TERRADOX by Craig A. Falconer

Falconer wrote Not Alone, which you can read about here, and which I really loved. Now, although I did not mention it in my comments on Not Alone,  the writing wasn’t the best, but good enough, and the story line was so good it carried the book.

I am sad to say that although most of the story of Terradox was good,  the actual writing was not even as good as in Not Alone.  It is hard to explain what I mean by this.  It didn’t have a really polished, professional tone.  Almost juvenile, in a way.  I am not talking about typos or grammar or those kinds of issues;  it was very well edited.  I am talking, I guess, style.

The story is about an earth that has been so badly destroyed that a single governing body has been created.  There is awful pollution and a raging world wide famine.  The space program which had begun with an outpost on ummmm Venus, yeah, Venus.  (I hate it how I tend to forget these little details.)  Holly(wood) was the face of the space program, until the head of the program sent her and some others on what the crew thought was a doomed space landing, only to discover later (after two of their number died on that landing) that it was a fake (think fake moon landing, dudes), to test how people behaved in dire situations.

Now she is escorting some high profile elite passengers on a flight to the station on Venus, but at some point, something goes wrong and the ship crashes on an unknown and unseen planet, a whaddyacallit oh yeah, cloaked planet.

As they explore the planet, they discover some strange things….. strange as in earth artifacts that shouldn’t be there, strange as in weather zones which are exact quadrants, with one weather system terminating exactly on a line where a different system begins.  Gol-darn!  This looks like a created planet.  By whom?  For what?

It all ties into politics and Evil Persons and seems scarily like today’s current political situation.  Without the space program.  I am not mentioning any names, being politically neutral as I am.

Final verdict:  this author has a great imagination and can certainly work out some mighty fine story lines.  But the writing…. the writing.  Sigh.

MAELSTROM by Peter Watts

I love the work of Peter Watts.  He writes science fiction with an emphasis on the science.  OK, I don’t always understand the work, the science often being beyond (or would that be ahead) of me, but the story is always first rate, the creative ideas are mind boggling,  and let me tell you, at my age, my mind doesn’t boggle as easily as it once did.  I have boggle fatigue.

So, here is some of the science involved in this work:

Behemoth — new kind of extremely primitive microbe freshly discovered, something inconceivably small, less than 100 nanometers.   Called ‘nanobes’.

Guilt Trip – a behavior-modification technology affecting frontal lobe behavior.  Based on the idea of the ‘puppet masters’, parasites that hijack the brains of various animals and insects, causing them to do their bidding.  True story.

Anemone/Maelstrom –  power law — surface-area-to-volume relationship that governs living systems from whole food webs right down to the capillaries of shrews, essentially a pattern typical of self-organizing systems, i.e. biological systems.  As it turns out, the World Wide Web itself appears to be evolving in concordance with this law.

Wildlife –  simple systems, in aggregate, display emergent behaviors beyond the capability of their individual parts.   This can be applied to software programs, etc.   A premise of this is that lineages with genetically-determined behavior would be able to pass a Turing test if they evolved fast enough.

Smart gels – neural nets.  Self driving cars.  Point made.  they learn as they go.

Ganzfeld Interrogation – quantum mind, quantum consciousness.  Kind of like  ‘I know what you did last summer’  stuff.

Bonnet´s Syndrome – the brain compensates for loss of visual input by inserting images from visual memory into the gaps.  Tends to occur in elderly patients, frequently associated with bereavement; the hallucinations are more or less seamlessly incorporated into the visual environment.

All of these concepts are part of the story, part of the plot of this sequel to Starfish, which I have not read.  How did that happen?  I usually prefer to read series in their proper order.  Oh, well, there are some references to the earlier work, but it really is a standalone, the big connection is a couple of characters continuing on in this work.

I guess you want to know what the story is about, right?, not just the science, which is already not future but current.  Sci fi writers have a hard time keeping ahead of the game!

Behold now behemoth, which I made with thee; he eateth grass as an ox.  – Job 40:15.     All flesh is grass. – Isaiah 40:6

It is about a microbe that has been unleashed on the world, presumably from some unimaginable deapths of the ocean, (which I believe occurred in Starfish,) and now the world governments are scrambling to contain it.   They are doing so by constantly creating quarantine areas, effectively locking in the people who may have been infected, and eventually destroying them by fire.  More and more of the USA is chopped up into these plague areas.

But a creature craws out of the sea onto a beach in a contained area on the west coast of the US.  It is a woman, modified to be aquatic,  and has come, we learn, apparently from the area of the initial explosion deep in the sea.  She has an agenda,  and is on a mission to fulfill it, leaving a path of destruction in her wake.

There are a couple of highly tech characters who are tracking her, trying to find her.   Lots of description from a bite (or bit?) of software info perspective as it works at infecting other software.

I admit I had some difficulty following some of this, but nevertheless, she persisted.  hahaha  I read on doggedly and eventually got the gist of what was going on, and finally actually really got into it.  It is a hard read surrounding a really good story, kind of force feeds some tough science into the reader (ok, into me),  and gets you (me) really thinking about AI, quantum stuff, and just how vulnerable our planet is to the infestation by ummm nanobes.   Gee.

The tale is apocalyptic in design, apocryphal in nature,  and prophetical in result.  Whew.  What a book.

Peter Watts is the author of Blindsight, which I talked about here,  and Echopraxia, which I discussed here.    He has won the Hugo, and several Locust awards.  I think he might just possibly be the best sci fi author working today.

 

NIGHT MUSIC by Tobias Cabral

A pretty spiffy sci fi about Mars.   MARS, people, MARS.  I do so love books about Mars.  OK, so it’s not quite as good as Weir’s The Martian,  but darn good in its own right.

Following a rapid expansion of the manned space program due to the discovery of a potentially catastrophic Earth-crossing comet, Zubrin Base has been established on the Red Planet to oversee the capture of the rogue object. During final preparations for a second expedition, however, contact has been lost with the outpost. Pilot Seth Boaz finds himself re-tasked for a rescue mission.

OK, I lifted that from the basic plot blurb.  Sometimes I am lazy.  Other times I am even lazier.

This was a good hard sci fi tale.  Realistic, if you feel that establishing a primitive settlement on Mars is realistic, lots of interesting stuff about biology, and chaos theory, and science-y stuff like that.   While the crew are on their flight to the Mars base, they detect a kind of wave that seems to hit Mars.  I admit to having kind of been distracted by the doorbell while reading this section, because I had it on audio text-to-speech while I was quilting, and forgot to hit pause, so it just droned on while I got the mail from the mailman and I didn’t bother to go back, because, as I said, lazy…..

When this second excusion gets to within viewing distance of Mars, they see that it has dramatically changed.  The canals seem to have come alive with some kind of lights, there are clouds, there also seems to be no more red dust, the whole planet is covered in ….. something.  An even closer inspection reveals a large clear area around the now silent base settlement, and the rest of the planet covered in what looks like water.

Seth and his female copilot take a four seater on special mission to investigate, and find …..

Hahaha.  You thought I was going to tell you, didn’t you.  Pfffft.  Not a chance.  Really good story, so if you are a Mars buff, or a sci fi reader, you will have to read this yourself.

Although it is a stand alone, more or less, it leaves a lot of leeway for additions to what is apparently intended as a series.  The second is titled Night Work.   I gotta snag me that next volume, because, let’s face it, Elon Musk is not going to get us to Mars for it to have much impact on my lifetime.

Side note:   I really dislike the way we are scrunging up the language by turning nouns into verbs, especially when there are perfectly good verbs already.  Like the word re-tasked.    Tasked is bad enough, but to compound the sin with re-tasked just makes me want to sob.

LILITH’S BROOD by Octavia E. Butler

Octavia E. Butler is an award-winning Black female author,  a multiple recipient of both the Hugo and Nebula awards, and in 1995 she became the first science fiction writer to receive the MacArthur Fellowship, nicknamed the “Genius Grant.”   Her work always ends up on Recommended reading lists, usually in the category of Science Fiction, or Female Science Fiction Writers, or Black Writers, or Black Female Must Reads, or Black Female Sci Fi Authors.  So of course, I have several of her works in the queue, because Black, Female, Science Fiction.   Any of those categories would be calling my name.

Butler is known for blending science fiction with African-American spiritualism.  Her works are concerned with issues facing humanity.

In the late 1980s, Butler published her Xenogenesis trilogy—Dawn (1987), Adulthood Rites (1988) and Imago (1989). This series of books explores issues of genetics and race. To insure their mutual survival, humans reproduce with aliens known as the Oankali. Butler received much praise for this trilogy.

Ok so now that we know the series, collected under the title Lilith’s Brood, is all about moralizing, we can get on with describing the aliens, because it is all about aliens.  ALIENS, people!  ALIENS!

The US has experienced a nuclear war between the two great powers, which destroys almost everything on earth, leaving a few non-human live forms and a handful of humans.  The Oankali have been watching the process, tsk-tsking all the while, like someone’s maiden aunt, and after everything is gone, kaput, done and dusted, they swoop in and save what remnants they can of the world, and put the humans into deep sleep, waking them up a few hundred years later, when the earth has healed itself and once again become habitable.

They are self-described traders, something for something.  They want something in exchange from the humans, knowledge and a different way of  seeing things.  But there is only one way of seeing the aliens…. as truly uggs.  Like Ugg Boots, only uglier.  They are bodies with a whole lot of tentacles, and it takes the humans a while to adjust to them.  I guess so.  If I came face to face with a creature like this:

I would be a little freaked, too.

The story opens in Dawn, with the title character Lilith (a black human female) awakening centuries later from stasis on an Oankali ship. She meets her saviors/captors and is repulsed by their alienness. The Oankali don’t have eyes, or ears, or noses, but sensory tentacles over their entire bodies with which they can perceive the world much better than a human can. Stranger still, the Oankali have three sexes: male, female, and Ooloi. All Oankali have the ability to perceive biochemistry down to a genetic level, but the Ooloi have the ability to directly manipulate genetic material. Ooloi can mutate and “evolve” any living thing they touch and build offspring gene by gene using the genetic material from their male and female mates. Despite their differences the Ooloi Oankali are strangely alluring, sexually arousing even while being visually repulsive. The Oankali have made earth habitable and want Lilith’s help in training humans to survive on earth without human technology. In exchange the Oankali want to interbreed with the humans to create a new human-Oankali hybrid race. They are particularly enthusiastic about the human “talent” for cancer, which they find beautiful. This book focuses on the conflict between Lilith’s desire to stay human and her loyalty to her species and her desire to survive at any cost.

She is given a group of awakened humans to train to live as primitives on a primitive earth.  They are just what you would expect.  A bunch of ingrates and paranoids, still with all their cruelty and egocentric personalities in tact.  The trade that must be accepted to live on earth is that the humans must interbreed with the Aliens, because human babies will not survive, and the human species will go extinct.  But the addition or exchange of the Alien genetic material will keep them functional.  They will look like humans until puberty when they will undergo a change becoming more like their Alien progenitors.  Eeeuuu.  Imagine …. teenagers with tentacles.  Now THERE’S a visual for you.

So the second book,  Adulthood Rites,  takes place years after the end of Dawn. Humans and Oankali live together on earth though everything is not peaceful. Some humans have accepted the bargain and live with the Oankali and give birth to hybrid children called ‘constructs.’ Others, however, have refused the bargain and live in separate, all human, Resister villages. The Ooloi have made all humans infertile so the only children born are the ones made with Ooloi intervention. This creates a great deal of tension and strain as the humans see their lives as meaningless without children, as well as seeing themselves being outbred by the Oankali-human constructs. Desperate humans often steal human looking construct children to raise as their own. The main character of the second book, Akin, is the first male construct born to a human mother (Lilith). Akin has more human in him than any construct before him. This book focuses on Akin’s struggle with his human and his Oankali natures.  Eventually,  Humans will be given Mars, modified sufficiently to (barely) support human existence, despite the Oankali certainty that the Mars colony will destroy itself eventually. Akin returns to tell the resisters and begin gathering them up to have their fertility restored before transport to their new world.

The final book of the trilogy, Imago, is the shortest. Imago shows the reader what has been hinted at for the last two books, the full potential of the new human-Oankali hybrid species. The story is told from the prospective of Jodahs, the first Ooloi construct. Through its unique heritage it has unlocked latent genetic potential of humans and Oankali. This book brings a sense of completeness to the story by allowing the reader to understand the Oankali better by understanding Jodahs.

Bottom line, humans still need a god of some kind, and it looks like the Oankali serve as that in the meta view.  The series is all about genetic engineering, race, species, the innate drive of survival.  It is very readable, but for me, the issues of who is better and more worthy that thread their way through it all got to be a smidge irritating.  OK, a LOT irritating.  I think it is my age;  I already did all that hand-wringing over the moral issues.  Now I just want to eat pizza, and have some chocolate and read a story that is not preaching at me too much.

 

 

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.