is a young man, tired of the unending brutal work in the mines, never enough food, and terrible living conditions.  His parents have died, and he is alone.  He sees the people who operate the delivery vehicles are healthy and hearty, and figures there has to be something better.  He stows away in one of these vessels, which are actually living trees on some kind of wheels, is found and taken to the Raft, where he shows a better than average grasp of physics, and is allowed to remain and start classes to become one of the scientists.

He sees, along with a couple of the old scientists, that their bubble inside the Nebula, and the Nebula itself, are dying, and they must try to get into a new Nebula, so they build a ship out of the control room on the Raft and take off with only about 40 people in it, instead of the planned 500 because those who were not on the list for escape were trying to destroy it altogether.  Can’t blame them, really.

It is a great concept, and it is not until you finish the book and think about it a bit do you come to the conclusion that even though we have to suspend disbelief in all sci fi,  the implausibility factor of people surviving for 500 years on scraps and dabs in an also implausible bubble of breathable air (how convenient!) might be a little higher than is comfortable.

So what.  I really liked it anyway, and am now reading the next in the series, Timelike Infinity, which one third into it, seems so far to have nothing to do with the events or characters from the Raft book.  But is pretty nifty in its own right.

Tried to find a picture of the flying tree vessels, but apparently nobody has a clue so no fan pics.  Sorry, guys.

VORTEX by Robert Charles Wilson

This is the third book of the Spin trilogy.   The first two are Spin, which you can read about here,  and Axis, which is here.

The third volume gives us a closer look at Turk Findley, whom we met back in Axis,  and we meet again the half Hypothetical/half human boy Isaac.  The chapters of the book alternate between two timelines: one approximately 40 years following the events of Spin and the other approximately 10,000 years following the events of Axis.

Turk Findley awakens ten thousand years after he and the gene-modified boy Isaac were drawn into the Hypotheticals’ temporal Arch on the planet Equatoria, at the climax of Axis. He finds himself on an artificial floating archipelago called Vox, populated by a fanatical collective who, just like Axis’s rogue scientist Avram Dvali, (from Axis) are obsessed with making direct contact with the Hypotheticals, whom they view as no less than gods. Like all fanatics, they simply take for granted that their gods want to meet them, too, and will eagerly deliver them the spiritual ascendance they crave. Ideological conformity is monitored by an implanted node in each Vox citizen linking their minds to the Coryphaeus, Vox’s governing Network. Other human societies in the Ring of Worlds connected by the Arches oppose Vox, and Turk’s arrival coincides with one of them dropping a small nuke on Vox Core, an event that proves only a brief if significant interruption.

The counter plotline has Turk’s story of his adventures on Vox somehow being channeled into the mind and the diaries of young drifter Orrin Mather. Orrin is brought into a psychiatric clinic in Houston by a cop named Bose, who, in the opinion of Dr. Sandra Cole, is taking a level of personal interest in the case unusual for an officer. Bose’s reasons become apparent as the two of them seek to unravel Orrin’s mystery. Has the boy, who’s barely literate and never demonstrated any particular creativity in his life, simply made up this far future saga?

Well, I thought it was an odd way to continue the story of Turk 10,000 years in the future. Seemed like a contrived vehicle and for me, did nothing to enhance the basic premise of the fanatical group seeking their god.  The Vox archipelago sails under the arch to the environs of the earth, to find the planet ravaged, ruined, and desolate.  I am not sure if we are meant to assume that the human species did itself in by using all it’s resources, or we are meant to simply contemplate the passage of time and understand that nothing is forever, except possibly the Hypotheticals.

Did the Vox population get to meet the Hypotheticals?  Well, yes, but not in the way they had expected.

Warnng…. Spoiler alert.  If you plan to read this trilogy, stop reading here.

 

^^^^^^

^^^^^^

^^^^^^

The Hypotheticals, who encased the earth in a bubble that slowed down time, encased Mars in a bubble, set up arches from world to world, are ……. a process, not a thing.  Not a being.  They … it … evolved from a research probe sent into space who knows how long ago, which was equipped with a program for self replicating, and grew from that.  Its goal is information gathering … that was the probe’s original mission,  and the whole thing got out of hand and grew into this monster  process whose goal was to gather all the info it could, and in fact created worlds etc. in order to find more information.

So the trilogy is ultimately about our search for god, or a deity, or a something greater than ourselves to believe in, and our vulnerability and capacity for self-deception.

There was generally a lot of disappointment in the book reading world with the second and third books of the trilogy, but for me, a person with perhaps lower standards than many, I enjoyed it immensely.

 

 

 

 

 

AXIS by Robert Charles Wilson

I’ve been feeling in the mood lately for some good hard science sci fi,  so thought I would get back to the Spin series.  I strongly recommend that you go to my review of the first book, Spin,  which you will find here,  because you will need it to understand Axis.

Axis takes place on the new planet introduced at the end of Spin, a world the Hypotheticals engineered to support human life and connected to Earth by way of the Arch that towers hundreds of miles over the Indian Ocean. Humans are colonizing this new world — and, predictably, fiercely exploiting its resources, chiefly large deposits of oil in the western deserts of the continent of Equatoria.

Remember those folks who colonized Mars back in Spin? The reversed engineered some Hypothetical pharmaceuticals and created a drug that would add 20 or 30 more years to one’s lifespan, while at the same time making the individual more compassionate and caring.  Bring it on,  we could use some of that ourselves.  It was all done around a kind of quasi-religious structure in order to control it.  The head guy brought it to Earth on his only visit between the planets, and the Earth government was quick to outlaw it, seeing  how it would surely instantly be explointed.  People who took the drug were call Fourths, for what was thought of as the fourth stage of life, and it was illegal and the Fourths kept their existence very secret and hidden.

Lise Adams is a young woman attempting to uncover the mystery of her father’s disappearance ten years earlier. Turk Findley is an ex-sailor and sometimes-drifter. They come together when showers of comet dust seed the planet with tiny remnant Hypothetical machines. Soon, this seemingly hospitable world becomes very alien, as the nature of time is once again twisted by entities unknown.

A quasi-religious group of “Fourths” from Earth, led by Dr. Avram Dvali, lives in the desert seeded by falling dust. They’ve created a child they call Isaac with a Martian upgrade (fatal to adults) that connects him with the Hypotheticals.   They are hoping he will be able to communicate with the Hypotheticals and gather some answers for them.  The Fourth-hunting “Department of Genomic Security” is searching for this group or for a visiting Martian Fourth who disapproves of Isaac’s creation.

I don’t know that this a good stand-alone or merely a bridge between Spin and the third of the trilogy, Vortex,  but you can read it and enjoy it without having first read Spin, but why would you?  The trilogy is an examination of our notions of religion, identity, our place in the universe, and what would appear to be our need for a deity.  If you prefer your sci fi to be space opera-y, and less intellectual, maybe this is not for you, although the storyline is compelling on its own without having to think too much.  But if you prefer, as I do, the kind of sci fi that does what sci fi does best — that is, look at the bigger picture, ask the big questions that probably have no answers, make you realize that we really ARE just a microscopic dot in this ever-expanding cosmos, then you will truly enjoy this trilogy.