Greg Benford and Larry Niven

Shipstar’s predecessor, Bowl of Heaven, made a big splash upon its release. The thought of an All-Star collaboration between two of Hard SF’s biggest names, and their stated intention to update the venerable Big Mysterious Object trope had certain demographics salivating. BMO’s are admittedly hoary, but they go with Hard SF like sushi and wasabi-infused soy sauce. Now, with the author who really put BMO’s on the map with Ringworld and a highly respected, multi-award winning writer working together on a Big Smart Object, what could possibly go wrong?

Unfortunately, enthusiasm has cooled a bit after the first book. Like a reunion album from some famous 1970s band, many people checked it out, decided that things felt too dated, got nostalgic for the originals, and set Bowl aside. I’m sure there are plenty of readers out there who loved it, but most of the people I talked to were lukewarm. Indeed, the review here was far more positive than most I read. I will be the first to admit Bowl’s flaws, problems that plague most Hard SF no matter the era. The characters were rather flat and the plot was decent, with both relying heavily on the Bowl to carry things off into the sunset. The authors are clearly from another time, lacking the cutting edge verve makes certain recent books so fascinating. Niven in particular has been accused of coasting on past glories, charges that Bowl did little to discourage.

Now, with expectations dampened and people buzzing more about other 2014 releases, Shipstar sails into port. All I can say to those who vowed not to go on is: forget your promises and get this book. Bowl could be a bit of a stage-setting slog, with the trapped humans to explain, the Bowl to introduce, the Folk to show, the conflicts to set up, the information to dump, etc. etc. etc. With Shipstar, the table is set and all that is left to do is bring out the roast beast, light the dessert on fire, and pull the tablecloth out from under the crystal at the end. (This is actually a fairly accurate description of what happens. Trust me.) We still get a few inexplicable moments of leaders musing on leadership and awkward human interactions, but they are overshadowed by the rest. (Greg, what happened? You used to HATE middle management types, now you’re writing effective motivational techniques into your fiction.)

This is still archetypal Hard SF. The humans are moderately engaging, but they mostly serve as an excuse for Science and Aliens. And what aliens they are! One would expect this from Niven, but non-humans steal the show. The Folk are fascinating, and have a pretty mind-boggling history that would be a total spoiler to reveal, so I won’t say anything. The Sil are doughty, the Finger Snakes are hilarious, and the authors pull a few more tricks out that will floor a certain type of reader. They’ve really dug deep into exobiology for this one, with stuff that will surprise even the most grizzled SF veterans. In contrast, Bowl focuses mainly on the Folk, with only hints of what is to come.

The Science bit keeps pace. We all know that the meat of the series will cover the Bowl, its functional basics, its destination and history, and probably a twist or two that will pull the rug out. This it does, in ways I can’t go into here. The Bowl is mind-blowing, but we all knew that before. It has to be, or nobody would write these books. The challenge is to blow minds in original and unexpected ways, and the authors pull this off with aplomb. Again, this is to be expected. Niven knows he has to outdo the Ringworld here, so he goes all in. Benford isn’t about to go down in history as a guy who can’t deliver the science fictional equivalent of meat and potatoes, so he is at his peak. Together, they check all the boxes for BMO’s, but never predictably or conventionally.

Finally, I should say a word or two about Ye Olde Sense of Wonder. The authors know what is required of this sort of book. They know we’re here to be wowed, and they come through. Not just with the Bowl though, they pull that trick we see in all the best SF, one that defines SF as a genre apart from other fiction. Benford and Niven wrote a book that keeps unfolding new secrets that continually expand the horizons of the story and its universe. This is something I see more in SF than anywhere else, the way that one revelation doesn’t just propel the plot, but opens new existential and physical possibilities. A fact is unveiled that changes not just our perception of a character or situation, but the way the universe is put together. Shipstar has these moments every 50 pages or so. New information comes to light, and suddenly everything means something different. It is 400 pages of, “Wow, that thing there is really cool. Wait, if A does this, that means that B is possible, which in turn makes C suddenly important, and hang on, what do you mean there are dinosaurs?”

If it’s not clear yet, I will summarize in fewer words. Everything in this book except the humans gets wilder and crazier on a straight line projection; I enjoyed every minute. Yes, it’s a throwback. With the exception of a nod here and there to climate change and environmentalism, this is 1970s, Big Idea science fiction, where massive engineering works cruise the galaxy and plucky humans figure things out. It is the epitome of meat and potatoes SF, but made with grass fed, gourmet meat and locally grown, organic Yukon gold spuds. It may not redefine the genre, but it is probably the peak of a particular, fundamental subsection of SF. Recommended for everyone that likes gargantuan, mysterious artifacts. (Yes, even for those who didn’t like Bowl of Heaven.)


Queen City Jazz

Queen City Jazz
Kathleen Ann Goonan

Queen City Jazz is a difficult, uncompromising book. Goonan refuses to make things easy for the reader, above and beyond the usual Hard SF hurdles. Keeping up with Goonan requires a healthy knowledge of nanotech, bees, and jazz, with lesser amounts of Cincinnati, American literature, baseball, and Shakers. Even if the reader is up on all of these, details of the plot are deliberately obscured, characters mislead the protagonist, the history of the nano ravaged world is vague, and the final point of the story isn’t clear until the very end. Whether or not the reward justifies the work is a hard call to make. I thought it worthwhile, but I may be in the minority.

Like many first novels, this one has an “everything but the kitchen sink” feel to it. Goonan has created a complicated and detailed world, then stuffed it with a wild array of characters and technology. She could have stopped at nanotech, or even at the nanotech derived plague that both transformed the cities and depopulated the country, but kept going. Verity, the protagonist, starts off in a Neo-Shaker community that came together in response to the plagues, but is off before long into the transformed, unrecognizable cities. Her ultimate destination, Cincinnati, is full of towering, graceful skyscrapers, each with a gigantic flower on top and serviced by an army of cow-sized, nanotech bees. Survivors of the nanotech craziness live in shanty towns in the shadow of the city, while the residents of the city itself might be human, or might not.

Are we all keeping up so far? The vertigo is just beginning. Verity discovers her destiny, pre-nano flashbacks start to explain the semi-mad, vaguely incestuous beginnings of the nano-plagues, and everyone plays jazz or baseball. Goonan maintains a voice that manages cold science and dreamy intoxication, often at the same time. I have read a lot of science fiction and know a lot of plot paths, but this one kept me off-balance almost the entire time. I confess to having no idea, through probably 450 pages, of where things were going, what would happen, or how Verity was going to become whatever it is she was supposed to become. Though certainly a credit to the author’s creativity, not everyone will appreciate being bewildered for so long. I think we can all agree, though, that seeing Ernest Hemingway rejected for a spot on the recreated Cincinnati Reds due to arrogant jerkiness is worth the price of admission.

Long time readers might (correctly) guess that the jazz bit of Queen City Jazz is my favorite part. Goonan clearly knows her stuff. The conversations between musicians ring true, the descriptions of their playing reflect the way I feel when I play, and the strange reincarnations of past masters are appropriate. Goonan must know that Sphere, the alto sax player who guides Verity through the city, shares a name with Thelonious Monk, though they have little in common. (Monk’s middle name was Sphere, but Monk was, in (I think) Dexter Gordon’s tastefully understated words, “Not exactly the cat next door.”) My only real nitpick is that jazz seems to stop about 1965 in the book. Keeping things with the classics does give the book a more timeless feel, but also has a “you kids get off my lawn” vibe with the implication that good music died with John Coltrane. To be fair, I think that this was an editorial decision in line with the first observation, more than a flag planted by the second.

Trying to put this all together, Queen City Jazz has solid world building, a singular premise and vision, and excellent prose on one hand. On the other, it is dense and unforgiving, likely leaving many readers with no idea what is going on for long stretches. If people tell me that they just didn’t get it, or bounced hard within the first hundred pages or so, I will understand. Still, there are more books in the series, so somebody thought this was worth the trouble. I have a built in tolerance for the worst excesses of Hard SF (not present here anyway), heavy reading, and all around cryptic stuff, so I muscled through alright. In fact, when they payoff finally came, I was glad that I persevered. I can give that level of recommendation, but will not be surprised if others disagree. I will report back later, once I have delved further into Goonan’s world, with a verdict on the broader implications of the book.

Rating: A tense, 0-0 draw in the preliminary round. Not for everyone, but a certain aesthetic pleasure can be derived from the tactical battles unfolding.

Blue Remembered Earth

Blue Remembered Earth
Alastair Reynolds

There is a track on Kenny Garrett’s 2002 release Happy People that is a mix of three placid Asian folk songs. For almost seven minutes, Garrett plays with an uncharacteristic calm, before finally letting loose a sudden blast of harmonically adventurous butt kicking. “That right there,” said a friend and band mate, “was when he just couldn’t restrain himself any more.” I thought of that about halfway through Blue Remembered Earth. Considering the gothic insanity of the Inhibitor books or the steampunk noir of Terminal World, Blue Remembered Earth is strikingly normal. The characters are regular people, any post-human modifications are understated, nobody is hooked up to a calliope/life support system, no pigs have been uplifted. I was not disappointed by any means, but I was definitely taken aback by the recognizable near future, accustomed as I am to Ultras or Chasm City denizens. Then, suddenly, some of the characters find themselves in an anarchic Martian arena, where machines are set loose in a hyper-Darwinian struggle in hopes that some sort of useful technology will evolve itself midst the mechanized terror. “This is more like it,” thought I, but there is much to cover both before and after this flash of Reynoldsian horror.

I’m diving into this book both with an eye on wrapping up my Books of 2012 list and as a part of the 2013 Science Fiction Experience. Being very serious about my own pomposity, I want to look at Reynolds’ book in terms of what it says about the SF Experience right now; in particular how it fits into some noticeable Hard SF trends and how it answers some recent laments of SF losing its way, becoming irrelevant and/or boring, and failing in its alleged duty to address modern day problems and inspire answers to them. In terms of an actual “book review,” it should come as no surprise to frequent readers that I’m a big fan of Blue Remembered Earth; nobody will be more shocked than I if I ever give Alastair Reynolds a negative review. (Not just because he once retweeted a post, then answered my question of which Steely Dan album he wants to be. There are literary reasons as well.) (And for the record, it was Royal Scam.)

Blue centers itself on the Akinya family, an Africa-based business empire. Grandmother Eunice, whose intrepid genius built said empire, has just died. At the funeral that opens the book, control of the family passes to Hector and Lucas. “The cousins” enlist the introverted elephant researcher Geoffrey to clear up some lingering questions on the Moon. He in turn pulls his bohemian sister Sunday in, after these small questions open up into much larger issues. The balance of the story follows the two as they unravel a mystery left behind by Eunice, while also tracing the family relationships inside the complicated Akinya clan. Along the way, Reynolds takes us on a tour of the Solar System, all while poking around questions of law and surveillance, AI, the environment, how we might spread out away from Earth, and proper uses of machines and biology.

I think it is no coincidence that three of the highest profile Hard SF books of 2012 (this, Existence, and 2312) all confront the same questions of how we will survive the coming years of (inevitable?) turmoil and spread into the Solar System. Each takes different paths to different answers, but all seem to be direct responses to recent conversation inside the field. Between the Mundane SF movement, Neal Stephenson’s call for more optimistic, proactive SF, Paul Kincaid’s lament on SF exhaustion, and other smaller scale conversations, The People seem to want books that pull back from Galactic War and address our fears right now, but not in a gloomy, dystopian way.

Reynolds starts with the now common proposition that our generation will fail completely to address climate change, basing his Earth on the possible consequences. Much like Kim Stanley Robinson, he posits massive change and upheaval, tempered with scientific ingenuity and our inate abilities to make do. We have made our way into space, as far as the Moon and Mars. The Earth has settled into a kind of omnipresent world government that uses constant surveillance to prevent crime and violence. Parts of the Moon and Mars, by contrast, remain free of prying eyes, letting Reynolds create his first dichotomy. Another is provided by the Panspermian movement, which advocates humanity’s duty to spread biological life throughout the universe; they are in ideological conflict with the establish government policies that favor a more mechanized, uploaded approach. Here too Reynolds toys with burning questions in contemporary SF. From the fundamentals of the world building through the details of characterization and plot, Reynolds confidently engages with critiques and issues in the genre.

I’ve taken a general survey of reactions to Blue, most of which can be immediately categorized into those familiar with Reynolds and those giving him a first try. Those of us that have read through most of his novels know that we’re in for a dense, idea-rich book that moves at a stately pace. Readers coming in from lighter stuff may well bounce off of it all. Blue is certainly a challenging book, one that demands thought and patience from the reader. All the more so as Reynolds brings up plenty of questions, but doesn’t necessarily propose answers. Do we think that the benevolent, but somewhat stagnant, Surveilled World is better than a more dangerous alternative? Should we be looking to send our meaty selves to the Oort cloud, or uploaded personalities? What are our duties to ourselves and our families? The plot requires no answers, so we are allowed to decide for ourselves.

By now it is probably clear that I think Blue Remembered Earth is one of the vital books from 2012. It gives as good a summary of SF today as anything I’ve read. Not an easy read, but well worth the effort.

Rating: The author may not like this, but I have to compare him to the German National Team. Methodical, precise, and relentless, somehow these books always end up winners.

The Fractal Prince

The Fractal Prince
Hannu Rajaniemi

I bowled through The Fractal Prince in my last, mad bid to read the best of 2012, getting a brand new library copy of the book just as the year expired. It is yet another stop on the 2012 Hard SF Revival Grand Tour, proving conclusively that Analog readers need not yet weep for the death of SF’s core subgenre. Parenthetically, I thought that my Best of 2012 list would be utterly mainstream and unoriginal. Instead, I find that it is overwhelmingly Hard SF and not at all like others I am reading. I’m not sure why this surprised me. Digression aside, The Fractal Prince presents several challenges to the reviewer, which forces this post further into more appropriate territory for The 2013 Science Fiction Experience. Why? Because Rajaniemi’s novel clearly illustrates the change that has overtaken SF in the last decade or two.

First, the book and its challenges. The largest is basic comprehension. Between string theory, quantum physics, and Rajaniemi’s oft cryptic narrative style, I did not understand large patches of the book. This is generally not a problem, since I don’t really need to know what a “qdot” is, the ins and outs of space battles, or why exactly something works the way it does, but I confess to scratching my head a bit at the end, double checking myself to make sure I knew what had just happened. A certain type of reader is going to go bonkers at this. As a reviewer, the swirling question marks make it difficult to pen a coherent and knowledgeable response, since I spend as much time going over basic plot points in my head for comprehension as I usually do with analysis.

That said, the story sweeps along, pushing all willing readers before it with a certain inexorability. Rajaniemi has utmost confidence in himself, to tell a story beguiling enough that the reader will forget any confusion, and in his audience, to have brains enough to keep up. Uncompromising it may be, but The Fractal Prince shows the utmost respect for the reader. Rajaniemi of course has no control of the bewildered audience, its patience, or its interest, but his self-confidence is well placed. The book is an elegantly crafted mystery of stunning prose and imagination, one that threatens the stone walls of genre and the glass ceilings of science fiction convention. Yes, he’s telling a caper, but he tells it with style, with math, and, in this case, with The Arabian Nights tangled up in quantum physics. The influence of a merry band of Scottish authors is clear, but Rajaniemi weaves those same threads of mayhem visible in Banks or Stross in a way all his own.

Stepping back for a broader look, one thing stands out more than the craft and intelligence: The Fractal Prince shows possibly the clearest demarcation yet between traditional science fiction and the contemporary scene. Rajaniemi hasn’t upended the genre with this book, but a reader looking back can see just how far science fiction has moved in the last decade or two. The sensation is rather like hiking with one’s head down for a couple of hours, then looking up and realizing that the tree line is some ways back and the scenery is completely different. He is standing on the shoulders of giants to accomplish this of course, giants of the New Wave, the cyberpunk movement, the Singularity crew, and others, but the book comes very close to burning the bridge leading back to traditional SF.

What makes this science fiction experience so different? More than anything, this is a book of the Information Age. I have written before how science has expanded, adding the entirety of the IT field. “Scientists” now include programmers, network admins, project managers, and the like. Readers that once were engineers and physicists are now also computer gamers and app creators. Hard SF can still be about gargantuan engineering projects in deep space, but more often it is about information. Further, Vernor Vinge and his Singularity posse have made post-scarcity a real concept to be wrestled with. When everybody has stuff and things, what matters are intangibles: art, ideas, secrets. There are still stories about pragmatic, Anglo-Saxon engineers solving problems, but they read like relics. Cyberpunk led the way, but its doubtful that William Gibson and crew had any idea that network security would form the basis of whole sagas, that no book written past the mid 1990s could be taken seriously without some extrapolation of the internet.

All of this is clearly visible in the story. We rejoin Jean, our erstwhile protagonist, in the heart of a giant, outer space construct; but it is not a space station or battle fortress, it is a building-sized router. Jean is on a quest, so to speak, and while he isn’t hacking in the traditional sense of the word, he is searching for information, for bits of code. In The Quantum Thief, Jean was stealing time, another intangible that retains value in a post-scarcity world. Rajaniemi is slowly outlining the contours of the major conflict in his universe, a conflict immediately recognizable to readers of post-Vinge SF. The Sobornosts, when not fighting each other, are in a slow burning war with zoku over, in a word, death. Not to the death, but about death. The Sobornosts want to digitize everything, while the zoku prefer to retain some attachment to the wet, squishy parts of us. Everything is utterly post-human of course, but this is a debate we see in Stross, Schroeder, and others. Beneath the jaunty caper, the lyrical prose, and the string theory, we are watching the debates of the information age play themselves out, debates that were well-nigh unimaginable during the Golden Age.

By now I suppose it is painfully obvious that I am not going to corral this into a simple plot summary and recommendation. A reduction into an arbitrary number of stars isn’t going to help anyone anyway, since individual mileage will vary here more than most novels. I would never in a thousand years give this to someone who asked me, “So what’s this science fiction thing you talk about? Where should I start?” I wouldn’t give it to the Baen Books crowd either. The people who are going to love this book are people steeped in science fiction, willing to make the effort to understand something complicated and challenging, and hunting for new paths for the genre to take. The rewards are there for those who go looking.

Rating: Roy Hodgson! Let’s do a little switcheroo here. “Woy” went to Scandinavia from England and gained renown for changing how they play football. He won numerous club titles in Sweden and pushed Finland to their highest world ranking ever. Is there similar glory in Rajaniemi’s future?

Ashes of Candesce

Ashes of Candesce
Karl Schroeder

DownBeat, the leading jazz publication, divides its annual Critics Poll into two: the Best (whatever) and the Rising Star (whatever). The latter used to be called Talent Deserving Wider Recognition (TDWR), which I prefer as a name, even if it doesn’t roll off the tongue. This split allows the critics to vote someone venerable like Sonny Rollins or Dave Brubeck as the best, even though they are ancient, have lost a step or two, and are no longer on the cutting edge; while simultaneously recognizing the younger faces who are really driving the music forward today. I wish the Hugos would do the same, because in a year when SF titans are dropping major works, someone like Karl Schoeder is going to be shut out. Not that I want to take anything away from a masterwork like 2312, but I’d love to see some of the lesser known writers get more attention with a TDWR award.

Candesce is the fifth and (for now) final book of Schroeder’s Virga cycle. Virga is one of the most impressive Hard SF series of the last decade, though I imagine the author didn’t expect it to go in the direction that it did. The first book introduces Virga, a giant, atmosphere-filled balloon with a technology-damping fusion sun called Candesce in the middle. Other, smaller, artificial suns dot the inside of Virga, each with its compliment of cities, farms, and factories. Virga itself is weightless, so the cities are spun up for gravity. This paired with a sun that prevents any transistor or digital technology creates an evocative landscape of wooden city wheels, rotating patches of forest and farm, bubbles of water for lakes, and people moving at all angles via airship, ropeway, air cycle, or personal wing and fin sets. The series started out as adventure yarns in the style of classic nautical tales, with the first three books forming a trilogy of sorts. (The stories are more or less sequential, but each book follows a different character.) The fourth book takes off in a whole new direction, with mostly new characters and places, while Candesce brings everything together.

It also brings the philosophy, which is both where the fun begins and where Candesce fulfills its promise. Intentional or not, Schroeder jumps head first into one of SF’s biggest debates with this book. The Virga series could have stayed with zero-g swashbuckling, wooden ships, iron men, and what not, but for whatever reason, Schroeder decided that he wants more. I have no idea if the last books were conceived as such, but they form an extended counter to the ideas espoused by Greg Egan, Charlie Stross, and others who suggest that humanity’s future lies in some variety of uploaded, software state. Schroeder is unconvinced by this, and has said so in interviews, arguing that our consciousness is too tied up with our wetware to allow simple digitization.

This debate plays out viscerally in Candesce, as the analog Virgans resist incursions from the digitized Artificial Nature, who want to extinguish whatever it is in Candesce that shuts down high technology and upload everyone. Virga is packed full of fractious city-states, so factions and agendas abound. Likewise, numerous groups living outside of Virga ensure that this is not a straightforward, two-sided battle. Further muddying the waters is the simple fact that the Virgans are not idiots. They realize what technology can bring and aren’t sold on their Industrial Revolution era lives. It isn’t clear until near the end just which groups will end up allied with each, or indeed which side is “right.” Most impressive to me is Schroeder’s overall stance. Virga would be easy to idealize, to protect with a paternal attitude of saving the innocents from the evils of The Future. Schroeder is no such romantic however; he is fully on board making lives better through science. In one of the most vivid scenes in the book, a character is stunned by the intensity and happiness of the short, biological lives, only to witness just how messy and tragic those lives can be.

While the meta-dialog shines brightest for me, the book is hardly a philosophy text. Virga is an amazing creation and a world I would love to visit. I doubt it would be a good live action movie, but I would love to see someone like Miyazaki animate Rush or Spyre. And while the pace starts off much slower than the other books, everything blows up for the last hundred pages of frenetic action. Schroeder has lost none of his kinetic prose; this may be his most balanced book for brains and explosions.

The characters are also engaging and likable, though my own favorite is relegated a bit to the background. To be fair, the pirate engineer and renegade sun-lighter Hayden Griffin probably sounds more interesting than he actually is, so I have to trust that the author keeps him in the background for a reason. The newer characters are also interesting, especially those coming from outside Virga, but in the end it is Venera Fanning who rules over the entirety of the series. Nobody else can even approach her mad, regal bearing. I don’t envy Venera’s husband, but she deserves immortality.

Candesce was released early in 2012, so it may be natural that it is less talked about now, especially considering the blockbusters that came out over the summer. Schroeder has a lot on his plate besides writing; I wonder if the book would be more well-known if he spent some of that time blogging, tweeting, going to cons, and generally engaging more with fandom. On the other hand, consulting for the Canadian military has to pay much better, so in his place, I would likely do the same. My only regret is that Candesce will be on my Best of 2012 list, while I fear it will be left off many others, not because my tastes are weird (though they probably are), but because people were blinded by higher profile releases and missed this one. (Maybe I’m totally off base and Candesce is a really big deal. I feel like I’m going to say all of this and then have fifty people tell me that Schroeder is everywhere and what internet have I been looking at anyway?)

Because of that, I want the Hugos to award Ashes of Candesce this year’s Talent Deserving Wider Recognition for novels. More people need to be reading about Virga, talking about Schroeder’s ideas, and possibly building a zero-g theme park so I too can flit about the city wheels.

Rating: Hoffenheim. Quietly putting together quality seasons, but out of the spotlight because, well, they’re Hoffenheim.

Bowl of Heaven

Bowl of Heaven
Greg Benford and Larry Niven

For a certain kind of SF fan, news of a Benford – Niven collaboration is a bladder loosening event. I kept control of myself when I first heard about it, but just barely. Larry Niven was my first favorite SF author and while I am occasionally hard on Greg Benford’s books, his best are very good. My life got even more fabulous when I found out that their book would be an update on the Big Mysterious Object trope that I dearly love. “Let’s take Ringworld,” they must have said, “make so it isn’t broken, so the creators are still in control of things, and, just for the hilarity of it all, send it cruising out in the stars, like a Dyson Sphere sized Winnebago.” This was in many ways the SF event of the year for me.

The collaboration is doubly intriguing because their writing styles are so different. Niven’s stories tend toward fast moving, brightly optimistic tales, with that kind of “science will make it all ok” attitude characteristic of an earlier age. Benford, in contrast, adopts a darker tone, not necessarily pessimistic, but almost seeming resigned to our final irrelevance, what with the impending heat death of the universe and all. Something I read or heard leads me to believe that Benford did most of the writing, with Niven taking the role of Idea Man. I think Benford himself explained this in a Google roundtable, saying that much of the book worked itself out on walks the two would take together, though I would have to track down said roundtable to confirm this. The book itself bears this out, with zany big ideas reminiscent of Known Space, but restrained prose.

I suspect that most people who pick up this book do so knowing exactly what is coming. With an all-star collaboration like this, there is no reason to expect that either author will suddenly strike out in a new direction. Sure enough, this is unapologetic Hard SF. It’s fairly safe to say that fans of the subgenre will love Bowl, while those who demand lyricism, depth, and grand insight will roll their eyes. My own stance should be clear to long time readers, but for any new faces, I will confess to treasuring whiz-bang engineering and plausible, inventive aliens over all else. This is, after all, why I read the genre. Anyway, not everyone is into this kind of thing I guess, but fans of stupendous and mysterious Stuff in Space should begin reading immediately.

Details about The Bowl are pretty easy to come by, but a quick summary follows just in case. Take a Ringworld, attach half of a Dyson Sphere, then dedicate most of the sphere part to a propulsion mechanism that turns the solar wind into a jet engine shooting out the base of the bowl. Put some aliens in charge of the thing and point it towards a yet unknown destination. Unlike most Big Mysterious Objects, this one is neither abandoned nor mysterious, not at least to the aliens in charge. The humans that stumble on it have no idea of course, but The Bowl contains a functioning civilization, not just a bunch of relics and ruins. Further, the aliens are the quality one would expect from Benford and Niven, with a well developed culture that is both comprehensible to us, but utterly different. No people in rubber masks here.

I must reserve judgment about plot, characters, themes, and other prosaic stuff, because Bowl is only half of the story. Part Two will come out in 2013, so for now we are left without any sort of conclusion. Most of the first 400 pages of this epic are concerned with finding The Bowl, landing on it, then having some adventures and capers. Everything points to major developments later on, but for now we have to make do with survival, some chases, and a whole lot of Big Science. I will say that a couple of things surprised me a bit. I didn’t expect as much Boy Scout wilderness survival. I also didn’t expect paragraphs about “leadership” and “team building” to randomly pop up. Earlier Benford spent a lot of time lashing out at management types, and I have never seen Niven pull out business-speak. Neither of these are bad things necessarily, just not what I expected.

The rest goes pretty much according to plan. I am not yet convinced that the characters will learn crucial life lessons or “grow.” Everyone is a rational, pragmatic science type, which is nice for anyone sick of people having emotions in SF. The Bowl, and a couple of aliens to a lesser extent, thoroughly overshadow the mere humans wandering around in it. James S.A. Corey gets credit for writing throwback SF in The Expanse, but Bowl is ten pounds of throwback in a five pound bag. It doesn’t get any more old school than Benford and Niven.

This ultimately is what will make or break the book. Nothing in this review will change an educated SF reader’s mind; the only way I could influence anyone is if the book were a flaming pile of crap and I said so publicly. (It’s not, so I won’t.) Beyond that, Hard SF people know what they want, and they probably want Benford and Niven writing a Big Mysterious Object story together. Other kinds of readers will skip it and read Honor Harrington, or urban fantasy, or whatever it is they prefer. I know what camp I am in, so nobody will ever convince me that half a Dyson Sphere crewed by giant, sentient birds and hurtling through the void is anything but pure awesomeness.

Rating: Zidane and Ronaldo teaming up. What could possibly go wrong?


David Brin

The first review I read of Existence didn’t rate it very highly. This is odd, because most of the reviews I’ve seen since have been beside themselves with joy; and unfortunate, because this opinion dampened my enthusiasm for one of this year’s biggest new books. (I won’t say who, because I like him personally, even if I think he was wrong this time.) There were no real world ramifications however, since the line for a library copy wasn’t responsive to my feelings and it took quite awhile for my turn to roll around anyway.

Three things stand out immediately. I remember reading a blog post by or interview with Brin some time ago, saying that he would never again write a back-breakingly thick tome like Glory Season. He may want to rethink that pledge, because Existence is quite the doorstop. The second, related, reaction is that Brin hasn’t published a novel in many years. The ideas must have been bottled up for quite some time in his head, because they come out in a barely contained torrent. In many ways, this is a culmination of his thinking and agitating for the past decade or so; compressing this much into a single novel seems to require the massive word count. Finally, the timing and setting of the novel are going to spark inevitable comparisons with Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, though they are very different books. More on all of these later, after some background and technical summaries.

Existence takes place over several unspecified years around 2050. The Earth is more or less what any scientifically literate person can expect, in terms of climate change, technological advancement, population, and whatnot. Rising ocean levels and global warming have inflicted the expected havoc and people are facing resource depletion, though science has advanced just enough to hold Armageddon at bay. Just barely. Politically, Brin’s society requires more of a leap, though not nearly as large a leap as some of us might hope. He envisions a global stratification based more on class than on race or gender, where we have taken several steps forward with intolerance problems, but perhaps a few steps back on economic equality. The world is loosely controlled by the very richest of the rich, where families measure their wealth by the numbers coming after the decimal point of the 99th percentile. (Lest one think Brin supports a full-born Illuminati style conspiracy, at least one of the characters wonders aloud if the people supposedly running the show have nearly as much power as they think they do.) The book is written in a multi-perspective third person, with interludes excerpted from “books,” “news reports,” and other miscellanea. Again, this reminds the reader of 2312.

Brin is an activist writer, something that is clear to anyone who follows his online persona. This implies a political agenda, which Brin has, but politics is only a part of his grander philosophy. Things are partially summed up by the political axis he creates, assessing resistance to technological progress and the tendency towards oligarchy as the respective x and y. He has little use for the current US Left-Richt dichotomy, arguing instead that the true fulcrums of policy are the older, deeper rivalries of the Enlightenment – Romanticism and Feudalism – Egalitarianism. (He names this partially after the Satsuma clan, the major source of leadership in Meiji Japan, because this axis frames their policies accurately.) Brin readers will notice the relationship to his oft-discussed definitions of science fiction and fantasy. I don’t fully share Brin’s opinion of our innate longings for feudalism, though I agree that this is a far better way to view public policy than the current US split.

Existence is more than just political navel-gazing. Brin’s activism extends to the genre itself; he uses this book as part of a broader call to action to the SF community. Several authors, among them Kim Stanley Robinson and Neal Stephenson, have called for SF to regain its status as a hopeful, encouraging genre, with books that once again inspire a generation of scientists to go out and fix problems. I don’t know if any other genre spends so much time talking about itself and bemoaning its own demise, but in this case I support the introspection. I appreciate the aims of literary SF and Mundane SF, enjoy a lot of the darker stuff out there, and am fully sympathetic to those who respond to the last decade or so with pessimism. Like Brin I remain a futurist though, convinced that we can overcome (or at least survive) the impending challenges if we create a framework that lets science attack our problems. Books that promote the futurist agenda, like Existence and 2312, are an important part, maybe my favorite part, of science fiction.

Back to the story. Brin is firmly in the Hard SF camp, and Existence is overflowing with ideas. He careens through information technology, environmental science, rocketry, transportation, energy, and astronomy, while dealing with geopolitics, economics, journalism, crowd sourcing, and a host of other topics. Brin is clearly keeping up with current technology, rather than relying on the tropes that carried SF in the 80s, when he first came on the scene with the other Three B’s. (Benford, Brin and Bear.) This is clear with his depiction of the internet and augmented reality, but also in the environmentalism, space travel limitation, and machine consciousness. All of these new ideas labor in service of that most classic of SF themes, First Contact, building a bridge between the current generation of new writers and the Golden Age. The Fermi Paradox is also tied integrally to the narrative, with the answers Brin proposes to both hoary tropes wildly inventive. This particular future is far cry from the bright colors and optimism of the Uplift series, but Brin retains his flair for storytelling. It is this storytelling where Existence really breaks from 2312, despite thematic similarity: Robinson is a painter, creating a series of scenic vistas, while Brin is a Hard SF yarn spinner.

My only real complaint with the book is its balance from start to finish. Existence to me felt more like a book and a half, with the first volume concluding neatly, but the second not quite fleshed out enough to stand on its own. It’s not enough to detract from the book’s impact, though I would have preferred to hear more of the later story. Aside from that, this is Brin at the height of his considerable powers. He will never be a lyricist or poet, but this is Hard SF taken to its logical conclusion.

In a year of heavyweight contenders, Existence has to stand near the top of the 2012 SF pile. It is ambitious, outspoken, stimulating, and entertaining. My review is barely scratching the surface of what’s on offer. There is a character that some think is Bring inserting himself, but canny readers will call The Redemption of Michael Crichton. There are zeppelins. There is a nod to Startide Rising. There are a thousand and one ways humanity could extinguish itself, and possible answers to most of them. Brin largely delivers with his years in the making call to action that is equal parts entertaining, visionary, and inspiring. I don’t know if it will win the Hugo, but it will be on the ballot if I have any say in the matter.

Rating: The Houston Dynamo for two reasons. First, at time of writing, the Dynamo are in the finals for the MSL Championship. Second, everything is bigger in Texas.