Tuesday, 31 January 2023

Book review: the Martian Missile

1675197689786-37e1a966-70d8-46ec-8ad5-41b75243de59_ By David Grinnell. A book of about the quality you'd expect from the cover. The other half of The Atlantic Abomination. Characterisation and description are non-existent and writing quality is low, so we fall back on the plot, which drags.

Our hero, in deepest Arizona, comes across a crashed alien, who implants him with some coded info, tells him to go to Pluto or die, gives him the gift of "not invisibility, but of not being seen", and dies. Somehow our hero ends up much like on the front cover, having hijacked a Soviet rocket; from there on a series of vessels somehow get him further out, so it becomes sort of like astral travel. The methane breathers of Jupiter help him out, he gets to Pluto, not one but two teams of aliens battle things out in a confusing way. It turns out that his encoded "info" is the measured "advancement rate" of our civilisation and somehow, errm I forget, the aliens decide to leave, and he goes home. Or something.

Don't read this book.

Sunday, 29 January 2023

Book review: the Atlantic Abomination

1674926945035-64b44234-a758-45bf-8e70-36697cae7aec John Brunner. Very much not one of his finest. An "Ace" double-paperback with the equally cruddy "The Martian Missile". The intrinsic idea - monster disturbed by deep-sea expedition with mental powers seeks to dominate humanity but is foiled - is so-so but hardly novel; shades of Cthullu or Godzilla or such; but the prose is dreadful as are the wooden characters.

The initial catastrophe that overtakes the master race is somewhat sketchily described, but I blame them for failing to foresee it; and it seems implausible that they didn't. Or put another way, the very crude and very simple master-slave society sketched out isn't really plausible. Notice, by the way, that in the intro His Impreial Evilness speaks to his people to make them do stuff; by later in the book we have the rather less plausible scheme by which he causes pain which only stops when you do what he wants.

HIE's treatment of his slaves in our time doesn't seem very plausible either, as they are too likely to die, to his own inconcenience.

The most that can be said for this is that it passed a few hours in Blackwell's who have foolishly moved their scifi section to another building.

Sunday, 22 January 2023

Book review: Blood Music

Blood Music by Greg Bear, author of the disappointing Eon. Years ago I read the back of BM, and decided not to read it. Recently, faced with someone else recommending it, and a lack of alternatives, I tried again. And the first half is fine if unexceptional, but then it goes downhill. So it goes, all too often.

The problem is what you'd expect: GB is fine describing the science-biotech interface and related matters, and weaves an interesting story around it. But once he has to try to describe what it would be like if intelligent cells existed, he fails. I think he fails pretty badly, too.

This is because... what would life be like, if you only had streams of info, rather than extracting info from sight and sound and hearing? That's effectively what life is like for these cells: they have no senses other than picking-up-information. We do have people a bit like this, those deaf and dumb and sightless, who can only read braille or equivalent. Would they, if miniaturised, somehow be good at reshaping the body they inhabit? Not obviously. Would their near-first-act be to fix something like eyesight, whose principles would be completely alien to them? Unlikely.

FWIW I think the idea of intelligent cells is doomed, from various kind of information-content type grounds, but we wave that away for the purposes of the story. Also, for some odd reason these cells are able to take skyscrapers to pieces; why exactly they are capable of chewing up steel and concrete is never mentioned or considered; it is almost as if GB, having though of these vast sheets of goo, somehow can't imagine them not able to do it. I'm also unconvinced by their structure: life is adaptable, if vast sheets of goo was a good idea, biologically, we'd see it already.

In geopolitics, with the USofA gone, the naughty Russkies get up to some nuking of various bits. GB has forgotten the submarine deterrent, which would still be fully active and quite capable of striking back; this is careless of him.

Towards the end, there is some voodoo about what-observes-the-tree-in-the-quad; the idea being that the addition of so many trillions of observers in some way strains reality, leading to some poorly-described cataclysm or singularity (TBH I'd stopped reading carefully by this point and was just skipping along desperate to get to the end; and now I'm on this there's also some voodoo about how similar capability allowed the microbes to neutralise a nuclear strike, oh yeah, that's really believeable). This has no real realation to the rest of the story (other than being necessary to explain why only the USofA rather than the rest of the world is enfolded, which in turn is necessary for drawing out the story) other than to bring it to a convenient end.


Craig Loehle speaks.

Friday, 20 January 2023

Book review: Blindsight

PXL_20230102_130315711 TLDR: exciting but disappointing.

Wiki provides a reasonable summary; and as usual Goodreads will provide opinions. Author: Peter Watts.

The basic setup is decent: someething alien has undeniably scanned Earth; and we send a ship to find it. There's some oddities in there though: why the aliens would choose to scan us to blatantly, and yet hide; why they would cunningly redirect their transmissions through a hard-to-detect indirect link, and yet be detected. I think those needed to be more important for the plot, but they aren't, so they're just plot-candy. Unlesss they can be justified as camoflage, for the real plot? A sparer book would have made the real plot more obvious.

Another oddity: the aliens are hanging waay out, but our characters never show any interest in how long they've been there. Is "Big Ben" moving wrt to the Sun? This is never asked. Did the aliens hitch a lift on it, or did they just want the mass, and so choose to settle there and eat it? Possibly the latter, but the lack of discussion is strange. Are the aliens just one of a zillion ships that the alien species has sent out, or alone? Why, if the aliens can function happily out by Big Ben, do they are about the Earth at all? We never know.

The main cute idea is that the aliens are intelligent, but not conscious (whether this is even possible or not is of course not known, but that's OK: this is a story). I was disappointed by how quickly this becomes clear: it seems to be that the mystery could have been preserved longer; it feels impatient. This sort-of segues into / combines with various other issues of consciousness (the narrator, the vampires) in what feels a rather ill-disciplined way. Issues vaguely linked to consciousness (blindspots, saccades) are kinda linked into the story line but in a wallpapery way, that only disguises the fundamental lacks, without contributing anything to the ideas.

Although it sort-of purports to be a "discussion of consciousness" it isn't; it is just a humble sci-fi story. The "discussion" comes via the central character trying to make sense of things; but this is a combination of asserting implausibilities (consciousness is evolutionarily useless and costly; can you see the problem with that?) and lots of incomplete sentences and half-seen side glances.

I don't mind the vampires, though they do feel like an idea too many. But I'm sure I've read the "crucifix glitch" idea elsewhere, many years ago.

Saturday, 14 January 2023

The year 2022

PXL_20221225_151539933 I don't keep a diary; I do have a series of unconnected social-media accounts which I hope one day AI will connect and trawl. For the present, let's try and remember what we did. My picture is from Christmas, in the new house.

General: I'm in my second year of working for Roku. Miriam still works four days a week for Synaptics, who acquired DisplayLink a few years back. Daniel still works for DarkTrace and still lives in Harvey Goodwin Gardens. And Miranda is now in her thrird year of Maths and Stats (she switched from Maths) at Magdalen and is Captain of Boats with a glorious room to go with that glorious title.

My Flickr account is here. My Instagram account is here; Marbles is here; the garden (yes really) is here. Most day-to-day "social media" stuff goes onto Facebook. And I sometimes Twit. My "real" blog is mustelid.blogspot.com; and there's a post-of-the-year if you want samples. I wrote a list of holidays.

The Great Excitement of this past year has been moving house, from Coton into Cambridge Riverside, St Bartholomew's Close. Do come and say hello if you're around. After so many years - we moved to Coton in '95 I think - we had accumulated so much stuff it seemed impossible we might move, and yet with one mighty leap we were free. We still haven't fully settled down, but we're comfortable. Why did we move? Partly because cycling to and from work for thirty minutes each day was starting to wear thin; it's now ten minutes. Partly because we wanted to walk into town; it is now twenty minutes along the river rather than an hour over fields. And partly looking ahead. Moving way from old friends is a wrench; but my bees are still in Coton; Miriam returns for book club; and I go to the pub on occasion.

We actually moved into the new place on the last of March, prompted by our purchasers needing to move in by April First. But we'd bought the place a couple of months earlier. So we frittered those two months away getting the walls painted and the floors re-done, and then scheduled the moving company frantically at the last moment.

As if to prove to myself that I really am getting old, I have Diary of an injury: my back #4 in May.

July: town bumps.

August: family holiday in Saas Fee and Zermatt; and I walked from there to Chamonix, so to speak.

September: a trip to Pembroke. Climbing, woo! E has taken up indoor climbing too.

I end with Christmas 2022. We (DEI) spent Boxing Day climbing at Horseshoe Quarry, and promised each other to do more.

Book review: The Crucible of Time

1673722268362-57027122-4300-48e0-b8bd-0e8659326814_By John Brunner. Wiki says "The novel deals with the efforts of an alien species to escape their homeworld, whose system is passing through a cloud of interstellar debris, resulting in a high rate of in-falling matter. The species' unique biology and their biological technology complicate matters" and that's about right. This review from Goodreads gets most of it: although the story is mostly interesting enough, it gets somewhat same-y after the first third. Perhaps because the first couple of chapters were published initially as short stories. And then the book becomes primitive-society-reaches-for-the-stars, and we kind of have to grind through their tech progress. Which he does his best to make interesting, since they are bio-focussed. But the recurring motif of society falling apart due to some natural catastrophe or another, and rebuilding slightly higher, gets a bit dull and towards the end just slows the book down.

There's some heavy-handed moralising thrown in: the religious folk are always trying to hinder scientific progress, and indeed religion for these aliens is almost the same as a detatched-from-reality state brought on by lack of nutrients. But again, it's repeated too often.

Sunday, 8 January 2023

Book review: The Long Tomorrow

1673090237747-7c4bc78b-619a-4d50-9b7a-0c0a4fa7231d_ The Long Tomorrow is a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel by American writer Leigh Brackett, wiki sez correctly. I'll assume you've read their article.

It's a decent book, I got quite absorbed in it, but a quote from a review struck a chord: Most of the book, particularly the early part, is compellingly written, but not speculative... as the invented elements of the story grow more important, the vision dims. The idea of Bartorstown as an ideal in the minds of our protagonists works so much better than the "actual reality" LB is able to conjure up.

I didn't really like "Clementine" the computer, especially since anything they had then would so obviously have been too primitive to talk / think / analyse in the way that was required. Or even, to remain functioning without spare parts. If you remove that, and the dream of the force-field, then the book could have been a return-science-to-the-world type book, which is what I was expecting. Instead it turns into a "small remaining core of science that is obviously too small to actually support progress, gradually falls away".

You could perhaps consider it a meditation on the respective virtues of the simple, low-tech life versus the risks of tech. Personally, I'll take the risks of tech, because voluntarily sinking back into the pool of the folk is intellectual death.

Friday, 6 January 2023

Christmas 2022

Christmas 2022 was going to be fairly standard-ish in the "new pattern": to Mother's for a few days, then back home and New Year's eve chez Mfd+J, now they are in Cambridge. But! A few days before, M tested +ve for Covid. And then when I phoned up to try to plan, it turned out that some comedy combination of Rob, Lara and Toby had it. So it became clear that the traditional Christmas Day was out. Having danced around various not very plausible ideas we did the obvious: stayed at home, had a quiet Christmas day of just-us-four, and then went over to Mother later in the week - Wednesday evening - once all the positivity had subsided.

Here we all are on Christmas day, with the presents not yet opened behind us. We waited for the King's speech, of course. The Tree was J's plastic one suitably adorned with LEDs, which seemed to work well.


Note the bandanas, which M had deemed essential. D is still in Harvey Goodwin Gardens, but came over around ten to cook Christmas dinner with E and M. I, as ever, ran a half; rather slowly in 1:57. I had cooked a fruit cake, and we had a Christmas pudding (found by me at great cost in toil in M+S), but we ate neither on the day as we were so stuffed by the lunch. We did watch that well-known Christmas movie Glass Onion, and all agreed that it was entertaining nonsense. We also slept somewhat.

Mfd+J came round at teatime to say hello, and the Covid-comedy continued as M sat outside the living room on the stairs.

The forecast for Boxing Day was fine; and we were keen to climb especially E, so we (DEI) went up to Horseshoe Quarry, cruelly leaving M behind: but she was under the weather so happy to rest. The 27th was just a quiet day, I walked into town and enjoyed being able to stroll, leisurely, with no time pressure. Wednesday the 28th was similar, except we packed up and left around 4 to go over to Mother's, since this was now possible. We had a quiet meal with her, in preparation for the Great Day, Thursday, which was officially proper Christmas Meal Day.

As you'd hope, I did a half that day too, with the bonus of company from Lara (initially) and Toby (till 2/3) and the pleasure of beating them both, not that it was in any way a competition oh no indeed not. And I managed 1:55, which was nice 'cos it is hilly there. Lunch was out, at the nearby farm-shop-cafe-newly-opened-thing; some walked there, but I didn't. Dinner was as ever sumptuous, but in the evening, since N was working.


After, we had a couple of games of This Year's Game, which E selected as Ticket to Ride, and it was very good. D won one and came second in the other.

And that, somewhat abbreviated and so lacking the "timeless" element that creeps into previous years, was that; and on Friday we went home. Saturday to Mfd+J for New Year's Eve, with bonus Si+B.

Sunday was New Year's day so I did the traditional Chesterton 10 k; somewhat slowly: I think I was still wearing off the half. Then - the weather being fine, or at least tolerable - E and I snatched our one chance to go sculling in the double over Jesus lock and down the Backs. Highly recommended. That evening Milo was around; as an important feature of E's life over the past year he deserves a mention. And we finally lit and ate the Christmas pudding.

And then, we had Monday off too, and the weather was again tolerable, so D and I took the chance to walk to Ely again. With just us, and striding out at his pace, we made it in under 5 hours; it is 25 k, from our door to the station; neither of us felt like going as far as the cathedral.

Book review: Northern Lights

1673023773576-08ea09e3-95f9-4bb1-a8b0-56b8f5a14be1_ My pic shows our rather battered copy of Northern Lights by that nice Philip Pullman. I think the battering came from D and E; I've only re-read it once or twice I think. Although the "texture" is fairly good it does rely rather heavily on plot for readability, so doesn't re-read quite as well.

TL;DR: as a story it is excellent; as theology, it falls apart.

As a side note: I like this cover. It is creepy, mysterious; and this reflects the book much better than the usual "alethiometer" version.

Of the story: I won't trouble you with the plot, but it has one, it is interesting, varied and imaginative. It suffers ever-so-slightly from the usual glossing over of the hardships of travel, but never mind that.

On the minor level, while he can assert that he believes that "life is immensely valuable" nonetheless his books feature, as do so many, the commonplace trope of the central characters sacrificing the lives of many un-named spear-carriers in order to protect their own. As a token minor quibble, the idea that a hydrogen-powered dirigible would go anywhere near a fire-hurler that had, moments before, demonstrated its ability to hit is absurd.

Of the theology: there's a strong view that the book is anti-religious or more narrowly anti-catholic, and it is hard to argue with that, since all the religious figures and institutions are bad or evil. But let's think about the central issue, Dust. This is an awkward blend of theology and physics (which, at the plot level, he handles nicely in the book: what is "physics" to us is labelled "experimental theology" to them), in that whilst a subatomic particle on the level of the electron, it is in some sense aware - it knows the difference between children-pre-puberty and adults; it animates the alethiometer. Wisely, Pullman makes no attempt to make sense of this, and sweeps us past it as quickly as possible to the next adventure, because of course it makes no sense at all. Or at least, none to me; I think you have to be something like an idealist to even think in this direction.

Another regrettable issue is that "original sin" is somehow mixed up with the transition at puberty, and thus implicitly with sexual activity, although our author is never crude enough to say this explicitly. Which is a rather radical interpretation: somehow, children are innocent but adults are sinful. Wot? Worse, because (by construction) this is actually true in his world, he has given the church a justification (in his world!) for their doctrine of original sin.