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.

NOT ALONE by Craig A. Falconer

I do love a good hard science sci fi book.  And this one was a doozy.

A young man, a believer in aliens since childhood,  is working in a bookstore cum coffee shop, when he is sent to deliver a book on his bicycle.  Near the large IDA building, which stands for  Intelligence Something Something, a masked man carrying a bag of folders and six gold bars, dashes out from between parked cars, running into our guy, knocking him over, scattering the folders.  He pulls a gun on our boy Dan, tells him not to touch the folders, grabs them up and disappears!   But Dan sees one that had slid under a car, picks it up and takes it home.

It contains information about mysterious objects that were discovered back in the time of the Second World War.   All evidence points to these objects being from outer space.  The German government decides the best thing to do was to hide them, and so all evidence was hidden all these years. Among the papers was a letter in German.  Dan decides to publish them on on social media, in the interest of Truth, all but the letter.  He then gets a book on translating German, and little by little, translates the letter which is a confession by a known scientist of his day, telling all about the discovery and how it was all put under wraps.

Most of the book is about the media, publicists, government coverups, and how governments use all of this to smokescreen their own problems.  One of the first characters to appear is a young, brilliant  P.R. gal who pushes her way into Dan’s life to help him take charge of the narrative.  I couldn’t help but see her in my mind’s eye as KellyAnne Conway, but her heavenly twin (you know, as opposed to the evil twin), lol.

It was a really really really long book …. 700 and some pages, and try as I might, I could not think of any part of it that could be shaved, cut down, or eliminated, without being a detriment to the book.

The final portion has first twists that you don’t see coming, then twists that you do, then twists that you don’t.

I really enjoyed it, but do confess that I ‘read’ about two thirds of it via audio while I was quilting.  My Kindle Fire has a text to speech feature and the speech has improved so much over the robotic voice of the early Kindles.

Great book.

 

HAL SPACEJOCK: JUST DESSERTS by Simon Haynes

hal-space-jockI like my sci fi sciency and with lots of robots.  I mean, really,  I want robots in my life, not just the kind that assemble car parts and deliver packages.  I like the kind of robots that wait on you, clean your house, and are good at clever repartee.  Kind of like Jeeves with replaceable parts.

In this third in its series, Hal Spacejock, free lance space freighter pilot extraordinaire is running out of options and money.  The only jobs available on  Planet Cathua are shady, illegal — not that that’s a bad thing, mind you — but ones pretty likely to land him in hot water, but now that the local loan shark is after him, using for their muscle a huge unpleasant robot with a penchant for destruction, he is forced to take an iffy job from the biggest robot builder on the planet.  That job would be delivering a sealed shipment to a distant yuk-a-toid planet where there is an operation that refurbs parts and reships them.  Along for the ride is an elderly robot, a bit rusty around the seams, but who (which?) still has all his brain parts functioning very well. 

Unfortunately, the place for repairs on that planet turns out to be a chop shop, and poor Clunk, the robot, is supposed to be chopped up, not given a class on modern technology.  Well, Hal can’t let this happen, especially when his return load is all refabbed parts, not the new ones the robot company claims to use.

So there is lots of thriller stuff, lots of funny conversation, and frankly my dears, Clunk is way smarter than his dented parts would suggest.

A totally fun read, a quasi thriller that doesn’t take itself too seriously, so neither should we.  But be prepared, I am neck deep in a Peter Watts sci fi series, and that DOES take itself VERY seriously.

OK, dear ones, see you on the flip side.

THE ORION PROTOCOL by Gary Tigerman

orion-protocolSci fi, going where no man or woman has gone before.  I sure do love a good hard sci fi story.  They tend to be a combo of barely disguised current events, scarily accurate prognostications, and a whole lotta imagination.

This one is barely disguised current events, scarily accurate prognostications, and a whole lotta imagination.   I found it to be fascinating because it is about government coverups, (and Buddha knows we sure do have enough of those), aggression disguised as surveillance, and a clueless President of the US trying to become less clueless.

The basic premise is that the government is actually run by a cadre of shadow figures, and has been for decades, which nobody knows about, with Congress thinking they are pulling the strings, and each successive President thinking he is in charge.

1958: The Eisenhower-commissioned Brookings Report recommends that any future discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence be kept secret from the public.

1968: Congress grants NASA the power to indefinitely”quarantine” anyone exposed to alien life or artifacts.

That stuff is true;  did you know that?

1993: Just 48 hours from the Red Planet, NASA’s Mars Observer probe inexplicably disappears and is declared “lost.”

That is not true, it is part of the fiction so don’t get all hyped up over it.

A high profile science journalist is sent anonymously a packet of photos of non-natural artifacts on Mars.  I want to say man-made, but who knows.  Is ‘alien-made’ a phrase?   The journalist takes it to a computer whizz who confirms the photos are real and not tampered with, and of the location they purport to be.  You know — stuff like that face and the pyramid we see on posts from IDontMakeThisStuffUp.Com.  I personally am keeping my fingers crossed that those artifacts are true, and not just Light and Shadows.   I so want there to be aliens.

Two NASA astronauts, one retired from NASA and teaching, and one still in the program, get involved.  You know why?  Because back when they were moon walking, they saw stuff.  Stuff the government hushed up.  But it is all now coming back to bite them in the butt.

Great storyline. I am not telling you any more of the plot because if you don’t read sci fi, you don’t care, and if you do read sci fi, I don’t want to ruin it for you.  Interesting twists, some thriller aspects, heart pounding finish.  OK, maybe not heart pounding.  Very little in fiction actually makes my heart pound.  The sound of the dinner bell?  Now that makes my heart pound.

martian_face_viking_rotatedpyramid-on-mars

CEMETERY PLANET by J. Joseph Wright

cemetery planetYou want a little fun in your sci fi? Of course you do. Who doesn’t. And here we have a whole planet full of dead bodies. What could be more fun than that?

Harvey Crane is the caretaker on a planet full of graves and mausoleums. In fact

he was the lone inhabitant in the food court structure built to hold at least a thousand people, with a visitor center, souvenir and snack shops, several mausoleum levels, a nondenominational temple, a space elevator, and vacuum tube train lines circumnavigating the planet.

Here’s the deal. With billions on Earth dying, where oh where can we put them? Stack them up like firewood? No. Of course not. Now if it were me running the show, I would have required cremation for all, damn the pollution from the burning, but no, this bunch decides that shouldering the expense of building a high tech funeral parlor on some far away planet is the way to go.

Mourners by the hundreds used to flock to the planet to pay their respects. Heck, they had holographic displays wherein the deceased would appear at the grave with a message for the loved ones. How cool is that? But almost no one came anymore. Not for 50 years or so. So DeepSix, the holding company, now had only one caretaker a tour, each tour lasting a year.

Harvey Crane was bored. He was not bothered by the isolation or being the only one there, well the only live one there. He played video games and generally was able to amuse himself pretty well. But he got this idea to upgrade an AI with all kinds of features so it was like having a companion. Who seemed to be getting smarter and smarter, and more and more independent.

One evening, Harvey gets a signal from the security system that something is amiss in a far section. So he gets on the train and after quite some time, arrives at the trouble spot, to see a hologram playing. What the deuce? You have to push a button to start them up. And there is no sentient life on this planet, except him. He asks the system computer to scan for sentient life. Nada. Scan for any movement. Nada again. Hmmm, thought Harvey. In all the time he has been on duty, there has never been an incident. OK, maybe the mechanism is on the fritz, seeing how this place is centuries old. He, being a mechanic, checks it all over, can’t find anything wrong, shrugs his shoulders and goes back to his station and the chess game with his AI.

A few days later, another trouble signal shows. This time to a really far away section, one to which Harvey has to take the planet train. Again, no sign of any problems, except for the hologram playing in which the deceased is ranting about how his heirs are going to receive NOTHING, NOTHING. hahaha.

I bet you are dying to know what is going on, right? (See what I did there?) Well, I am not going to tell you, but rest in peace knowing (I did it again. I can’t help myself) that it is a doozy. One thing I like about sci if and speculative fiction are the creative and unusual ideas, and a planet that serves solely as a burial ground is certainly interesting, you must admit.

ECHOPRAXIA by Peter Watts

  echopraxiaech·o·prax·i·a
ˌekōˈpraksēə/
noun

Psychiatry   – meaningless repetition or imitation of the movements of others as a symptom of psychiatric disorder.
So would that be like zombie-ism?  Or like members of a certain political party which shall remain nameless as well as brainless?
This is the sequel to Blindsight,  which I babbled on about here.   Echopraxia is almost a stand alone because there are enough clarifying references to Blindsight to keep you up to speed.  This volume features a well known biologist, who is mainly living in a tent in the Oregon Desert, studying the mutant effects on the fauna there, after a rather serious oops event in his earlier career.  Somewhat nearby is a monastery,  the Bicamerals, ‘monks’ who have evolved their brain power so much that they are beyond speech.  They believe that God is information data.  I think that is what they believe.   Anyway, they have managed to harness nature in the guise of a tornado.  One night, when it would seem that they are being attacked by the authorities, they pull the trigger on the tornado, and a terrible storm ensues.  Our biologist manages to get to the monastery for shelter, is hauled inside where he meets a woman who has been augmented and can communicate with the monks, and a military general, who turns out to be the father of Siri, from the first book.
But the monks haven’t been spending all their time praying and fasting.  They have been building a starship in the basement.  Yeah, I did that too, but it didn’t work out very well, probably because I know nothing about physics,  or the mechanics of flight, and am afraid of the welding machine.  So chazam, off they go into the wild blue, catching up the General, the girl and our biologist.  Hey, a free trip to the back of the back of beyond.  What’s not to like?
Howsomeverly, it turns out that on board is a lady vampire, Veronica, and a bunch of her minions.  Now you will recall that humans are prey for vampires, so everyone is pretty nervous around her.   They arrive at an energy way station called … oh fudge, I forget…. which they find totally deserted.   But they do see an anomoly, a something, which turns out to be …. well, I don’t know exactly what it was… thinking metal?  Kind of like slime mold with blueprints?  Anyhow, the darn thing is infectious, and can imitate walls, etc.  There is a lot of scary stuff going on, with people and creatures dying and stuff, and finally the biologist, the captain and the General get away and fly back home, with the vampire somehow out on the struts of the ship, having gone into hypersleep or whatever vampires do to survive.
The General has minutely examined all the data transcripts from the ship his son was on, and is convinced the kid is still alive and transmitting from somewhere, that original ship having been blown to smithereenettes.  Reading those transcripts and rereading, he slowly goes mad.
The vampire survives the journey back to earth, and ends up in the Oregon desert with the biologist, where they establish a sort of friendship, and then he…..
Honest to Pete, even better than the first in the series.   The plot is space opera, the vision amazingly creative, and the intelligence of it all makes me ashamed for reading so much Agatha Christie in my misplaced youth.
Again, this is a freebie, as in FREE, (Creative Commons) in various places throughout the interwebz, so if you say bah humbug to the whole thing because you don’t read sci fi, I urge you to at least download it and read the Notes and References section, which contains if not a truckfull, at least a minivan-full of fascinating information upon which the story is based.  Stuff like psy-ops and the consciousness glitch, a bit about how vampires could actually exist, zombies and the reality, cognitive slime mold, Cooper’s iCHELLs 35, inorganic metal cells capable of reactions you could call metabolic, adaptive delusional systems, and the bicameral condition, Julian Jaynes and his bi-cameral consciousness theory which I discussed here.   and God and the digital universe.  I have always said the internet was like God – everywhere and nowhere.

BLINDSIGHT by Peter Watts

blindsightDo you like your sci fi hard science space opera with an intellectual upgrade?  Yeah, me, too.  This astounding work was nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Novel, a John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel,and a Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel.  Yowser.

It is about a crew of enhanced humans off to a distant space place to see if they can make first contact with whatever it was that inundated the earth with ummm a kind of grid, like they were taking pictures, then disappeared.  I mean, holy patoly, what WAS that, eh?

The exploration of consciousness is the central theme element of Blindsight.  The title of the novel refers to the condition blindsight, in which vision is non-functional in the conscious brain but remains useful to non-conscious action.

I loved the characters.  Our principle character is Siri, who has had half of his brain removed and replaced with stuff, computer kind of stuff, I guess, enabling him to sense what people are thinking by their body topology –  their body movements, etc.  His job is to observe and report.  He is not to participate.

Then there is the Gang of Four.  A woman had her brain separated into four parts, each part with a different specialty.  Split personality with a hey nonny.  Can you say The Three Faces of Eve, boys and girls?  There were some other specialists, but the best was….. are you sitting down?….. a VAMPIRE.  No, really.  It seems like vampires died out way back when, but actually they are superior beings, with brains that can not only process info faster in a way we don’t understand, they have that supposedly impossible ability of holding two separate and conflicting thoughts in their minds at the same time.  He was the captain of this expedition.  The downside to vampires,  however, is that they are predators, and their prey is humans.  It is thought that they died out because they decimated their food source.  Humans could not reproduce fast enough to constantly replenish the supply.  So vampires went extinct.   This one was brought back to life specifically to deal with the extraterrestrial problem, and has to take special infusions to reduce his need to prey on his fellow crew members.  He makes everybody on the ship nervous.  Ya think?

They finally come to the source of the alien problem out in the back of beyond,  and it is a structure, huge in size, which somewhat resembles a crown of thorns.   They find some beings, creatures, with a lot of arms and legs, and capture a couple.  The ship’s biologist or whatever he is  discovers that they have no brain, and no circulatory system.  It would seem that the artifact (that would be the alien structure) is the body and these are …. well, I don’t know what they are.   Before actually sighting the artifact, the ship is contacted by the aliens.  One of the Gang of Four’s persons is a linguist, and finds a pattern in the communication which she can turn into understandable language.  Turns out the artifact speaks English.  Say, there’s a coinky-dink.  After a number of days of talking back and forth, the linguist is coming to the conclusion that it is an AI she is talking to, not having a real conversation but one made possible by the techniques of the Chinese Room puzzle.  The question throughout the book is one of the necessity of consciousness for communication, yes? or no?

Lots of action, lots of innovative ideas about space, time, creation, and just what makes us us.  It is less space opera than space rumination,  and I really really liked it.  As Wiki says, the novel explores questions of identity, consciousness, free will, artificial intelligence, neurology, game theory as well as evolution and biology. The writing….. oh the writing.  So good.

And almost the best part?  It is free under Creative Commons, as well as its sequel,  Echopraxia.

Oh, yeah.  The Chinese Room puzzle. The Chinese room is a thought experiment presented by the philosopher John Searle to challenge the claim that it is possible for a computer running a program to have a “mind” and “consciousness” in the same sense that people do, simply by virtue of running the right program.

“Suppose that I’m locked in a room and … that I know no Chinese, either written or spoken”. He further supposes that he has a set of rules in English that “enable me to correlate one set of formal symbols with another set of formal symbols”, that is, the Chinese characters. These rules allow him to respond, in written Chinese, to questions, also written in Chinese, in such a way that the posers of the questions – who do understand Chinese – are convinced that Searle can actually understand the Chinese conversation too, even though he cannot. Similarly, he argues that if there is a computer program that allows a computer to carry on an intelligent conversation in a written language, the computer executing the program would not understand the conversation either.

Come for the cool space stuff, stay for the cool intellectual exercise, and stand around in stupified awe as you watch the transhuman society at work and at play.