" In this universe the night was falling; the shadows were lengthening towards an east that would not know another dawn. But elsewhere the stars were still young and the light of morning lingered; and along the path he once had followed, Man would one day go again"

Arthur C. Clarke Against the Fall of Night

Friday, May 22, 2020

New Arrivals Soviet SF and a Badger Book

 Some years ago my wife and I visited London. A visit to the Barbican Estate was on our list. We have long been interested it this complex as an example of British brutalist architecture. It is on my list of cool places to live should I ever win (really really big) on the lottery. We had just missed the exhibit Into the Unknown A journey Through Science Fiction, but I bought the catalogue.

The first two illustrations below come from this catalogue.
I have just received Soviet Space Graphics, Cosmic Visions from the USSR  by Alexandra Sankova from a local bookstore and I knew Into The Unknown discussed the topic as well in the chapter, "Space Odysseys, Visions of the Cosmos in Soviet Science Fiction" by Alyona Sokolnikova. So I wanted to look at both essays as well as the illustrations. Soviet Space Graphics is a great book. The introductory essay is only about five pages long but the book is lavishly illustrated, some 267 in total. The reproductions are a bit matte but they allow one to get a real overview of the different styles that were employed over the years. 

One thing that struck me immediately was the similarities between these illustrations and those found in the science fiction pulp magazines of this period. They were also quite reminiscent to the more futuristic covers of general technical magazines like Popular Mechanics

In discussing the new Soviet era periodicals Sokolnikova notes "A significant number of these publications focused their attention on the exploration of Earth, its subterranean and oceanic depths, as well as the endless mysteries of outer space-each of the frontiers representing the promise of a bright, new Communist future." (8) 

These were not, at least initially, fiction magazines intended for entertainment. Sokolnikova tells us that, "In 1934, the first All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers was held. At this event, the genre of science fiction was defined exclusively as ' literature for young people' which was required to focus on readers' scientific and technical education in the spirit of social realism. Ideas about human flight were criticized as being too remote from everyday needs, and even utopian. Hence a more pragmatics genre of the science fiction essay, devoid of literary plot, evolved 5." (55) what a buzz kill, it sounds a bit like John Campbell's essays/diatribes in Analog education not fun. Sokolnikova notes that in the late 1960's the work of the Strugatsky's among others spurred the growth of a softer less technical or adventure oriented science fiction from the Soviet Union. 

And for something completely different, or is it? Maybe it's just a different vision of the future? I became interested in Badger books after following the unsubscribedblog's Badger Book on Sunday, posts. Now whenever I see one at an almost reasonable price, especially with the kind of garish covers I love I cannot resist. This cover is by Eddie Jones. Is it just me or is our hero standing in an old style a beer glass surrounded by equipment purloined from a hair salon. Now that is science!

Monday, May 4, 2020

Murderbot Diaries by Martha Well, plus a couple of new arrivals

Before I discuss Martha Well's Murderbot Diaries I wanted to share the covers of two books I received today. Cheesy as some may find it I love Laumer's A Plague of Demons, I also love this cover by Carlos Ochagavia. Really, does it get better than demon dogs trying to maybe gnaw on human brains encased in robots.

My discussion of A Plague of Demons appears here;

Joachim Boaz discussed “Testament” a short story by Vincent King here:

I noticed the bookseller that had A Plague of Demons also had Light a Last Candle by King, with a pretty cool cover by Robert Foster. The discussions on Good Reads sounded intriguing if a bit mixed so the four armed diaper guy joined my collection.

All Systems Red - The Murderbot Diaries 1 (cover).jpg

And now to Murderbot

I  really enjoyed The Murderbot Diaries. Murderbot is a fun character. Murderbot's various adventures take place across a a number of locations within the Corporate Rim. Most of the citizens we meet, we do not meet many, are people working in space in an economy geared to exploiting existing worlds or exploring for new resources at least within the planets and space stations where most of the action takes place. The society in the Rim is dystopian with many citizens indentured or leased to corporations, criminals or the mega-wealthy. The story feeds us enough detail that we can envision the societies and culture overall without becoming so dense that we bog down in back story and infodumps. Instead, the details are inserted into the narrative, emerging as needed without appearing forced or slowing down the action. These are action stories with a very good pace. They are also novella length which as means they are quick reads

Wells understands the human condition and offers a vision of how bleak the society she has extrapolated is for many people, via the experiences of Murderbot a security unit assigned to a mapped expedition on an unexplored planet. SecUnits are a merger of machine and cloned human parts created for tasks too challenging to be handled by even augmented humans or smart machines.  "When constructs were first developed, they were originally supposed to have a pre-sentient level of intelligence, like the dumber variety of bot, but you can't put something as dumb as a hauler bot in charge of security." (Artificial Condition) This would require human supervisors and slow down the unit's reaction time, among other things.  Therefore constructs have some freedom of choice but only within the limitations set by their programming and governor module. 

Wells, through Murderbot can find some humour or at least irony in rather dire situations, something I am increasingly challenged to do. Indeed Murderbot views the interactions of the humans with resignation, cynicism, paranoia and occasionally humour. Murderbot does come across as jaded, disengaged and very world weary. Also interactions with humans on a personal level are unwelcome and quite stressful. Indeed the first paragraph of All Systems Red provides a valuable insight in Murderbot's dilemma.

“I could have become a mass murderer after I hacked my governor module, but then I realized I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels carried on the company satellites. It had been well over 35,000 hours or so since then, with still not much murdering, but probably, I don't know, a little under 35,000 hours of movies, serials, books, plays, and music consumed. As a heartless killing machine, I was a terrible failure.” (All System Red)

One thing that Wells did that works for me in this series is avoiding some of the standard science fiction terms for artificial life or machine intelligence.  The term bot is used extensively for machines that operate independently often prefixed by the function; examples include bot-driven transports, cargo bots, hauler bots etc.

We have augmented humans, but no cyborgs, Miki in Rogue Protocol is usually described as a human-form bot, although the word robot is used a couple of times generally as a derogatory term. ART, the research transport vessel in Artificial Condition, is described as a bot, although it has the characteristics of what would be called an AI in many science novels. I found this freeing; I did not immediately feel I knew the attributes or roles of these characters based on the term. Instead, I learned how they fit into the range of artificial life forms by their actions within the storyline.

I am becoming increasingly interested in depictions of mechanical life, artificial intelligence, robots, drones and all the other manifestations of artificially created sentient beings. So this series was something I quite enjoyed. Indeed I read All Systems Red and hesitated to read the other books for fear I would not enjoy them as much. But when Tor made the series available for download for free, I could not resist. So I will say now I loved the entire series and am awaiting the next addition to Murderbot's story, which I will buy immediately. The setting and action reminded me a bit of C.J. Cherryh's Allliance-Union books, which is never a bad thing.