Thursday, March 7, 2013

Rapture of the Nerds - Cory Doctorow & Charles Stross

As a fan of both Stross & Doctorow, I figured this book would definitely be worth reading. I wasn't wrong, but instead of combining my favorite aspects of both writers, it wound up combining my least favorite elements of both their styles...which still made for a very enjoyable book.

Humanity has figured out how to upload itself to the cloud, but of course not everyone is ready for that just yet. Huw Jones hasn't forgiven his parents for uploading when he was a teenager, and is attempting to live as technology free a life as possible. Unfortunately for Huw the universe has other ideas and he winds up far more involved than he ever wanted to be. In the process we get to see a little of what has happened to people still living on the planet, which isn't too pretty. The US seems especially bad with its combination of religious cults and swarm of ants which eat everything they can get their mandibles on.

Huw is not especially loveable, and I found him really irritating for the first half of the story. He's being dragged kicking and screaming away from his nice, electronic-free life as a potter, and in the process appears to be complicating things for everyone. Finally things start to make a lot more sense as we find out why horrible things are happening to Huw in particular, and at that point I started to really enjoy the book. Possibly I will like it a whole lot more on a second read.

Unsurprisingly in a Doctorow/Stross collaboration this book explores the implications of life as an uploaded entity. I had never thought about what happens when everyone lives as a simulation in the computer and then you create new simulation - the new sim is effectively a person, they are indistinguishable from all the other folks who consider themselves people, so you can't just go killing them off by shutting them down once you're done, that hardly seems fair. Then what if you spawn other versions of yourself? Your clones become separate entities almost immediately, you wouldn't want to suddenly find yourself deleted as not being quite as up to date as some other version. Also, what about overclocking? If you are running on a really fast computer, you effectively experience time passing more quickly than someone running on a slower processor. How do you allocate resources? Emotional reactions are another thing - when you can artificially modulate your emotions, is this any less valid than someone who has learned to modulate their emotions by meditating?

On the whole, I'd have to say I enjoyed this. The story was mostly fun, the characters got to be more enjoyable as things progressed. Huw is actually a sympathetic character once you finally wrap your head around why he is acting the way he is. Most readers would probably empathize more with his parents than with him, since I assume anyone reading this story would be more likely to upload themselves to the cloud than now, and yet his overreaction to being abandoned by his parents is totally understandable.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Dazzle of Day - Molly Gloss

Jo Walton reread The Dazzle of Day over on She titled the post "Quakers in Space" which is a really good one line description. It is set on a generational starship, but the folks on the ship aren't the ones who built it - they're one of the few groups who actually had the guts to abandon Earth. So while they have all sorts of high tech gear, they're a very low tech society. Obviously there are folks who have to maintain the ship, and learn how to repair the sails as they arrive at their destination so that the ship can slow down properly, but mostly they are farmers and artisans. And the society is very egalitarian with all decisions being made at Meetings (which obviously makes things difficult because you have to have a large group of people coming to an agreement about things - difficult things - deciding to change the world by actually landing on the planet their ancestors set out for instead of staying in their nice safe (but gradually decaying) ship). So it is entirely different in flavour from any other generational starship story I've ever read. Which is awesome. And Jo says in her post, her 11-year old self would have hated this book, and maybe I'm not really old enough to enjoy it yet. It was almost too real for me. There was a lot of death and disability - in fact a very realistic amount of death and disability - but it was of the sort that in your standard sci-fi story wouldn't have happened - people would have been saved at the very last minute. Instead, the dramatic rescue attempts don't necessarily succeed, or don't succeed fully, and we get to explore the effect of that on the survivors - who are very human. Which is interesting, and it was a very compelling read, but a bit depressing on the whole - and yet not, because people do survive and go on to create lives, happy lives, for themselves and their descendants on this new planet.

The one thing I really enjoyed was the family and social structure. Marriage is very much a thing, but people don't get married and move into their own houses, you continue living with family - but exactly which family (or friends) you live with depends a lot more on personalities than on precedent. People regularly move around if they stop getting along with the folks they are living with and have a better option. Also, children when they reach age 12 are expected to move elsewhere for their 'green years' in order to experience different family environments. Generally moving in with aunts & uncles or other relatives. Each individual dwelling is part of a larger community, so that sleeping, cooking and eating would be done with your family group, but communal spaces are available for working and bathing. Within a very constrained society this seems (to me) to allow a large degree of personal freedom. If you aren't happy, you can leave - you aren't going very far, but far enough.

So I think I really enjoyed it, but I think I might like it better in 20 years. Definitely worth reading especially as it is quite short.