Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Charles Stross: Saturn's Children

Charles Stross's Saturn's Children depicts a post-humanity future in the solar system; all the characters are various forms of robots, and many have recognizable and sympathetic feelings, goals and aspirations. The humans died out a few hundred years ago but neglected to think about how their posterity would get along in their absence.

Stross has created a very interesting society here. Many of the robots (the focal characters, particularly) were designed to be personal servants to the humans, and their drives are very much shaped around the desires of their absent masters. Others, less constrained, use these drives to control and shape them. The basic conflict is over whether it's possible or desirable to bring back humans. If this could be done and they could be managed, then whoever controlled the humans would have immense power because of the drive to serve the humans that is built in to so many of the robots.

The background is fascinating in that any robot that was expected to work in the presence of humans was designed to have strong strictures to honor and obey them, which leaves them in a strangely constrained state now that the humans aren't around. All the apparatus of government is still in place, and no decisions can be made or changed without humans to vote or make an administrative decision. So the government runs on auto-pilot, and many projects that made sense--terraforming to create new habitable territories--are senseless when the robots can adapt to harsh environments much more easily. And robots that are more able to bend their internal definitions of what the humans wanted are less constrained.

The basic conflict sheds light on thoughts about freedom and free will. Freya, the main character, was designed as a sex-bot, but she was first activated long after the humans had died out, so her drive to serve them is unrequited. Her design gives her some special abilities (cosmetic enhancement gives her an innate talent for disguise and her adjustable high-heeled feet (as Laurie Anderson sang) come in handy in combat and escape. But most of the time, she's a free agent, other than having to serve employers and mentors. Self-ownership is a concrete idea in this society. All the robots originally had owners, but the ultimate owners are now gone from the scene, so each robot is owned by some corporation. Being self-owned means controlling the corporation that owns your body. Unfortunately, some of the robots are rich enough that they can sue others into bankruptcy, and buy their corporations, so there's no safety in owning your corporation. In addition to the slave chips that get used occasionally, ownership conveys control by allowing one being to assert "control level nine" and require absolute obedience of another. Of course, if the subservient one can convince herself of doubts about the authenticity of the ownership, she can escape the fetters.

Overall, this is a fun romp. Stross displays a strong sense of humor, and Freya is a joy to watch. Many of the service machines and tools are aware and interactive, and Stross is quite inventive in giving them interesting drives and quirks. The political implications are interesting, but mostly not the focus of the story. It calls itself "A Space Opera" and it is that, with the addition of interesting personalities and new viewpoints on how our robot progeny will live and think. Saturn's Children is a finalist for the Prometheus Award. The freedom orientation is too subtle to win in what has turned out to be a year with some very strong candidates. It's a lot of fun to read none-the-less.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Dean Keith Simonton: Greatness

Dean Keith Simonton's Greatness is an attempt to catalog all the influences that allow some people to have a larger effect on the world than their fellows. It takes a more wide-ranging and less data-driven approach to the question than Charles Murray's Human Accomplishment. I thought it was less successful, mostly because there were too many sections that were speculative, not well grounded, or inconclusive.

There were, of course, sections that contained important insights, but if one part in three, scattered evenly throughout a 500 page book is unfocused material, the useful portions are harder to identify and lose much of their impact. The most important conclusion I found in the book is that great results are the consequence not just of intelligence, insight, or drive, but that perseverance matters, even for people with huge natural talents. Simonton shows that even for the giants who are widely acknowledged to have remade their fields and outshone everyone else who has worked in the same fields, their masterworks appear in about the same proportion as for others who ended up contributing less overall. Their secret was no secret: they merely worked harder and longer and produced more. Their natural talents sometimes give them a slightly higher batting average, but overall productivity of great works and long-lived impact is a result of starting early and working more hours over more years than their rivals. Great achievers all have mediocre and uninteresting works mixed into their corpus, it's just not so noticeable given their best output. You'll find similar statistics for how long after someone started working that they produced their best work for the great and the near-great. The great simply find more time to be productive, and continue longer. It's possible that early productivity and continuing results enable the greatest producers in any field to continue contributing longer, which adds to their records, but single-mindedness and continuing focus is also crucial.

Simonton covers topics including intelligence, personality, birth order effects, genetics (mostly focusing on the extent to which greatness runs in families), pathology, and what makes some periods more fertile than others. The lack of mathematical models makes most of his speculation hard to trust as he seldom compares the statistics of the successful with those of their surroundings. If you don't know how often familial connections should arise by chance, it's hard to conclude that any particular number of examples demonstrates the existence or lack of any effect. Overall, there were lots of interesting facts and factoids, and the writing is engaging, but it's hard to take many of the conclusions very seriously as anything more than anecdote.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Neal Stephenson: Anathem

Neal Stephensonhas written another fascinating, grand, opus, Anathem. He's back to writing actual science fiction, and it's pretty impressive. It's somewhat of a surprise that the book wasn't broken up into a few smaller books, since it consists of a sequence of mostly separate adventures by a single hero, each explored in depth. (Actually, now that I look, it breaks easily into three segments of about 300 pages each.) The story starts with Erasmus as a young avout at a sanctuary for intellectuals. The first third of the story takes place as Erasmus is learning the avout way of thinking, and figuring out his place in his world. Stephenson does a good job of introducing in a concrete format several deep philosophical concepts that the reader will want to understand in the final section of the story. The second part of the story takes Erasmus and some of his fellows on a journey around Arbre, their world, after they are expelled from the sanctuary as a result of an emergency in the outside world. I'm not going to talk much about the final section, since it would spoil the story to know what the conflict is about, but lets just say it's a continuation of the journey to further and stranger places.

Erasmus' community is part of a system of monastaries spread around the world that serves to bleed off some of the presure for relentless progress from their society. The outside world still has an irregular cycle of boom and bust, but the mathic communities are isolated and serve to preserve the learning through the tough times. They have a very long view of the changing times--in fact Stephenson developed the ideas while working on some projects for the Long Now Foundation. The communities only have contact with the outside world once a year, and internally, the concents are further divided into subcommunities that only have external contact every decade or century. The more isolated each group, the more deeply they delve into various abstract and theoretical ideas. The less isolated groups treat learning almost as a competitive sport, and their different colleges emphasize different approaches to learning.

Erasmus and his cohort explore the nature of our universe, and some interesting philosophical issues that turn out to be relevant for the finale of the story. The characters explore higher math, philosophical issues such as personal identity, and quantum physics. I found the story very engaging, but I'd expect the depth and detail to turn off many readers. Stephenson is well in his element, exploring many issues in the back story while keeping an interesting story going in the foreground. The foreground story has love and loss, battles and chase scenes, extraterrestrials and high tech, and plenty of fun.

Anathem was nominated for this year's Prometheus award, but isn't a finalist. Libertarians will find it interesting for its exploration of some of the issues of governance of separated societies, and self determination. But it doesn't have the immediate political connection of some of this year's other nominees. I found it to be a fun read, and enjoyed the characters and situations as well as the exporations of philosophy and math.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

2009 Hellyer Park Bike Racing

I know I've mentioned my interest in the bike racing down at Hellyer park before, but it's time (apparently past time) for the annual update. They'll be running the Friday night race series in south San Jose on June 19, July 17, August 14, and September 4 and 18. Racing starts at 7pm and includes a variety of events: sprints, points races, miss & out, and scratch races.

There's also a special event (American Velodrome Challenge) June 26 and 27. The Friday night session (also starting at 7pm) includes Miss & Out, Kierin, Madison, points and scratch races. On Saturday, they'll have two sessions. The morning session lasts from 9:30am to 1pm, and the evening session starts at 6pm. The morning seems to be all sprints, while the evening has sprint finals, keirin, miss & out, scratch and points races.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Michael Flynn: January Dancer

Michael Flynn's The January Dancer is a finalist for this year's Prometheus Award because of Flynn's focus on the corrupting influence of the prospect of absolute power, and some of the characters' attempts to avoid it. Along the way we get a fascinating interstellar romp through a new way of navigating wormholes and get to visit a couple of worlds with some interesting variations on ways of organizing anarchic societies.

The story advances in two parallel streams, which eventually converge. The framework comes from an itinerant storyteller (a seanachy) gathering information about a story she has heard from an old worn-out man who is familiar with a lot of the details. These intercalary chapters alternate with the real action. It starts out with Captain Amos January and his small, but varied crew getting stranded on a small, unpopulated planet off the main trade routes. They know how to forage for the fuel they need without help, but find a treasure room with an inscrutably flowing artifact before they escape the planet.

Their dangerous flight from the planet leaves the ship damaged enough that Captain January must pledge the artifact as collateral to pay for repairs when they reach a civilized port. While they make a cargo run so they can afford to redeem the artifact, rumors start to circulate that the artifact has mysterious powers corresponding to an old legend about an alien mechanism that gives the holder powers of persuasion.

The January Dancer takes us on a tour that includes rebellion, piracy, imperial ambition, quiet guard duty, superhuman secret agents feared and obeyed by everyone, a quiet ungoverned unconquerable planet, and a hero willing to fore-go absolute power because of his concern for what would happen after his custodianship eventually ends: He can see that the artifact will spend more time in the hands of ambitious immoral men than in the care of those with a conscious.

The pacing is good, the characters are strong, and the scenery is varied without being too rushed. We get to spend the most time on New Eireann, a hard-scrabble planet that had hired a commercial firm to

manage their government contract. [The firm] sent in an honest administrator. By all accounts he ran a clean and honest administration though at first the Eireannaughta didn't realize that because they didn't know what one looked like. When they did, they revolted, because an administration that won't take bribes generally won't hand out favors, either.

That firm is replaced with the Interstellar Cargo Company (ICC), which is more amenable to skirting the edges, but seems to do a good job of managing commerce, keeping goods flowing efficiently among all the reachable stars.

The groups Flynn keeps an eye on include January's crew, the government and rebels on New Eireann, and the Hounds' Watch (the previously mentioned small corps of near-supermen responsible for ferreting out momentous plots and keeping the peace). Each has its internal conflicts and clues to add to the developing plot.

<SPOILER>I found it interesting that the ICC is depicted as being accepted by everyone for having cleaned up and regularized commerce while making a reasonable profit. Everyone seems content with this, until someone learns that they've discovered a way of circumventing the wormholes everyone uses, giving them a near instantaneous communications path. For some reason people consider this an unfair advantage, rather than a normal commercial development that benefits all of their customers. In most fiction, the opprobrium would have started with the fact that they were making money without doing anything more than ensuring that goods moved smoothly between planets. The fact that the disapproval didn't start until people found out that they had a secret technology was a little surprising.</SPOILER>

Most of the book is taken up with the adventuring, exploring, and intrigue. We don't find out until fairly late in the story what the artifact is good for, and only one of the characters thinks about any consequences beyond either ensuring the bads guys don't have it or trying to obtain it for themselves. The fact that his concern is expressed after the fact and not telegraphed to the readers or any other characters reduces its impact as a choice. It's a fait accompli by the time we hear about the issue, so there's no time to consider the issue. I thougth this reduced the dramatic impact considerably of what was apparently the core conflict in the story.