The Eternity Artifact

The Eternity Artifact
L.E. Modesitt Jr.

L.E. Modesitt Jr. has been on my radar for a few years now, but I never got around to reading his books. This interview at the excellent Far Beyond Reality page finally jolted me into action, so I picked up one of the books the author himself recommends as a good SF starting point. I have to confess to a couple of concerns before I started reading, though they were generally settled by the interview. First, Modesitt is remarkably prolific, writing books at a pace that makes one suspect hackery. Second, his most popular work seems to be fantasy, which I read considerably less of than science fiction. Finally, he resides in Utah. I can say this as a long time former resident of the place, but I have grave doubts of anything worthwhile coming out of Utah, unless it somehow relates to Utah State University. Go Aggies.

However! My fears were rapidly dispelled. Modesitt may not be Tolstoy, but his craft is solid. Proportionately, he writes a lot of fantasy, some of which I plan to read sometime soon, but he slips comfortably into SF at will. He does indeed live in Utah, but it is in Cedar City (one of the few places I might tolerate) and is a transplant from Washington DC. All in all, I had nothing to fear. That said, when I was poking around the interwebs to refresh my memory on some plot points, I was surprised at the vehement reaction some reviewers had to The Eternity Artifact. Apparently Modesitt is a divisive writer, though I can’t imagine why; being enraged over a Modesitt book seems about like being enraged over a Honda Accord.

Eternity is ostensibly a Big Mysterious Object story, as the protagonists race out into space to investigate an alien planetoid. The BMO is never really the point of the story though, as Modesitt uses it as a launching pad to explore subjects both macro and micro, with the actual secret of the BMO fading into the background somewhat by the end. The micro is supplied by his characters, four of which take turns in the first person. The narrative duties are split between a social science professor, a tug pilot, a famous painter, and a deep cover spy. The shifts in voice are jarring at first, but one soon gets used to each character’s quirks. Modesitt uses the four to piece together the mystery, since each have their own perspectives and discoveries to share. The artist, for example, brings a completely different viewpoint to what is otherwise a standard SF yarn, while the professor allows for some more expansive world building.

The macro view is the backdrop through which the BMO moves. Modesitt has lifted a galactic society directly out of Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, complete with a Judeo-Christian empire, a Muslim empire, one each for China and Japan, and even an incarnation of the secular West. The BMO is interesting by itself, but what really grabs the author’s (and characters’) attention is the way each star-faring government reacts to it. Much conversation passes between the investigators about why one group or another would launch an attack, claim the technology for themselves, or suppress everything in the name of orthodoxy. This is interesting for me, but I’m sure that some readers would prefer more space battles, more riddle solving science, or crazier aliens.

More than anyone other author, Modesitt reminds me of Jack McDevitt. Their approaches are different, but both pay close attention to the way society moves around their protagonists and what shapes the decision made by each character. McDevitt tends to put his ethical questions directly into the story, making them a part of the narrative, while Modesitt spends more time having his characters talk over the societal issues rather than being a part of them. Modesitt is well-served by his time in DC, bringing an insider’s view of the politics and economics of empire. Hard SF is generally limited to the physical sciences, and only recently to anything beyond astrophysics, but Eternity is Hard Soft SF, as it were, Hard SF for the social science masses. Swap out lengthy infodumps about stars, warp drives, and thermodynamics with political science, economics, and history, but leave the BMOs and space battles, and a Modesitt book emerges.

I can see why some readers might not go for this. I just happen to be part of a narrow demographic that loves Hard SF and Space Opera but has a graduate degree in political economy, so my tastes may be a bit rarefied. Still, this sort of attention to the underpinnings of world building is hardly unique to Modesitt, or offensive to large swathes of fandom; Daniel Abraham’s books are just one example of popular SFF that spends as much time muttering about comparative advantage as wormholes or mystic runes. Still, even pulling out Modesitt’s somewhat unconventional narrative structure and insistence on highlighting the squishier side of science, Eternity is a solid addition to the BMO canon. The mystery is suitably entertaining, the characters are given as much attention as the technology, and enough things blow up to warm my explosion-happy heart cockles. While I’m hardly a Modesitt veteran, I have to agree with his assessment that this is a good place to start with his books.

Rating: La Liga’s Malaga. A Spanish side purchased by a member of the Qatari royal family, buying players from all over the world, competing in the Champion’s League, and having financial trouble because said Qatari apparently doesn’t feel like paying his players. Not that Eternity is this messy, but it’s a good multicultural kerfluffle.

2012 Seiun Awards

2012 Seiun Award Winners

The Seiun Awards (星雲賞), Japan’s rough equivalent to the Hugo, were just announced for 2012. Here are the results and some explanation. A complete list in Japanese of all nominees is here, since I will only cover the winners in this post. Note that the foreign SF is determined by publishing date in Japan, which is why the novel nominees include J.G. Ballard and Dhalgren. Anyway, I’ll get the foreign stuff out of the way first and get to the fun bits. I’ll also try to give some sort of description and/or explanation of the Japanese winners, though I haven’t read either of them and am pulling my information off of Japanese Amazon and random websites.

Best Foreign Novel: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

Best Foreign Short Story: The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang

Best Japanese Novel: Heaven and Hell (天獄と地国) by Kobayashi Yasumi (小林泰三)

Best Japanese Short Story: The Singing Submarine and Peer-Peer Douga (歌う潜水艦とピアピア動画) by Nojiri Housuke (野尻抱介)

Heaven and Hell is about a world where gravity is flipped upside down, so everything falls away from the ground and into the sky. Kobayashi is a writer who straddles horror and SF, with this book falling more into Hard SF. It is a follow-up to ΑΩ, which also appears to have won a prize or two. I haven’t read anything by Kobayashi and nothing seems to be in translation, though he is fairly prolific.

According to the author’s website, The Singing Submarine and Peer-Peer Douga is the third in Nojiri’s Peer-Peer Douga series, which use Japan’s NikoNiko Douga site (rather like Youtube) as an inspiration. This one in particular was written for an SF Magazine special issue about Hatsune Miku, a virtual idol about whom more will follow. Explains Nojiri, the Peer-Peer Douga stories are built around a virtual idol that he has based around Hatsune Miku, so he was happy to write this particular series. Nojiri notes that the first story in the series also won a Seiun Award, but that the second story was panned. He seems rather surprised that the newest addition proved so popular.

As for Ms. Hatsune, let us just say that anyone who has read William Gibson’s Aidoru is about to have a wild case of deja vu. As I write this, Mrs. Pep is staring aghast at her own computer screen, watching clips of live concerts given by a hologram of Hatsune Miku, who is entirely computer generated save for her vocoder voice. Setting aside questions of what virtual idols mean for the future of pop music and the taste of the Japanese nerd public, “the logical extreme” and “deplorable,” in that order, I will just post this link to Crunchyroll. This particular song went #1 on iTunes the day after its release, after being used for a blockbuster commercial for Google Chrome. To sum up: the Seiun Award winning short story for 2012 is based on a real-life singer who is entirely digital and is pimping Google products on TV. The future, it appears, is already upon us.

Ring Around the Sun

Ring Around the Sun
Clifford Simak

I’ve spent a lot of time lately finding new authors, reading debut novels, and catching up on the hottest new books. After all the excitement of The New, it was time for something Old; Clifford Simak answered the call with some truly Golden Age stuff. Simak, despite winning a Hugo for Waystation, doesn’t really get talked about as much as many of his contemporaries. He may not be in the Asimov-Heinlein-Clarke pantheon, but I would rate him equal to Alfred Bester or Cordwainer Smith, both of whom seem to garner more frequent mention. Going out on a serious jazz nerd limb, I would call Simak the Hank Mobley of science fiction. Anyway, taking a break from my library raids, I pulled out Ring Around the Sun, an old paperback of which I purchased somewhere forgotten.

Ring is steeped in the 1950s, but some of its themes are eerily prescient. Mostly though, it’s the 1950s. The Cold War pervades all in a way unique to the age, something that younger readers will probably fail utterly to understand. It’s hard to explain to someone who grew up in the 90s how all-encompassing the Cold War was, or why the Soviets were such reliable bad guys. (It has been noted by many that the general reaction to Clarke’s 2001 or 2010 took as a given both spaceflight to Jupiter and the USSR still hanging around. Its sudden collapse in 1989 took everyone by surprise, inevitable though it may seem now, which is why so much SF at the time blithely assumed that the Soviets would be with us well into our expansion into the Solar System.) It is also difficult to replicate the undercurrent of dread that nuclear war engendered; vague fears of terrorism, the Rise of China, or environmental collapse lack the operatic finality of mutual assured destruction. Ring isn’t a John LeCarre novel and the Soviets aren’t really the bad guys, but the Cold War is lurking behind everything that takes place.

At the same time, Simak hints at some questions that would later appear books by writers like Iain M. Banks and Charles Stross. In the book’s future, the distant 1970s, stuff that doesn’t break is beginning to come to market. The Forever Car, which will run forever, razor blades that don’t dull, and other such objects are creeping into the national economy, wreaking subtle havoc. Oddly enough, the 70s were exactly the years when cars made by companies with names like Toyota, Honda, and Datsun entered the US market, cars that lasted years longer than their American counterparts and eventually crippled Detroit. While the Forever Car’s importance fades as the book wears on, its economic possibilities are both the most interesting part of the book and the factor that keeps it relevant now.

The Forever Car and its counterparts represent the post-scarcity economy that one hopes will eventually sweep away our current system. Simak’s characters are going through what contemporary writers would term an economic singularity, that brief, turbulent period when new technology completely upends a society. Simak ignores innovation and fashion, which have prevented our current, long-lasting stuff from swamping the new consumer goods market, but the response of the old guard is predictable: entrenchment, aggressive propaganda, nationalistic fervor, and finally violence. Lest this seem an exaggeration, think of Detroit’s tactics, both labor and capital, since Japanese cars, robotics, outsourcing, and fuel efficiency concerns developed. Clearly, this was my favorite part of the book, and the most surprising, considering its age.

But only part of the book is spent digging around an economic morass. (Probably just as well for 80-90% of the readership.) Much of the rest concerns itself with a trope that was popular at the time, but seems to have fallen into disuse: supermen and/or mutants among us slowly conquering the world. I wonder a bit about the rise and fall of these guys, since only the X-Men are carrying this particular torch at the moment. Regardless, Simak pairs his economic fun with the future leaders of mankind. (Note that I use “mankind” rather than “humanity” on purpose here, since it’s the 50s and white men are doing most of the talking.)

Mostly though, this is a Simak story, which means that sympathetic characters move at a stately pace towards a calm resolution. There are interesting ideas and plenty of action, but like most of the author’s books, Ring is about good people trying to do the right thing. Simak focuses on the Everyman behind each superman and villain, interested as much in the humanity of their stories as the gadgets and world building. This sets him apart from much of Golden Age SF and makes his books must read material. Ring Around the Sun is worth seeking out for a host of reasons: the near-prophetic bits about an economic singularity, the claustrophobia of the Cold War, Simak’s unique spin on SF, plus the whole “this is a good book” business. As an added bonus, my copy contained a vintage ad from the Science Fiction Book Club, advertising the hottest new books for just 10 cents. I wonder if they will still honor it?

Rating: Gerson, the underrated, far too obscure midfield mastermind behind Pele’s greatest Brazilian teams. I spent an inordinate amount of time looking this one up.