The Present Is Made Of The Dreams Of The Past

I love my job at DreamChannel, I really do, but it comes with a catch. To move upwards into better - that is, more interesting - roles, you have to know an awful lot. My BSc minor in psychology is enough for me to keep my job doing QA on subassemblies (which is better than the call center or admin jobs I had before), but if I ever want to move into anything more creative or more technical, anything more challenging and rewarding, I need to get a higher degree. Not for the piece of paper, mind you, but because those jobs need knowledge I just don't have.

That's why I'm working on my Masters in Psychology at night school. A PhD in Neurophysics or Computational Psychology would be even better, but either one would take eight years or more - and tensor calculus makes my head hurt. It's an approved course, so as long as I keep my grades up, DC is covering all the costs. (Did I mention that I love my job?)

Anyway, along with the Psych I'm taking a major slice of literature. DreamChannel is always looking for new stuff to produce, and if I ever get burnt out on the technical side, it would be good to be able to fall back to Creative. I've already managed to get some attention up there - as I've mentioned before, they used me as the template for D'Artagnan in the new Three Musketeers production. Since that grew out of last year's French Lit. course, I'm paying more attention than ever.

My favourite this year is English Lit.; more specifically L1172 Millennium Fiction: Science Fiction from 1990 to 2010. I've read quite a bit of SF in the past, and I was expecting to breeze through this... And I'm not, quite. Most of the authors we've been assigned I've never even heard of; it turns out that what I'd been reading had either been far more recent - or rather older, the so-called Golden Age stuff that my father raised us on - and not from that period at all. On the other hand, it makes for some very interesting reading.

Our latest assignment was a choice of two books: Trading in Danger by Elizabeth Moon or Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days by Alastair Reynolds. Both books look forward to a future that seems a little - strange - by today's lights, but for very different reasons.

Trading in Danger is much closer to the Golden Age stories than is Diamond Dogs. Our heroine, Kylara Vatta, is drummed out of the officers' cadet school on a minor charge, and is hastily sent off planet by her family (who own a wealthy trading group) until the scandal blows over. Since she's not totally in disgrace, they send her off not as a passenger, but as a caretaker captain on an old ship heading off to be scrapped.

Heading off to be scrapped. Heading off to another star system to be scrapped. And the whole plot hinges from that. Must forget laws of physics and economic reality. Okay, the book posits cheap faster-than-light travel (and expensive FTL communications). Every author is allowed one such assumption, as long as they then keep to the rules they've set. That's how the game of Science Fiction is played, after all. You change one thing, and then ask What if?

Trading is an adventure story, rather than a hard-SF (either hard-physics or hard-sociology) analysis of the impact of FTL travel and communication. I think our professor likes to throw these things at us just to see what we can get out of them. So Captain Ky heads off on the doomed starship, takes a contract on the first planet she reaches to deliver a load of agricultural machinery on consignment (Shipping! Agricultural! Machinery! Between! Stars! No, bad brain, stop that.) and heads off the buy said machinery.

Only her interdimensional packet spliffler (warp drive) breaks down when the ship pops out at the other end, so she's stuck there until it can be repaired or replaced. And there's no used agricultural equipment available, so she has to buy new, and since she didn't even secure a deposit, her funds are going to be stretched pretty thin.

(Yes folks. On the entire planet, famed throughout the sector for the manufacture of tractors and combine harvesters, there is no used equipment to be found anywhere. Someone bought it all. All of it. Really.)

Aaaanyway, Ky buys the premium-price shiny new rotary disk harrows and threshing machines, breaks them down into little bits, shuttles them up into orbit and loads them onto the ship. Meanwhile she is trying to find someone to replace her spliffler. Only she can't quite afford it.

And then war breaks out. Just when she is trying to contact the family company to secure a line of credit, someone destroys the system's ansibles (a term coined by Ursula Le Guin, who I have read) and interstellar communication is cut off. So Ky is trapped in a war zone with a load of farm implements, no money, and a busted spliffler.

Her ship ends up being commandeered by the mercenaries fighting one side of the war (or, as far as I can tell, not fighting at all) to act as a day-care centre for the senior officers of the other ships caught in-system. Only some of these officers are Not What They Seem, and they launch a mutiny to take over Ky's ship.

And here is where my willing suspension of disbelief blew a fuse. The mutiny relies on the fact that the ship's control systems have effectively no security whatsoever, that there is no monitoring of the passengers, there are no security doors, nothing that any basic airliner has. And beyond this, there are no weapons on board. It would have made sense if, when they were boarded by the mercenaries, all the weapons had been confiscated, but there weren't any in the first place. Not even soft weapons, not even a stun gun or a tangle gun. So Ky has to face down the mutineers armed with a miniature crossbow that one of the crew just happens to be use for target shooting.

To say that the plot is contrived is to lose a great opportunity to use the word - um - the words not only contrived but really annoyingly contrived.

Also, in the middle of the story, it seems that Ky's brain got wiped clean and reloaded, as part of a medical procedure following a head injury. Just struck me as being a little, y'know, you did what to her what? Maybe people in the early 21st thought that wiping and restoring someone's memories would someday become a straightforward operation.

Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days is a very different book; so different that I think Professor Carrol set the two texts together just to amuse herself. There's no single central what if that tweaks a law of physics here (although there is one object in the first story in the book that appears to defy physical law); instead, it's a case of What if we went out into the universe - as science knows it today - and found some really weird shit?

The book is made up of two novellas, called respectively (no surprise here) Diamond Dogs and Turquoise Days. Diamond Dogs is essentially a puzzle story: The Blood Spire is a mysterious alien artifact set on the surface (well, not actually set on the surface; this is the object I mentioned that defies physical law) of a barren alien planet called Golgotha. Inside the Blood Spire is a series of mathematical puzzles of ever increasing complexity. Solve the puzzle - by picking the right symbol - and a door opens letting you progress deeper into the Spire. Get it wrong - or take too long to solve the problem - and you are punished.

Outside the Blood Spire are the remains of those who got it wrong.

It's not an easy read - not because it's poorly written, because that's not the case at all - but because some very nasty things happen to the characters. For example, the most sensible and (to me) sympathetic member of the exploration team gets reduced to a red smear due to the team leader's insistence on testing the Spire's reaction when the time limit expires. Another team member gets quartered - as in, bisected horizontally and then vertically.

On the one hand, the writing is both clear and evocative of the unhuman nature of the Blood Spire. And the universe described is one that we could in fact be living in. The star ship the characters use to travel to the planet of the Spire travels substantially slower than light, taking decades to arrive. It's significantly faster and more advanced than anything we have, but it's a question of degree rather than nature. Similarly, they have far more sophisticated nanotechnology - the team installs nanites in their own brains to improve their mathematical skills - but again, this is a question of engineering rather than one of scientific principles. (Well, I think so, but as I said I'm not a doctor of neurophysics. Yet.)

On the other hand, the characters are mostly unattractive, some extremely so - and also rather stupid, for all their mathematical aptitude:

    "Well?" Celestine said. "What the hell's keeping it up?"
    Forqueray took a step under the rim. "No fields, not even a minor perturburation of Golgotha's own magentosphere. No significant alterations of the local gravitational vector either. And - before we assume more sophistication than is strictly necessary - there are no concealed supports."
    Celestine was silent for a few moments before answering. "All right. What if the Spire doesn't weight anything? There's air here; not much of it I'll grant you. What if the Spire's mostly hollow? There might be enough buoyancy to make the thing float, like a balloon."
    "There isn't," Forqueray said, opening a fist to catch the cam, which flew into his grasp like a trained kestrel. "Whatever's above us is solid matter. I can't read its mass, but it's blocking an appreciable cosmic-ray flux, and none of our scanning methods can see through it."
    "Forqueray's right," Childe said. "But I understand your reluctance to accept this, Celestine. It's perfectly normal to feel a sense of denial."
    "That what we are confronting is truly alien. But I'm afraid you'll get over it, just the way I did."
Never mind alien, you bozo! This thing contravenes fundamental laws of physics as they are known in the story. That alone, never mind what's inside, would bring scientific teams buzzing from every reach of human-occupied space.

It's a great story, but more than once I wanted to reach into the page and smack someone over the head. Most often the aforementioned Childe, who is the leader of the group. The story is more about the reactions of the characters to the Blood Spire than it is about the Spire itself; unfortunately, most of the characters are, by any standard measure, insane.

Turquoise Days introduces us to another alien artifact, in this case the Pattern Jugglers, a planet-wide semi-sentient ocean of alien nano-machines with a propensity for fiddling with people's brains. Celestine from Diamond Dogs obtained her remarkable mathematical skills from immersion in a Pattern Juggler ocean on another planet.

Naqi is a researcher studying the behaviour of the PJs; though it doesn't appear that she or any of her fellow researchers are actually learning very much, as opposed to just collecting data for the sake of collecting data. Naqi's peaceful life is disrupted twice, first when the Pattern Jugglers eat her sister, then again when a starship arrives bearing a team of fellow researchers who are Not What They Seem.

And Naqi has an adventure.

And that's it, basically. Turquoise Days is neither as striking nor as unsettling as Diamond Dogs. We learn more of the Pattern Jugglers than we do of the Blood Spire, though again what we learn is all what and little why, which is fine in physics but unsatisfying in a story. The only point that strained my credulity was when the PJ-sea rose up to swat a low-flying shuttle out of the sky, but I'd hate to say that it's impossible.

I would, regardless of the character flaws of the, uh, characters, recommend Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days to anyone interested in what people in the early days of the 21st thought the future might be like, and what it might indeed still turn out to be.

As for Trading in Danger, it's a passable amusement, but if you find contrived plots to be off-putting, this is one to avoid.

Now I just have to rewrite all of that in twice as many words and submit it for class on Tuesday.

Posted by: Trixie Misa at 03:40 PM


1 The only issue I have with this is the conceit that anybody will be reading Elizabeth Moon's lesser novels in a hundred years. I can't get up the enthusiasm to bother *now*. Remnant Population? Yeah, sure. The rest of it? Disposable, phatic piffle, for the most part.

Posted by: Mitch H. at January 27, 2004 01:58 AM (tVSJJ)

2 Yes, but remember, this was a class assignment, by a professor with an evil sense of humour.

To understand the people of the turn of the millennium, you need to understand their stories. And that means you have to read the crap as well as the cream.

Or some such...

Posted by: Pixy Misa at January 27, 2004 02:09 AM (jtW2s)

3 Ah, the kind of sadist who assigns Varney the Vampire to a class of unsuspecting freshmen, yes?

Posted by: Mitch H. at January 27, 2004 04:24 AM (tVSJJ)

4 puh-lease tell me you're assigned some Heinlein and Clarke in that class. Asimov is a given...right?

Posted by: Victor at January 27, 2004 06:14 AM (L3qPK)

5 Victor - The class is studying SF published between 1990 and 2010. So Asimov and Heinlein are out, and we're not exactly talking Clarke's best work here.

Posted by: Pixy Misa at January 27, 2004 09:13 AM (jtW2s)

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Posted by: trainitr at September 21, 2006 06:53 PM (FRdCT)

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