Saturday, May 10, 2014

Ancillary Justice (Science Fiction Novel)

“Why is this novel such a big deal?” I wondered as I saw Worlds Without End’s listing of award nominees. As of this posting, Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie has been nominated for the 2013 Nebula, 2013 PKD, 2014 Clarke, and 2014 Hugo awards and is the winner of the 2013 BSFA. I was more than a little curious. What I found is a novel with a fresh spin on the Space Opera genre. It is masterfully written and does an expert job of world building.

Ancillary Justice is written in the “first person.” Trying to explain that “first person” is not so easy and helps clarify why this novel is so refreshing. The narrator is an “ancillary.” In the world of Ancillary Justice, space ships are artificial intelligences. The physical part of an AI is composed not only of the ship, but also of the ancillaries virtually connected to it. Think of a traffic monitoring system with all the various cameras and monitors connected to it. But in this case the AI is connected to the bodies of what used to be living people, often those conquered by the Radch. The AI can not only receive information through each ancillary, but it can also act through each one; they are an extension of it. In some ways the relationship is also holographic, because each ancillary contains the memories and information of the whole AI. The narrator is both an ancillary known as “One Esk” and what remains of Justice of Toren, a ship that was destroyed. The narrator also calls itself “Breq.”

In some ways Ancillary Justice is a traditional space opera because of the scope the storyline. It covers over a thousand years. It describes an empire, the Radch, whose chief concern is expansion, “annexing” civilizations. The ruler herself has lived thousands of years and at one time can have over a thousand different bodies. Yet unlike most space operas, Ancillary Justice has a very personal story, partially because of the narrator. Breq is not some cold AI, but an individual who likes to sing and repeatedly demonstrates compassion. In the beginning of the novel, we learn that Breq’s goal is to seek revenge for the death of her favorite human, Lieutenant Awn. Much of the early part of the novel involves revealing the circumstances around Awn’s death. To complication matters, Breq discovers and takes care of Seivarden, who as a young lieutenant served on Justice of Toren. She is described as “not one of one of my favorites.” The once arrogant officer from a respected family was in suspended animation in an escape pod for almost a thousand years and is now an addict. Seivarden is both a hindrance and a sidekick as Breq goes about fulfilling her revenge.

Ancillary Justice is touching at moments, interesting most of the time, and even horrifying in a few spots. It takes some of the best qualities of a space opera and combines them with the character development that I associate with a novel that has a less grandiose setting. It works; I loved the book. The biggest flaw that I noticed in the novel is that Seivarden at times, especially near the end of the story, seems a bit of a caricature. All in all, I definitely think that Ancillary Justice is award worthy.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Best of Connie Willis (Short Fiction)

I love reading anything Connie Willis writes. Her writing has just the right mix of quirkiness, science fiction, and humanity. I especially find myself thinking about Blackout/All Clear from time to time. Since I have read all the novels by Connie Willis that our well-stocked library system owns, I was delighted when I recently found The Best of Connie Willis, which was released last year. Some of the stories center on themes or characters that are in her novels, a treat for fans. Some of the stories are haunting. Some are wonderfully amusing. All of them are Hugo or Nebula winners. The Best of Connie Willis reminds me of what a wonderful storyteller Willis is.

Both of my favorite stories from the book are on the amusing side. “At the Rialto” is a fun story about quantum physics and a participant at a science conference. Perhaps this is one of those stories that only those of us who are nerds could love. “All Seated on the Ground” combines first contact with aliens and Christmas carols. Does it get any better than that? It brought back fond memories of singing in church and school choirs. I can’t write about the book without mentioning “Inside Job,” because it does such a neat job of answering a paradoxical question, which I can’t write about without giving away the plot.

I didn’t spend a lot of time dissecting the various stories. That would have taken away from the enjoyment for me. But, because the stories are award winners and because I respect Willis’ craftsmanship, I occasionally looked at the stories from an aspiring writer’s viewpoint. Even those brief glimpses expanded my thinking.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Surfaces and Essences (Non-fiction)

Analogies. Categories. Meta-analogies. Etymology. “Ad-hoc” Categories. Lexical Galaxy. Abstraction. Idioms. Parallels between Experiences. Domains. Me-too. Marking. Lexical Blending. Semantic Slippage. Conceptual Proximity. Frame Blending. Na├»ve Analogies. Words. Concepts. Albert Einstein. Theory of Relativity. Genius.

I almost feel totally comfortable calling Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking one of the best self-help books that I have ever read. Well except, that it is technically not a “self-help” book at all. It is labelled a “Philosophy/Science” book. But it certainly has helped me better understand so many of my experiences and set me on the path to some useful ways of thinking.
Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sanders co-wrote Surfaces and Essences, which has both a French and an English version. As the name implies, the book is about concepts, which on the surface could sound incredibly boring. But, the book is anything but boring. The narrative style is witty. It often uses idioms as a way to describe ideas. The book is overflowing with examples. The first part, for me the most interesting part of the book, talks primarily about language and ideas. Needless to say this is why there had to be a two versions of the book. Later on in the book, there is a discussion of parallel analogies or what creates a “me-two” experience, which for me was not as interesting as the first part of the book. Then, there is a discussion of some math concepts, again not as exciting for me. Finally, the book launched into how Einstein used analogies. At first this seemed like an odd path. But the section actually turned out to have some interesting ideas. The book wrap up is very clever.

Technically the first part of the book fell into the “Self-help” category for me. It definitely will help me be a better English as a Second Language tutor. It helped me look back on my conversations with people with Alzheimer’s in a new light. It helped me understand why two people can use the same words and mean very different things: friend, God, job, professionalism, obscenity, etc. It helped me understand why people with Asperger Syndrome sometimes tie themselves in knots trying to be very precise, yet somehow missing the meaning of a conversation. I also suspect the book will give me some ideas on how to be more creative and a better problem solver.

The book is not intended for everyone, but I think those who are drawn to the idea of concepts will be delighted. Light bulbs will go off and readers will wonder “why didn’t I learn this years ago? It could have saved me tons of frustration.”