Made out of awesome

I finished Wake, the first in Robert J. Sawyer‘s trilogy called WWW last night … well actually early this morning. I didn’t get to bed until late: it was Em’s prom night and she and her friends had the party light on downstairs. I was on the verge of an asthma attack from the sultry (Justin had Throw Mamma from the Train on last night) air and all the dust from cleaning so, though exhausted, I had a hard time sleeping. But around 12:30 I could have done it: in fact I was fighting to stay awake and it was Rob Sawyer’s fricking fault. He, to borrow Caitlin’s (the main character in Wake) expression, is ‘made out of awesome’ and so I didn’t get to sleep until after 2.
The downside, of course, is that now my pacing of reading it is over (I couldn’t help it) and I have to wait for Watch next year. And then the last one: Wonder.  Back to the anxiousness I had to experience with his amazing Neanderthal Parallax.
Sawyer has done nothing less than explore what it is to be aware in humans. And, then, credibly (even realistically) he applies that to artificial intelligence on the World Wide Web. He says it took him longer to write this novel than with any previous and I really think it was worth it. He really nails it and in a package that is, like others of Rob’s works, very approachable and enjoyable to read.
Caitlin Decter is a blind teenage mathematician (and computer geek) who has just moved to Waterloo as her physicist father has just accepted a job at the Perimeter Institute. She is a wonderfully sympathetic and engaging protagonist who becomes a guide for the birth of the awareness of the World Wide Web. Sawyer does a wonderful job linking this to and educating us again about the miracles Annie Sullivan did with Helen Keller along the way.
I only have one question. Is Caitlin using Linux?

Extremely and Awesomely Recommended!

Want more? Here are some links:

  • The first three chapters are available online if you’d like a taste of this book
  • An excellent podcast interview with Robert J. Sawyer that covers this book, the pilot for Flashforward and the TV series “Supernatural Investigator” he hosts on Vision
  • Sawyer has even set up The Calculass Zone on LiveJournal where you can read 3 entries (which will presumably grow at the trilogy continues
  • Or you can become Caitlin Decter’s friend on Facebook

We the Underpeople

I have many favourite science fiction stories:

That’s to be expected when you’ve been reading SF since a very young age. And so it’s rare for me to come across something really amazing so that I’m forced to expand my favourites list. I did just that recently. I had heard of Cordwainer Smith (a pseudonym for Paul Linebarger, 1913-1966) before but had never read anything by him. So when I saw that my library happened to have the compilation book “We the Underpeople” I picked it up.

There are five short stories and a novel collected in this book:

  • The Dead Lady of Clown Town
  • Under Old Earth
  • Mother Hitton’s Littul Kittons
  • Alpha Ralpha Boulevard
  • The Ballad of Lost C’mell
  • Norstrilia

The very first story in it, The Dead Lady Of Clown Town, blew my mind. Beautiful, touching, completely original, believable, amazing are how I would describe it. I was beside myself with admiration. And all the stories turned out in that vein. The meticulous Linebarger worked out his time line of the future (in an appendix at the end of this book), distant worlds and language to an impressive and unprecedented degree.
If you seriously consider science fiction as truly speculative than you would be hard pressed to find an author more interesting and ‘bursting out of the limits’ than Cordwainer Smith. And in a time when impossible movies can be made with the right tenacity and skill (e.g. Lord of the Rings) Linebarger’s future would be an excellent choice to be filmed.
Extremely highly recommended to SF fans.

Other Links:

  1. Bibliography
  2. A shorter list
  3. A Google directory of Smith Reviews
  4. A website run by his daughter
  5. More on Old North Australia and Linebarger’s only novel, Norstrilia
  6. Cordwainer Smith checklists
  7. A link to an interesting contrasting essay for the story Alpha Ralpha Boulevard by Smith and the famous story The Roads Must Roll by Heinlein, I don’t know if I agree that Smith’s work is necessarily a pessimistic vision of the future but it certainly made me look at the story in a different way

The Man from Earth

Jerome Bixby’s The Man from Earth (directed by Richard Schenkman, 2007) has no space ships, futuristic sets or anything to visually imply the abnormal but it is excellent speculative or science (if you prefer) fiction none-the-less. If you compare this movie with The Girl from Monday you can see how an sf picture shot entirely in the present can work. Here we have an excellent imagination working with some good research behind it. Bixby’s central idea can be expressed as “what if a man had lived for over 14,000 years?” This thought is explored with all its personal, societal, scientific and religious implications and I enjoyed the trip.
This is an independent film: it certainly doesn’t come across with the great gloss and expensive photography you expect from a major studio. Some of the shots are very grainy. The acting, especially at the beginning, is overdone or wooden but it improves a little as the main character, John Oldman (played by David Lee Smith), starts to reveal his secret. I thought he, John Billingsley as Harry the Biologist, William Katt as Art the Anthropologist and Tony Todd as Dan were very good when they reached their stride.
Bixby completed the manuscript for this movie on his deathbed in 1998 and is responsible for the ideas behind some of the more intriguing sci-fi efforts on TV/theatre including “It’s a Good Life” on the The Twilight Zone (which is good but I liked the short story much more), the famous “Mirror Mirror” episode on the original Star Trek series and Fantastic Voyage. He was obviously a highly imaginative and creative person. The concept behind this story is certainly intriguing; I have been having a hard time keeping it out of my mind all day.
Definitely worth a look-see if you’re a true sf fan.

Oryx and Crake

I listened to the unabridged audio version of this speculative novel by Margaret Atwood. She has amazingly crafted such intimacy with her characters. I refer especially to the most interesting hero of the book. Of course, the hero is neither Oryx nor Crake but the self-denigrating narrator Snowman. Jimmy or The Abominable Snowman, as he calls himself, is a movingly sad though resilient person.
I can’t help but think about how Crake, the tormented genius, saw his only friend. He obviously saw the strength in Jimmy that Jimmy himself didn’t know. He thought him strong enough to survive his own manipulation. Atwood is so incredibly good with character that I think I can read into Crake what he had planned. He needed someone strong to bear the burden of his new species. It’s obvious to me that Crake set it all up. He found Oryx just to ensnare Jimmy. He hired her and ensured that she had enough hints to figure out part of Crake’s sociopathic master plan to wipe out humanity to make room for his own creation.
So Oryx would have Jimmy promise to take care of the Crakers. It is all speculation, of course. Crake planning all that…? But he was smart enough to pull it off.
I give you Crake’s last words. They go something like “You know what to do, Jimmy.” Then like some kind of tragic opera, he kills Oryx. But why? Jealousy? I don’t think so. By killing her, he ensures Jimmy has no else but the Crakers to be responsible for. He knows Jimmy will react with his own murder. Crake expects to die. He wants to die; he is so possessed by his genetic masterpieces (his ‘floor models’ as he calls them) that he ensures even he doesn’t influence them. He can’t bias his creation if he’s dead.
I think that Crake’s convinced that Jimmy’s character, though strong, won’t effect his Crakers. But here is his error. The Crakers feel so much for Snowman that they do something that Crake had strived so hard to eliminate from their genes. They create an effigy or an artistic likeness of Snowman while he goes back to the Paradise Dome. They need him that much. I wonder what Crake would think of that. His intellect may be off the scale but he still might consider it frightening.