Sunday, September 25, 2011

Scientific Breakthroughs (Quotes from Bellwether)

I wanted to share these wonderful quotes from Bellwether by Connie Willis. One relates to fads and the other two relate to scientific breakthroughs:
Why do only the awful things becomes fads? I thought. Eye-rolling and Barbie and bread pudding. Why never chocolate cheesecake or thinking for yourself? 
You can’t just order scientific breakthroughs. They happen when you look at something you’ve been working on for years and suddenly see a connection you never noticed before, or when you’re looking for something else altogether. Sometimes they even happen by accident. 
Scientific breakthroughs involve combining ideas no one thought to connect before, seeing connections nobody saw before. Chaotic systems create feedback loops that tend to randomize the elements of the system, displace them, shake them around so they’re next to elements they’ve never come in contact with before. Chaotic systems tend to increase in chaos, but not always. Sometimes they restabilize into a new level of order.

The last two quotes could easily apply to innovation in areas beyond science.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Bellwether (Book)

Hair-bobbing. Fads. Sheep. Bellwethers. Chaotic Systems. Scientific Discoveries. Paperwork. Aversion Trends. Personal Ads.

Bellwether is the type of Connie Willis novel I have come to love. This short novel is funny and made me think. It is well-written and has enjoyable characters. Bellwether was nominated for the 1997 Nebula Award. While the novel is about science, it is not what I think of as “science fiction.” It is primarily about fads and about scientific discoveries.

Very briefly, Sandra Foster and Bennett O’Reilly work for the research company HiTek, which is out of touch with its employees and manages by paperwork. Sandra is a sociologist who is researching what triggers fads. More specifically, she is trying to find the person or event that started the fad of women cutting their hair in the bob style. Not only has she hit an intellectual wall in her project, but she is also being thwarted by her assistant Flip, an incorrigible young woman. Through a series of mishaps, Sandra befriends Bennett, a man who is immune to trends. They collaborate on a learning experiment that uses sheep as subjects. Chaos ensues.

I liked this story a lot. I was laughing aloud for much of it. The subject of trends is one that is near and dear to my heart. As Sandra deals with the ever-changing trends of restaurants, my taste buds and tummy are often frustrated by the ever-changing trends at the grocery store. I also like the discussion of the role of chaos in scientific discovery. (I am going to include some of my favorite quotes in my next post.)

Bellwether is the third novel is the omnibus Future Imperfect.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Remake (Book)

Movies. Remakes. Computer Graphics. Drugs. Sex. Musicals. Dancing. Time Travel.

After reading so many Connie Willis novels, I thought I knew what to expect from her stories. Oh, what a surprise. Remake is nothing like To Say Nothing of the Dog or Blackout, which are fairly wholesome. Remake has casual sex and drug use. Yet, as I would expect from Willis, the story is well written. It does a nice job of juxtaposing cynicism with fresh-faced optimism. Not surprisingly, this short novel was nominated for the 1996 Hugo Award.

Briefly, Remake takes place in the near future where original movies are no longer being made. Instead movies are remade using computer technology. Tom is one of the technology wizards. Some of his jobs involve replacing the face of the original actress with that of an executive’s current girlfriend. Needless to say he is cynical, but part of him loves movies. He can easily quote lines. At yet another industry party, he meets Alis, who is nothing like the movie lookalikes he is used to. She has dreams of becoming a dancer in a musical. Tom tries to take her up to his room for sex. Instead he learns more about her aspirations. He tries to discourage her, and they part company. When she starts to appear in musicals that he is watching, he tries to uncover the reason. Is it a side effect of the drugs he took? Has another person put her in using computer graphics? Has she traveled back in time? Or is it something else?

Like Uncharted Territory, Remake feels more like a short story than a novel. I found it clever, but it is definitely not among my favorite works by Connie Willis. Remake is the second short novel in the omnibus Future Imperfect.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Uncharted Territory (Book)

Surveying. Regulations. Fines. Birds. Partners. Courtship Rituals.  

Uncharted Territory is a very short novel—probably, technically a novella—by Connie Willis. This amusing story is the first space fiction that I have read by Willis. I found the premise a bit odd, but I was entertained. The story has the feel of a short story.

Briefly, Carson and Findriddy, long-time partners, are surveying the planet Boohte, but are being hampered by regulations. It seems the indigenous population has been given the power to impose fines for practically anything. In order to reduce the number of fines, the surveyors use horses for transportation. When Findriddy discovers that a section of the planet has been mysteriously overlooked, the two partners, their indigenous guide Bult, and a newcomer, the socioexozoologist Evelyn, go on an expedition to the territory. Evelyn it turns out is a great fan of Carson and Findriddy and is also a specialist in sex. The surveying team goes on to make some interesting discoveries.

I felt out of sync with most of the story. It contains numerous incidents of Bult fining the surveyors for ridiculous things, but I was only mildly amused. My logical mind couldn’t understand why someone specializing in sex would be sent to a planet like Boohte for surveying. Finally, finally, near the end of the story, I felt that I was reading a touching story.  

Uncharted Territory is the first novel in the omnibus Future Imperfect, which contains three short novels by Connie Willis.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Last and First Men (Classic SF Book)

But one thing is certain. Man himself, at the very least, is music, a brave theme that makes music also of its vast accompaniment, its matrix of storms and stars. Man himself in his degree is eternally a beauty in the eternal form of things. It is very good to have been man.
I expect that Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon will haunt me for a long time. First published in 1930, this novel has influenced a number of great science fiction writers, including Arthur C. Clarke and Doris Lessing. I see hints of some of the ideas in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Series and McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Series, whether or not the authors were directly influenced by the book. Last and First Men is definitely a forest—in contrast to tree and leaf—novel. It does not have relatable characters or scenic descriptions that make you feel like you are really there. It reads more like an anthropology book of future events. It gives a perspective of mankind over millions of years.

The basic premise of the book is that a man from the future, one of the last men alive before a future cataclysmic event, is able to write a book through a modern-day writer. This future man then goes on to tell the story of 18 species of men.—We are considered the first species. — The author describes the waxing and waning of civilizations and “man” species. A number of times he describes species of men dying out almost to the point of extinction and then slowly coming back in a different form. He tells of knowledge lost, rediscovered, and lost again. He describes encounters with both Martians and Venusians.

The book has its issues. Stapledon did not like Americans, and this becomes rather apparent in the first few parts. Also, written over eighty years ago, it is apparent that he got the near future wrong. In the introduction of the 1988 Tarcher edition, Gregory Benford suggests skipping the first four parts, which deal with the near future. The book also has a bit of racism, one major episode of genocide, and a number of species that practice suicide when they grow old.

On the other hand, I am reminded of Carl Sagan’s catchphrase “billions and billions."  I am left with a sense of the potential immensity of humankind. The novel gives me a new perspective of reality and my little world. It also has a number of very interesting ideas sprinkled in it. I would love to see a project where writers built stories from some of the ideas in the book and then had the stories linked together on one website.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Vortex (Book)

Prophesy. Consensus. Eutrophication. Message in a Bottle. Forgiveness. Agency.  Sum of All Parts. 

Vortex is the third and final book in Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin Sequence. (Spin and Axis were the first two books.) Not only is Vortex a good book in its own right, but it is also a worthy conclusion to the series. Wilson takes reader from the everyday to the epic. He finally reveals the truth about the Hypotheticals and the ultimate fate of the Earth. Wilson expertly weaves storylines together and sculptures chapters that continually made me eager to know more. And, most important to me, he includes some fresh, ponderable ideas.

Briefly, Vortex has two major storylines that intertwine at times. The first storyline involves Sandra Cole, Orrin Mather, and Jefferson Bose. It takes place in the near future, in the post-Spin era. Sandra is a psychiatrist responsible for intake evaluations at State Care. Bose is a police officer who brings in Orrin, a fragile vagrant. Sandra soon learns this is far from a routine case, and her involvement changes her life forever. Orrin, it turns out, is a witness to corruption that involves some powerful people. Most important to the story is the set of notebooks he protects and in which he writes words that he doesn’t understand. Sandra and Bose do everything they can to protect him.

The second storyline involves Turk Finley, Isaac, and Treya/Allison Pearl. It takes place approximately 10,000 years after the first storyline. At the end of Axis, Turk and Isaac were pulled into a temporal arch that was created by the Hypotheticals. On schedule, 10,000 years later, they are disgorged. They are rescued by the people of Vox, a type of cult that was built around deifying the Hypotheticals and a prophecy that involves the return of the “uptaken.” Treya is a Vox woman put in charge of Turk. Like all Vox people, she has a cortical implant that connects her with the Vox Network. Early in her life, in preparation for helping Turk, she was also given virtual memories of Allison Pearl, a woman who lived shortly after the end of the Spin. Isaac sustained major injuries when emerging from the Temporal Arch, and the people of Vox rebuilt much of his body and mind. They also irreversibly connected him to the Vox Core, leaving him even less human than he was in Axis. In an effort to fulfill the prophecy, the Vox people return to Earth, which has become uninhabitable due to a poisonous atmosphere. Nevertheless, the Vox travel to Antarctica, where they plan to be united with the Hypotheticals. Turk and Treya/Allison attempt to escape before the journey reaches its likely fatal conclusion. By the end of the story, Isaac, a passive victim for much of Axis and Vortex, finally comes into his own power.

Wilson gave me some ideas to think about. One of the most interesting related to “cortical” versus “limbic” democracies. In the future world, people are linked together, but some groups are linked via intellect, and some groups are linked via emotions. Conversely, Wilson made me think about how people are often shaped by the tragedies they live through. Most of the major characters were strongly molded by incidents in their pasts. Ethics again plays a part in the story. One group in the near future world uses the illegal Martian longevity drug with ethical constraints, insisting that its use uphold a moral code. At the same time, another group has stripped the drug of its ability to make people behave more benevolently.

When I finished the book, I kept on muttering “wow.” Wilson did such a wonderful job of bringing the storylines around in the final pages. Vortex has so many strengths that I hope the major science fiction awards will give it some consideration next year.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Axis (Book)

A young woman looking for the truth about her father’s disappearance. A man just getting by day-to-day. A boy created as a part of a daring experiment. A newly divorced man trying to protect his ex-wife. A Martian woman trying to prevent a repeat of a tragedy from her childhood. A scientist obsessed with trying to communicate with a higher power. An old nurse still affected by the death of her brother. A woman trying to nurture the son she did not want born. 

Axis is the sequel to the Hugo Award winning novel Spin and is the second book in Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin Sequence. The novel was nominated for the 2008 John W. Campbell Award. For me the characters are what make the novel worth reading. Even the secondary characters have interesting backstories, and many grow or have revelations as the book progresses.

Briefly, Axis takes place on Equatoria, the planet linked to Earth by an arch built by the Hypotheticals. One of the major characters is Isaac, who has known from his birth that he is “special.” The adults he lives with in a remote commune expect something from him. As the story progresses, he learns about his unusual purpose. The second major character is Lise, a woman whose father disappeared when she was a child. Newly divorced, she is obsessed with learning the truth and enlists the aid of Turk, a man without a purpose but with some very interesting friends. Assorted Fourths, people who have been physically and mentally changed by taking a longevity drug, play important roles in the various storylines. Diane, who was a major character in Spin, also appears in Axis. As the novel progresses, everyone is affected by a mysterious ash that falls at the same time as the annual meteor shower.

Like many sequels, Axis was a bit of a letdown for me. I still was immediately drawn into the plot and did not want to put it down. I also found a number or ponderable ideas. One set of ideas centered on ethics: the longevity drug, experimenting on a fetus that would otherwise be aborted, genetic engineering, organizations that make their own rules. The second ponderable idea relates to the Hypotheticals. When I hear scientists talk about alien life, it is almost always some variant of the plant-animal, water-based life we encounter on earth. Why is it always us science fiction folks who have broader expectations?

Friday, September 2, 2011

Feynman (Non-fiction Books)

Quantum Man:
He was brilliant, funny, confident, and charismatic in the extreme…his energy and enthusiasm were addictive.
His joy was solving problems, and solving them himself.
Solving problems was not a choice for Feynman, it was a necessity…Feynman couldn’t have stopped if he tried, and he didn’t try because he was so good at it.
Six Easy Pieces:
The Feynman style can best be described as a mixture of reverence and disrespect for received wisdom. His special talent was to approach essentially mainstream topics in an idiosyncratic way.
Despite reading a lot—over a hundred books this year—of science fiction, I often find myself hungry for more science. To fulfill that need, this August I read Six Easy Pieces by Richard Feynman and Quantum Man, which is about Feynman. Both were enjoyable and expanded my knowledge of physics. Just to give some context, I need to say that the only formal education I have in physics is one undergraduate astronomy course: long live the Doppler Shift. Richard Feynman was an amazing and prolific scientist, whose contributions included the Feynman Diagram and Path Integral formulation. Among his many achievements, he worked on the atomic bomb, won a Nobel Prize, and helped investigate the Challenger Disaster. Reading these books was a major intellectual workout for me.

Quantum Man: Richard Feynman's Life in Science by Lawrence M. Krauss was released earlier this year. While a biography, the book focuses almost exclusively on the scientific side of Feynman’s life, with only a dusting of brief paragraphs about his personal life. The book was still very appealing to me. Not only does the book describe Feynman’s scientific accomplishments, but it also describes some of the accomplishments of the scientists who influenced him and the accomplishments of those he in turn influenced. This book is as much—if not more—about science as it is about a man. Yet, Krauss does manage to paint an interesting picture of Feynman, with all his idiosyncrasies and his brilliance. I especially enjoyed learning how his mind worked, how he looked at the world and scientific problems. The book did include a few poignant moments. One of which is how Feynman became depressed after the world had the atomic bomb.

Six Easy Pieces is an edited version of six lectures about physics that Feynman gave at Caltech in the early 1960’s. First published in 1963, the book is in its fourth printing, with the latest edition coming out this year. The book is so popular that our own library often has a waiting list for a copy. Feynman’s personality comes through in the book. The tone is conversational. When he describes the conservation of energy, he uses the example of Dennis the Menace and his wooden blocks. This is definitely not a textbook on physics: the writing has varying levels of difficulty, and the subjects are far ranging. Sometimes I had “aha” moments when I felt that I definitely understood something. Other times, I was lost, like when I was looking at a table of elementary particles. While the book was very slow reading, I enjoyed it very much.

Reading about science soothes me. Perhaps it is the feeling that there is some order in the universe. One of my goals is to read more science books.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Speculative Horizons (Book of Short Stories)

A New Boyfriend. Magicians. A Stranger. A Shaman. Cupids.

I rarely read short stories, but a slim volume kept calling to me from the New Book shelves of my local library. Speculative Horizons, edited by blogger Patrick St-Denis, contains five fantasy short stories. Each story elaborates on an interesting premise:

  • “Soul Mate” by C. S. Friedman describes the relationship between a woman and her new boyfriend, who is either a soul mate or something far sinister. 
  • “The Eve of the Fall of Habesh” by Tobias S. Buckell describes the work of a man who can take away a person’s magical ability. 
  • “The Stranger” by L.E. Modesitt, Jr. describes how a stranger changes the lives of a shepherd and his mother.
  • “Flint” by Brian Buckley describes a turning point in the life of a young shaman. 
  • “The Death of a Love” by Hal Duncan describes a world where cupids are real. 

The book was definitely worthwhile. I thought that “Flint” was the perfect, little story, like a good novel in miniature. It had a riveting plot, interesting characters, plenty of action, and an emotionally satisfying conclusion. I enjoyed the other stories to varying degrees, but found them all interesting.