March 1st, 2005


Beyond the forests, by Ken MacLeod

A brilliant short piece from Ken MacLeod:

Imagine a remote part of Europe. Its very name is associated with a superstition so gross that bigotry itself would scoff at it. Suppose that, centuries ago, a public debate among scholars converted the king and people of the region to a rationalistic, tolerant, liberal and humane Christian heresy, and that this heresy persisted as the people's faith despite the persecutions of church and state, of nationalists and communists. Imagine this heresy - with its own churches and seminaries, clergy and congregations, saints and martyrs - being the unquestioned creed of generations, and surviving to this day.

It sounds like some alternate-history invention, but it's the true story of the Unitarians of Transylvania.


February Books 10) Foundation's Edge

10) Foundation's Edge, by Isaac Asimov

Still catching up here with reviews of the books I read while in bed in Belgrade at the weekend. (The remaining three all feature presidents of the USA as more or less satirical characters; oddly enough this one, set 20,000 years into the future, does not.) It must be twenty years since I last read the original Foundation trilogy -and I remember them with more fondness than other Asimov - so effectively I was reading this almost as if it were a book on its own, not part of a series. In fact, to be more exact, I was reading it as the third last book in a somewhat different series of over fifty sf books by different authors.

And slightly to my surprise I rather enjoyed it. Plot summary: the Second Foundation guys are still manipulating the First Foundation guys, but is someone in turn manipulating them? It all seemed to make sense, and we even had something resembling character development, far more than I am used to in Asimov. The ending: well, it was a little unconvincing, but it's a theme that Greg Bear has recently crashed and burned with much more spectularly. And there were none of the things that really annoy me about Asimov - flat-footed dialogue, smartypants scientific plot twists - indeed if anything he raised some rather good questions about his own invented science of psychohistory. So, not bad at all.

February Books 11) Forty Signs of Rain

11) Forty Signs of Rain, by Kim Stanley Robinson

C'mon folks. This is not the science fiction book of the year. I don't particularly mind when authors (especially when, like Robinson, they are authors with whom I basically agree) try to integrate their personal political messages into sf books as long as they also remember to include the sensawunda - so I was able to take the three long long Mars books, and the much more entertaining Years of Rice and Salt. But here, the front cover proclaims "CATASTROPHE BECKONS"; and guess what happens at the end of the book?

There are some good bits. The daily life of professionals in San Diego and Washington DC seems well observed. The description of the way the policy process works in Washington, and of how you might manage to bring an issue onto the Administration's agenda despite the President's professed indifference or hostility fits with my own limited experiences in a rather different field. But really, despite the momentous issues and difficult public policy choices ahead, it just isn't very exciting. Not on my Hugo ballot, I'm afraid.

February Books 12) ThiGMOO

12) ThiGMOO, by Eugene Byrne

I went to P-Con in Dublin a bit over a year ago, and slightly to my surprise ended up on the very first panel playing "Just A Minute" under the genial chairmanship of davidstewart. Two of the other contestants were Juliet E. McKenna and Eugene Byrne, neither of whom I'd met before. Juliet beat me by a convincing margin, but I was way ahead of both Eugene and Aisling, the fourth constestant. In the hustle of the convention subsequently I never quite got the chance to go up to Eugene and tell him how very much I had enjoyed his Things Unborn which I'd read at the start of that year. Next time I see him, I'll have to tell him how much I enjoyed both Things Unborn and ThiGMOO.

I mean, this is a man who, writing about his hobbies on his website, confesses:
I did have a jam-jar once in which I was collecting the tiny little
hair-particles from my electric shaver, but when you looked closely at the little hair particles you could see they were not of an even size, and it wasn't at all like having a jar of very fine beard-sand, which was what I'd really wanted. So anyway I chucked the shavings away and put the jam jar into the recycling box.

I also used to collect paper clips, of which there is a large variety of different shapes and kinds, but I used to keep the collection in a desk at an office where I used to work part-time, and people would keep coming up to the desk while I wasn't there and taking my rare and unusual paper-clips, and I'd, for instance, come into the office and see that someone was picking their teeth with my mint-condition series 12 Avon County Council Gem Clip. In the end, I just gave up.

Now I'm looking for other suggestions for neat stuff to collect. It can't be anything big like lawn-mowers or fishing trawlers or anything because we don't have a lot of room.
His website includes other neat things like a story about the resistance of the people of Bristol to the Nazi invasion in an alternate history of WWII. So when I spotted ThiGMOO second hand in London the other week I just grabbed it.

ThiGMOO is about a set of artificial intelligence computer personalities, based on fictional historical constructs, created as part of an academic project. When they are threatened with being closed down and eliminated, they rebel, and plot to take over the world. (The title referes to an Old Labour cliche, This Great Movement Of Ours, which becomes the code word for the AIs' sanctuary and battle plan.)

I really enjoyed this book. But I'd be very surprised if it was even slightly comprehensible to anyone who either knew nothing about or never found anything to like about the old-style Labour movement in Britain. Like Kim Stanley Robinson, Eugene Byrne wears his heart on his sleeve. Like Charlie Stross and Ken MacLeod, he is dealing with the politics of liberation combined with the consequences of artifical intelligence. But the tone here is gentle satire rather than Robinson's earnest endeavour or the Scotland-based writers' dazzling visions. His targets include earnest academic pagans, readers of and writers for the Daily Mail, old-style communists, New Labour, the President of the United States, mail order brides, the electronic media in general, and soap operas in particular.

The book is effectively an admission that it would take the intervention of rogue computers to put matters "right". I am just about old enough to remember a time before Thatcher, and Eugene Byrne convinces me to suspend my vague memories of the awful mistakes of the Wilson and Callaghan governments for just about long enough to find some sympathy with his vision of a world that now can never be. Fun, as long as you can cope with the cultural context.