April 2012

Again in preparation for reading a sequel, I re-read the first one. Halting State is an interesting mix of elements. It’s written in the second person, like selected chapters of Iain (No M.) Banks’ Complicity. It’s basically mundane SF with only modest extrapolation of current trends in the fiction. In fact, the most unbelievable element is Scottish independence on the time scale he posited (not that it couldn’t happen, he just pushed it in to quick to give a twist to his setting). It includes a variant take on economics 2.0 to the Accelerando first third, and includes some excellent ideas on ARGs and their real world impact. For me, at least, the second person structure didn’t provide a problem. While i wasn’t a big fan of “hoose your own adventure” novels, I read a few of them as a teenager and the second person format was therefore familiar enough (Complicity helped, too) not to be a worry. I’ve seen other reviews where this caused a significant problem for other readers, though.

There’s a lot in this book which cuts across my own work in information ethics. One of the reasons I enjoy conversations with Charlier is that he’s often looking at exploiting in fiction the material I exploit in the real world. In fact, this is one of two books I recommend to my students (the other being Walter Jon Williams’ This Is Not A Game) when setting them coursework on the potential problems with ARGs.

The familiar geographic setting of the book (I lived in St Andrews for six years and so know Edinburgh and Glasgow fairly well) also makes it a comfortable read for me.

The biggest issue I think I have with this book is that perhaps it’s all a little too familiar. As with much of Charlie’s output I’ve heard the ideas from him firsthand before the book is even written (and while it’s being written). The focus is on my area of professional expertise and the geography is a space I know well. So, while for some people I think this may produce some decent sensawunder, for me it’s more like a comfortable well-worn but not worn out leather jacket.

Gene Wolfe appears to have lost the plot. I didn’t rate Pirate Freedom as any better than mediocre (Tim Powers did the modern pirate fantasy book better with On Stranger Tides). An Evil Guest was a confusing mish-mash with no clear plot, character development, sense of place or even the brilliant stylistic features for which Wolfe was known earlier in his career. Unfortunately, Home Fires is even worse. It has a lot of plot threads all happening to the same people and many resolved by dei ex machina. The basic premise of relativistic time differences has been done better and in particular the issue of time dilation impacts on soldiers was done brilliantly by Haldeman in Forever War. The future here is half now and half futuristic. Some of it is just throw away lines (the EU under Sharia law? More likely the US under a Christian theocracy a-la “If This Goes On” by Heinlein) while other things are the same or even going backwards. Particularly backwards is women’s lib. In terms of the treatment of women this one could have been written in the 50s. There’s a little bit of lampshade hanging with a discussion of many more women than men enrolling in the military but many fewer of them graduating basic training but the male and the female characters are so sexist that it’s pretty unbelievable to read this straight in the 21st century.

I’ve got a bunch of unread Wolfe (Long Sun, Short Sun, Wizard Knight, Soldier of Sidon) which I’m hoping are better than this pish.

Yesterday I ran my pre-paid card for the local pool down to zero. I do this a lot but this was an exact count down to zero. I’ve done this before, and meant to mention it but didn’t get around to it. Here’s a little bit of arithmetic about the swimming cards.

Entry to the pool for an adult is Y380. Pre-paid cards of Y1,000 and Y3,000 are also available at a (I assume non-refundable) discount of 10%. Since I got most days I buy the Y3,000 cards, which cost me Y2,700. The LCM of 380 and 3,000 is 57,000 which is 150 visits using 19 cards. So I’ve been to the pool 150 times since I last flatlined a card exactly. This has cost me Y51,300 (remember the 10% discount for the pre-paid cards).

Doing this has taken me a little more than 150 days because:

  • my local pool is closed on Tuesdays each week for maintenance (and a staff day off, I suspect);
  • it closed for about ten days over the new year holiday period;
  • it is occasinally closed, or only open inconvenient times (it doesn’t open normally until 9am and sometimes is closed to the public from 2pm because it’s a shared facility with a local school who sometimes claim sole usage);
  • I am occasionally ill/convalescent and don’t swim;
  • I don’t swim when travelling;
  • I sometimes don’t swim because I just can’t make the time, such as when acting as your guide for Alastair Reynolds on his first day in Japan.

On days when my local pool is closed and I can arrange it, I swim at a pool once stop away on the JR Sobu line at Kinshichou. I did this for a couple of days at new year, though I did also take a couple of days not swimming when that pool was open.

So far as I can recall I last flatlined a card sometime last autumn, maybe October.

That’s a lot of swimming and, when one adds it up, quite a lot of money. Still, it’s paying off. More about that hopefully within a month or so.

This book is shiny. I mean physically shiny, not shiny as in Firefly-universe slang. This is not a good thing in a book, as the makers of ebook readers know. When I read it, I have to be careful how I hold it, otherwise the shiny ink on the shiny paper reflects the overhead light straight into my eyes making it impossible to read.

Although she has clearly done some very good research and talked to many, there are a few strange howlers in here. In chapter 1 she introduces Second Life and briefly refers to MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons) as their precursor, as played by people in the 1990s. Strange, that, as I remember being introduced to the local official MUD (many MUDs and similar systems ran unofficially, sometimes on cracked machines and sometimes just by a superuser running it overnight without authorisation) run on the VAX at the University of Leeds School of Computer Studies (as it was then) by the Computer Society. MUDs were already well advanced by 1988, so while they may have increased in user numbers as networking came to more people in the 1990s they were already out and about in the 1980s. Later she talks about MUDs more and goes into their history, but it’s almost like she wrote the first chapter early on before her foray into the history of multiplayer online games and never went back and corrected the first chapter. There’s also something of a categorisation difficulty here. SL is more reminiscent, to me anyway, of MUSHes than MUDs, while WoW and similar are the MUDs of today. The difference is an ethos of platform-driven definition of space and capability versus a user-driven one. As Coleman’s thesis is about user-driven network life enhancements, MUSHes are the place to start, not MUDs, just as she focusses on SL rather than WoW.

This is sympomatic of the entire book, actually. The author is a literary theorist and it shows. She neither really understands the technology, nor the psychology, sociology of online worlds. There are some flashes of insight and the interviews with some of the major figures in the field (Doctorow, Lanier etc) are worth reading, though more for their in-depth responses than the quality of her questions. I bought and read this primarily because a review in the THE mentioned that she had the thesis that the digital and physical worlds are not really separate any more, but that cross-reality (or x-reality as she insists on calling it) is now the norm. This fits with my own thinking on issues of identity and reputation (that often one now has a joint identity not two separate ones). She has a somewhat interesting take on the ideas and I don’t regret spending the time to read this mercifully short book, but in the end it’s quite disappointing. I think she needed collaborators on the project, from technology, sociology, psychology or similar.

This is the direct sequel to Vinge’s earlier Hugo Award-winning novel A Fire Upon the Deep. He wrote a prequel of sorts to that which also won the Best Novel Hugo. This one is, however, not even on the ballot, making it his first novel since 1976 not to be nominated (he works slowly, at least in part due to being a full-time academic – I barely understand how he could write even the small number of novels he has while being an academic, to be honest). <lj user=”autopope”> expressed surprise at its omission from the ballot on the grounds that there seemed to be some kind of “grandfather clause” ensuring that Vernor always gets on the ballot (along with Connie Willis who won last year for a pair of books she asked people to nominate as a single work and which I was surprised even made the ballot given the slating I’d seen it given online by many fans). Having read it myself, however, I am not in the least surprised that it’s not on the ballot. The trouble is that he has to try way too hard to get an interesting storyline going from the human’s he insists on having as the viewpoint characters. To me, it just doesn’t hang together. I think if he’d focussed purely on politics and economics within the Tines World he could have made this a brilliant book. Unfortunately he insisted on undermining the successful conclusion to A Fire Upon the Deep in two ways (desperately trying to avoid spoilers) and presenting some very intelligent characters as highly stupid for plot purposes.

Very disappointing.

I’ve got really behind in my plan to blog all the books I read this year. If I get a chance I’ll try to catch up.

In preparation for reading the new Vernor Vinge, Children of the Sky, I re-read A Fire Upon the Deep. This won (jointly in a tie) the Hugo Award for Best Novel, and was a worthy recipient. That was 20 years ago, now, though, so how well has this tale weathered the passage of time? It’s clearly a novel of its time. It’s effectively about the Internet as it was in 1990 when the Web was just a gleam in Tim Berners-Lee’s eyes and the big new place to be online was usenet. The thing that makes this useful for a novel is the pure text basis of usenet. That all seems a little dated now in the world of smart phones, Facebook, Twitter et al. Still, as a work of science fiction based on complexity theory, it does well. The action parts of the book stand up well to the test of time and it’s still a good read, though to a new audence who didn’t read/post to usenet in its heyday I’m not sure it will be so accessible.