Tuesday, June 17, 2008

John Meaney: To Hold Infinity

John Meaney's To Hold Infinity was a very pleasant surprise. I received it as a review copy, since Anders Monsen, editor of the LFS' Prometheus, doesn't have time to read everything that arrives, so I didn't have any particular expectations. It turns out to be a wonderful book. It reminded me of the wonder of reading Neuromancer for the first time--a vivid depiction of a new way of looking at the world. In this case, Meaney manages to show us enhanced humans (Luculenti) interacting with the unenhanced normals on Fulgor as well as the shadowy Pilots with their access to mu-space, and gives a feel for what the conversation feels like from each viewpoint. It's a wondrous achievement.

The story covers the investigation of Rafael Garcia de la Vega, a Luculentus who has been killing and absorbing the minds and consciousnesses of other Luculenti. We know from the outset that de la Vega did it, but Meaney still manages to make the pursuit riveting. And along the way, we get to see how the enhanced Luculenti entertain one another and get glimpses of how it affects their lives.

Meaney gives an inside view of the thought process of Luculenti in conversation with the unenhanced, while simultaneously giving an impression that the Pilots are as far out of reach. A Luculentus would be having an ordinary real-time conversation, while simultaneously managing web searches on the background of an unexepected guest, negotiating terms of a business deal, and enjoying the nuances of an exquisiste meal. At times, we see Luculenti engaging in multi-layer conversations in which three or four people talk out loud while sharing private jokes with some of those present, accompanying their comments with visual, olfactory, and emotional side-notes to underscore their points. Meaney has to invent a new typography and layout in order to make this all flow smoothly and let you feel it from the inside, but he carries it off very well.

The story follows several different threads, each with its own pace and interacting characters. In the main thread we are treated to a lavish party presented by a top Luculenta for a mixed group of Luculenti and the unenhanced. The entertainment has so many interwoven elements that all the audience members, including the reader, are simultaneously impressed with what they perceive of the whole presentation. In one sub-thread, a recently up-raised Luculentus is in hiding off-the-grid while his new formed talents are trying to emerge without the usual multi-layer interactions to feed their need for stimulation.

A side-note for my security-minded friends looking forward to their own enhancement: the usual rules of story telling require that the enhancing mindware have a crucial security flaw that allows de la Vega to take control of someone else's software. Without this trope, there wouldn't be much of a story, but it's a vivid depiction of why we'd want to design the platform for our thoughts very carefully. Not everyone who uses the system will have the ability or inclination to determine whether the substrate is secure, but they'll all be reliant on its properties.

The book is 500 pages long, but it definitely held my attention. I was up for a couple hours past my usual bedtime for nearly a week while reading it. Oh--even though it was sent to the LFS as a review copy, I didn't find anything particularly of libertarian interest in it. There is a government, but its role is minor without being invisible. The characters assume the government will prosecute crimes, but this one is obscure enough that they do their own investigation.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Tobias Buckell: Ragamuffin

Tobias Buckell's Ragamuffin is a finalist for the Prometheus award. Buckell describes it as "Caribbean space opera", and it definitely has a Caribbean feel to it. In this story, humans are one of several interstellar-faring species dominated by "the benevolent satrapy", but the only one that we see visibly chafing at the Satrapy's tight control over commerce and technology. Most of the humans we see or hear about numbly accept the domination, but a few among the space traveling people are part of the resistance, and are trying to find a way to fight free.

The story follows Nashara, a genetically enhanced agent, with an implanted computer virus targeted at the Satrapy's systems, and Pepper, an extremely long-lived agent currently trapped on a world at the far end of the worm-hole trail that connects the worlds of the Satrapy. Both have superhuman reflexes, observation powers, and are close to invulnerable, so they're pretty unstoppable—but they still need to find a way to attack their oppressors.

Nashara joins a resistance movement on the planet where she's been marooned long enough to assassinate a local official in exchange for transit off-planet. Once in orbit, she finds a sequence of positions on trading ships that take her closer to where she expects the action to be. Along the way, we encounter various factions and agents who will reappear later.

Pepper's current world is dominated by a faction that in, technology and government, recreates the Aztecs; it's a pretty bloody place to live. But it's a good place to wait for the reappearance of the Teotl, an advanced race that may be willing to help fight the Satrapy, since the broken wormhole they disappeared through years before is still visible in the night sky. Of course, the Teotl do reappear, fleeing their own (even more enhanced) enemy.

The story is engaging, and the characters are interesting, but the main characters' superior powers make the fights' conclusions too obvious. There are interesting subplots on many different worlds and ships, exploring megalomania, mind control, uploading, closed economies, and more.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Fleet of Worlds

Larry Niven and Edward M. Lerner co-wrote Fleet of Worlds, a new novel in Niven's Known Space series. The book is a finalist for the Prometheus Award (voting is going on right now; the award will be presented at the Denver WorldCon in August.) According to Wikipedia, the book follows shortly after the events of the short story "At the Core".

The book's setting and some characters will seem familiar to people who have read most of Niven's earlier Known Space stories. The story line involves humans and Puppeteers. The focal characters are a group of humans descended from travellers on a ship captured long ago by the Puppeteers, and kept isolated from their history and the rest of humanity. Nessus (a character who appears in a few other Known Space stories) is leading a team of humans to explore the future path of the Puppeteers' fleet of worlds and ensure there are no dangers there. Thus, these captive humans end up with an unusual degree of freedom and access to historical information normally hidden from their society. They ferret out the truth about their history, and engineer a rebellion against the Puppeteers.

The libertarian appeal is obvious—rebellion against authority—but it's muted here since the rebellion seems to start and end with the focal characters. Their compatriots who have been left behind during the voyage of exploration don't learn the truth until the explorers have planned out how they will gain their release from the Puppeteers. There are barely hints of any dissatisfaction with their lives; the Puppeteers have done a good job of keeping their history hidden, and isolating them from any knowledge of the location of the rest of humanity. Once they find out, it's obvious that they want to return, and the Puppeteers quickly acquiesce, reasoning that they're better off without troublesome humans around, now that they realize that they're captives and not guests.

The story is reasonably well told, has interesting twists and surprises, and contains many likable characters. In addition, we learn a lot about the Puppeteers (procreation, home world, how General Products Hulls work, government, etc.) It's a reasonably fun story, but without much libertarian interest.