Monday, August 24, 2015

Read It, August 2015, Progress Report 1

It is kind of late in the month to be writing my first progress report post. Today is Monday, August 24th. But I am happy to report that I finished Kim Stanley Robinson's new novel Aurora. I have continued to work long hours this month, so my reading time has been very limited, but as we hammer a huge initial pile of work into a software release, we are gradually emerging from crunch mode into something resembling a more sustainable work schedule.

I won't spoil it too much for you, but Aurora is a story of interstellar travel in a generation starship. Robinson's world is one without magical breakthroughs; the speed of light is still the law of the land. The biggest single extrapolation is the development of the book's intriguing narrator. This is an adventure story that is also at its heart a work of philosophy, a work about human values and the nature of intelligence and loyalty. The author asks us to consider the real nature of our relationship to the rest of the universe, beyond our home planet. Are we really destined to colonize the universe? Is it even possible?

As the best science fiction always is, KSR's new book is very profoundly about the present and our present relationship to those questions, while playing off his earlier work in a playful way. It's not exactly clear how they all fit together, but Robinson appears to be building a sort of ad hoc multiverse, in which different versions of his future history overlap , but do not quite recount a single, coherent history. I found this intriguing; it is almost as if Robinson's view of the future has evolved as he becomes older and the range and depth of his thought deepens, and our relationship with our own home planet is widely recognized as a relationship in profound crisis. Just like that, in fact.

I am not sure this is his finest work. For me that will probably always be his Mars trilogy. This future, because it is on a sort of parallel track, doesn't seem to refute that one, as much as suggest an alternative that makes, perhaps, more sense in 2015, with a different feeling about our future than we had back then. Which one is more realistic? I don't know, but I have my suspicions, and you may, too.

I have just started to read something lighter, Harry Harrison's original 1961 novel The Stainless Steel Rat. I have been curious about this book for a while, especially after reading and enjoying Bill, the Galactic Hero (and, unfortunately, failing to enjoy the sequels). I have only read the first few pages, but it is entertaining so far.

I always find older science fiction interesting -- it is often a bizarre combination of new technology that predicts the future, and old technology that the author somehow imagined would still be around. The result is often bizarre in retrospect. So, for example, we have the protagonist who pulls off a heist and gets on a spaceship to throw the authorities off his tail, but is carrying with him a suitcase full of cash, because money hundreds of years in the future looks very much like money in 1961. He can exceed the speed of light, but he gets his news from printed newspapers, delivered by pneumatic tube. But, perhaps this is not so unrealistic. After all, we were told to expect flying cars, but even the world of Blade Runner never included wi-fi, GPS, or cell phones -- instead, Deckard calls Rachael on a video pay phone. Harrison is not one to take himself too seriously, though, so it's quite possible, if not likely, that these anachronisms were entirely intentional.

I'll have an update after the end of the month. Until then, happy reading!

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