Only Thing? Her Hair's Never Purple.

It's a common literary device to frame a story around a person searching for their purpose in the wake of some profound change. A soldier, in peace time. A police officer, thrown off the force. A big shot corporate type, blacklisted. A sex robot, in a post-human extinction solar system.

Well, some executions are a little more out there than others, I suppose.

Charles Stross, the author of Saturn's Children, has denied any responsibility for the North American cover art, but it's hard to imagine why. Quite frankly, it's pretty much perfect, as far as judging a book by its cover goes; this is a book about a female sex robot who gets caught up in a high-stakes covert affair, so a busty woman with purple hair in a catsuit holding a mysterious orb pretty much tells you from the start if this book is for you or not. If you don't like the cover, you probably won't like the book.

Yeah, the cover is actually slanted that way.  I have no idea why.

More seriously, Saturn's Children is a first-person narrative about Freya, a female sexbot only activated after humanity went extinct, and her search for any kind of purpose in her life. Programmed and conditioned exhaustively to consider the sexual satiation of the human male as the only thing that matters, Freya is understandably at loose ends with no human males on order. Morose and aimless, Freya begins the book by contemplating suicide, a not-uncommon fate for her model, only to find her will to live rekindled by a run-in with a particularly bloody-minded aristocrat and her tame-killer bodyguards. In desperate need of escape from Saturn's moons, Freya takes up a courier job from some 'legitimate businessmen' that promises a ticket to Mars, and sets her on a collision course with powerful interests, vengeful assassins, mad scientists and a plot to up-end the entire robot society of the solar system.

While Saturn's Children is no great book by any stretch of the imagination, it does do some things differently enough to be worth a mention. The most particular is the way robot society is organized post-humanity. The robots were, of course, programmed to abide by humanity's laws, but since humanity never extended legal personhood to them before passing on, the robots are left in a legal limbo; all the institutions of the various states still exist, carried out by diligent robots, but there are no governments, no means for updating the law, and no protections for the rights of robots. One of the more clever bits of Stross' future, particularly timely given the recent Citizens United decision in the US, was the way the robots deal with that last issue. While robots aren't people, and can't claim human rights, they are legally qualified to establish corporate entities, which they can use to protect themselves by declaring themselves the legal assets of said corporation. It's something of a legal fiction, but it's enough to protect the middle-class robots from the predations of those who 'inherited' substantial sums from humans that granted them power of attorney, and have used their own, considerable corporate power to institute a vicious slave-state throughout the inner planets of the solar system.

My love of AI is certainly no secret around here, and it's that same love that actually left me feeling the most let-down by Saturn's Children. Yes, it makes perfect sense for the sentient robots of the inner system to be human-like. They were designed to function in human society, to interact regularly with human beings and to serve as stand-ins for humans as needed, after all. And some, like Freya and her sexbot sisters and the masterless butler-brothers of JeevesCo, had every reason to be as human-like as possible, given their very personal connection with humans. But honestly, it's a bit of a lacklustre portrayal of a society of robots in a post-human existence. The creators of these things may well have exceeded Tyrell Corporation's famous boast in Blade Runner, 'More Human Than Human'. Stross rarely does much with the fact that every 'person' in the book should be as customizable as a desktop PC, and the non-human robots are mostly consigned to the far reaches of the solar system, the Forbidden Cities of the Kuiper Belt and the like, meaning they play almost no role in the story. If you replaced the robots with cyborgs and the human extinction with a melding of humans and robots until there were no legally distinct human beings, you could pretty much tell the exact same story. It's not that it's bad, exactly, it's just that it's not as footloose and fancy-free as 'a tale of robots living in a post-human solar system' could have been.

But no, it's not a bad book. Like I said, it's not great, but it's still a very solid scifi chase story, with a bit of espionage and action thrown in for good measure. The plot is complicated enough that it feels overwhelming while you're reading, but Stross neatly ties everything together in the end, making sense of even some of the stranger quirks of behaviour the reader should have noted a few chapters previous. And if there isn't enough inventiveness in the robots, or the space travel for that matter (Stross has gone with the absolute most pessimistic predictions about its ultimate feasibility), Freya is a compelling enough character to keep you reading while she's alternately running, fighting, and screwing for her life.

What? I told you she was a sexbot; did you really think it wouldn't come up?


What Measure is a (Super)Man?

Science fiction loves eugenics. It's been used in works as weighty as Brave New World and Gattaca, and as slight as Star Trek and Battletech. And of course, it's really just a continuation of the age-old concept of classes and castes, transposed into a more respectably intellectual milieu and given a quick gloss of scientific grounding. It shouldn't be any surprise that the idea of breeding humans who are better, stronger, faster than their fellows, or alternately who are simpler, slower and more malleable, should hold some appeal. In the west that great utopian thought-space, Plato's Republic, set the stage or it thousands of years ago, and people have been merrily examining its feasibility ever since.

With rather widely varying results...

At the moment, eugenics isn't a particularly serious concern. While we can test for all sorts of genetic conditions in utero, that's mostly all that can be done. There are no meaningful tools for enhancing a foetus' intellect, its aptitude with musical instruments, its eye and hair colour, height and weight and so on. We can evaluate, but not significantly alter, a person's genetic makeup. And that's good, because we're only just starting to grope towards, not an understanding of the kinds of issues such abilities would create in society, but that we even need to consider working towards such an understanding. But I suppose we have to start somewhere.

One suspects you would be hard pressed to find a parent who wouldn't want their child to be smarter, or stronger, or more flexible, or more creative, or more whatever than everyone else. Every parent wants the best for their children, though not necessarily for everyone else's, and there are completely valid evolutionary and social reasons for that. The thing of it is, though, that what's perfectly understandable for an individual can be problematic for a society, often only once it's safely too late to do anything about it. Already, there are groups, such as those representing people born deaf or people with Down's Syndrome, warning that early genetic identification of those conditions is leading to the eradication of such groups from the wider population. Whether you believe those with such conditions would be better off not having existed in the first place is a personal matter, but in terms of genetic diversity the wholesale removal of certain expressions of genetic construction should raise some concern. One of the most common issues raised is the potential impact of discovering a 'gay gene', and whether it would lead to the near-extinction of the homosexual population. I don't actually worry about that, for various reasons (primarily, those most likely to view homosexuality as a negative condition are also those least likely to view abortion and genetic re-engineering as legitimate), but you could make the same point about nearly any group within the broader human species. To hypberolically borrow a turn of phrase, first they came for the autistic foetuses, and I did nothing, because my foetus wasn't autistic.

A solution to this could be the introduction of new laws, but despite my general faith in the institutions of government it's not one I favour. The law is an often blunt instrument, and frankly it's impossible to think of a way to craft a law to protect such groups that wouldn't run well afoul of the rights to bodily autonomy that underlie the protection of abortion rights in most developed states. You can't be pro-choice only when people are making the choices you agree with. Instead, I think it's going to have to come down to an evolving concept of the relative value of human beings, something the law isn't nearly delicate enough to construct. Historically, the human ideal has been someone with no physical or mental handicaps, for the very simple reason that there were no safety nets; it was every person for themselves, and if you couldn't contribute, either you were going down alone or you were going to drag your family down, with you. But there's more to the working world than just hard physical labour, and our technologies have made our societies rich enough that caring for those with serious physical or mental issues is feasible. We aren't one bad harvest away from starvation anymore; we don't have to leave babies out overnight to see if they're tough enough to be worth keeping.

It's an inexact method, anyway.  About time it was replaced.

Ideally, what society could really use are another dozen or so Stephen Hawking's, people whose bodies are utterly useless in a conventional sense but who have made enormous contributions through the sheer power of their intellect. The only way to undercut the threat of a large-scale genetic arms race is to lead people to an understanding that there is a way for every person to contribute meaningfully and live with dignity and comfort. Thankfully, despite the sharp dislocations produced by the 2008 'Great Recession', and the more widespread but less individually disruptive eruptions as new technologies supplant old industries, there is reason to believe that we are on the cusp of creating just such a society. There's every reason to believe it will be a profoundly difficult transition, but for the first time since the Industrial Revolution, there is a fundamentally different, and most likely superior, way of life on the horizon.

It can't be about prohibiting parents from seeking to offer their offspring every possible advantage. Prohibition is a tactic of last resort, for the simple reason that it's inefficient and even counter-productive. Instead, it has to be about showing people that their offspring don't need every possible advantage, because the competition isn't life-or-death and the opportunities are expanded beyond all prior imagining. The 'American Dream' and its cousins in nation-states around the world will no longer suffice, because they practically require the most extensive genetic enhancements possible. That is the true scale of the challenge confronting society. But on the other side of failure is at best a world like that in Gattaca, where genetics determine potential placement, and at worst the world of Aldous Huxley's foetal alcohol syndrome-suffering Gammas ruled by genetically perfect Alphas who lack either empathy or ambition.

It's worth a little more work, to get this right.


A Slog, from Start to Finish

The strange thing about Henry Zou's 'Emperor's Mercy' is that it is an absolutely awful book, but might have been two or three fairly decent ones.

Let's just get this out of the way; Black Library books are hardly high art. Some of them are better than others, but the best are usually just really well-written tales of martial prowess and total war, with the odd bit of philosophizing or thriller-mystery action thrown in for good measure. When done well, they're fun, pulpy reads. When done poorly, they're a slog of badly connected fight scenes and utterly flat characters. And unfortunately, despite what Dan Abnett's quote would have you believe, 'Emperor's Mercy' does it very badly, indeed.

Emperor's Mercy is the story of Inquisitor Obadiah Roth, sent on a mission by a senior inquisitor to discover the identity of the fabled 'Old Kings of Medina'. Sent into the Medina Cluster, a multi-planet system, in the midst of a major Chaos invasion, Roth's mission is understandably complicated. Travelling to three worlds in the system, picking up and losing companions, and of course getting into all manner of scrapes along the way, Roth ultimately learns the truth about the 'Old Kings', the purpose of the Chaos invasion, and the ultimate cost of protecting the wider Imperium from both.

It all sounds solid, but unfortunately it's executed absolutely execrably. The problem is, Roth's adventures feel less like a constant narrative and more like a series of barely-connected incidents. There's no real sense of scale; the planets he visits feel like they're no bigger than those the Enterprise or SG-1 might go to, consisting of one city and perhaps a dozen characters who actually matter, if they're lucky. And there's no particular sense of either time, either, with whole weeks of running and fighting on Cantica glossed over in a sentence or two, while three days on Aridun take up chapter after chapter. The story could take month, or a year. And so much of it is just wasted, or has no real pay-off. What little actually matters from Cantica could've been folded into either of the other two planet's sections with no loss, and considerable improvement, to the overall narrative structure, and frankly Kholpesh and Aridun could've been collapsed into one planet, too. The book is terribly scattershot, which makes it hard to really get a sense of how things are going, and why. This isn't helped by the fact that major military forces and characters, like Inquisitor Gurion, the 9th Route Fleet, allied Space Marines, and at least one, and possibly two, companies of Blood Gorgons just disappear from the narrative for no adequately explained reason. While the individual action scenes, taken on their own, can often be rather well written, overall the story of the war between the Imperial Guard and the forces of Chaos in the Medina Corridor is just a complete mess.

The worst of this book's failings, though, are in its characters. Where an older, more experienced, more established Black Library writer might spend book after book on a single Inquisitor and their retinue, Zou introduces no less than five, none of whom really emerge as fully realized characters. Delahunt, Barq and are Celeminé are ultimately ciphers, to varying degrees, and Gurion, as mentioned earlier, just disappears from the narrative after a relatively bad-ass moment two-thirds of the way through. That just leaves Roth himself, and he isn't much better. He is sometimes stoic, sometimes suicidal, sometimes courtly, sometimes abrasive, sometimes cold, sometimes emotional, sometimes suspicious, sometimes naive, sometimes young and inexperienced, sometimes well-read and intellectual (apparently)... And while such contradictions can be used to construct a whole greater than the sum of its parts, here they're just kind of a mutually contradictory mess. And the supporting characters are pure stock; Lord Marshal Khmer is 'the needlessly obstructive rival', Silverstein is 'the faithful friend/the sniper', Captain Pradal is 'the young but determined military officer' and Madeleine de Medici is 'the lady intellectual/the archeologist'. None of them manage to grow beyond those easy labels, and you know about as much about them at the end of the book as you did at the beginning. Compared to things like The Fall of Prospero, Firewarrior, the Eisenhorn trilogy or the Ciaphas Cain series, this is pure amateur hour. Heck, as much as I absolutely loathed the way Alpharius/Omegon came to their decision at the end, even Legion did a better job of building characters than this.

There's one last thing I want to say about Emperor's Mercy, and it's a bit spoilerish, so be warned. There's a sub-plot running through it about a traitor within Roth's group, which presumably is how certain groups are able to find and attack them. This is dumb enough, since of the two attacks one would have killed the traitor, as well as the target. But when it's finally revealed who the traitor is, it goes from being just kind of dumb to outright idiotic. There's no real justification for it, either in the narrative or on the part of the character themselves, with the traitor actually going so far as to just cut off Roth's demand for an explanation and start a fight. To me, that's a bald admission that Zou didn't really have any idea about why this plot-line was there, other than possibly because someone told him it should be. And what little justification that's there actually makes things make even less sense; the traitor claims that working for Khmer against Gurion's mission will lead to them being elevated in rank, but really? The favour of a Lord Marshall means more than the disfavour, and probable extreme suspicion, of a high-ranking and highly-respected inquisitor? That was, by far, the dumbest part of this book, and this was a book that did not particularly lack for bad plotting and nonsensical motivation.

Also, at one point Zou refers to a gathering of some Imperial Navy, Guard, Astartes and Assasinorum leaders as having enough combined firepower to kill whole galaxies. Really, man? Whole galaxies? Would that be why they're having so much trouble defending a single solar system against some raiders and a company of Chaos Marines, Zou?


The Hunger Games: Only Unthinkable Until They're Not

So, like most of the rest of this continent, I've been to see The Hunger Games. I must admit, the books passed me by, to the point where I didn't even know it was a science-fiction story; I'd just assumed it was an alternate history, probably something around the late eighteenth, early nineteenth century from the way people described it. The presence of a flying ship, then came as something of a surprise to me, but a pleasant one, since it meant I could slide a review onto this blog. Here's to 'all things futuristic'!

There's not much to say about the movie itself that hasn't already been said. The effects are impressive, the aesthetic is unique, the inevitable love triangle is pleasantly understated, the violence is affecting without being grotesque, there are dryly funny moments, tear jerking moments, Big Damn Heroes moments, and moments that make you want to punch every single person in the Capitol, one at a time. The actress who plays Katniss does a solid job carrying the film, no small task given that the books are apparently a first-person narrative, and the supporting players turn in equally solid work, from familiar faces like Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci and Woody Harrelson to unknowns like Josh Hutcherson, who plays Peeta, and Wes Bentley, who plays Seneca Crane. Even Lenny Kravitz, of all people, turns in a very nice performance, though I hear it's pretty different from his character in the book. The movie doesn't offer a fully fleshed-out world, but this is only the first part of a trilogy, and its focus necessarily limits its scope, though even there it apparently provides a slightly broader scope than the original novel. The movie shows you enough of the world that you understand the broad strokes, but leaves plenty of room for expansion in the two sequels. And given its monumental box office success, there's no question about those sequels.

What I did want to talk about, though, was the Hunger Games themselves. The realistic nature of the games, or their lack thereof, has been a point of some contention even amongst my own rather open-minded circle. The basic complaint of course is that nobody would tolerate something like that, a complaint that I must admit doesn't bother me much, reflecting as it does quite well on both those raising the objection and the culture they were raised in. It is entirely proper for a person in this day and age to view the Hunger Games as utterly unthinkable, even unconscionable, because at the moment they are. But by that same token, on September 10th it was unthinkable that the US government would suspend Habeas Corpus and inflict torture, namely waterboarding on suspects indefinitely detained in a prison complex based on a supra-territorial legal fiction. Things are only impossible until they're not.

In that sense, the background of the Hunger Games, the film, lays a fairly good foundation for the Hunger Games, the competition. From the opening title cards and Effie Trinket's propaganda film it is made clear that not only was there a civil war between the Districts and the Capitol, but that it was a particularly brutal one; Trinket's film even includes a clip of what looks like a mushroom cloud. And in the aftermath of the Districts' defeat, it's clear that they're meant to remember this, in perpetuity, restricted from ever again rising to challenge the power of the Capitol. And just to hammer home the magnitude of their defeat, the Capitol imposes the Reapings and the Hunger Games on the Districts, introducing the storm of capitalized letters genre fiction loves so dearly. The message is as clear as it is brutal; rebellion will be punished, not with your death, but the death of your children. Surely that would give any parent pause.

This introduces two additional complaints, both of which I maintain are resolvable. The first is, given the threat hanging over the heads of their children, why would those in the Districts not band together and resist the Reapings and the Hunger Games, and the second, why do those in the Capitol continue this abhorrent practice. For the latter, and I admit this is pure speculation, it's entirely possible that the Hunger Games were originally little more than twenty-four children, locked in a room, and not let out again until only one of them is left. This is, after all, the seventy-fourth annual Hunger Games; there's every reason to assume that, like the Commonwealth Games and the Olympics and such, they've grown progressively bigger and more spectacular and more expensive over time. Perhaps it started with a somber profile on the twenty-four Tributes, and then a grim feting of the survivor. The point is, the system has had decades, has had over three generations in fact, to become what it is. And of course, the bigger it grows, the more people it employs and the more integral it becomes to the economy and culture of the Capitol. It's easy for people to turn a blind eye to the more outrageous aspects of their culture when the results are so integral to them. Just look at the recent controversy involving Apple and their Foxconn City suppliers. And as for why the Districts don't try to stop the Hunger Games? Well, this thing is the result of their original rebellion, don't forget, and if they couldn't fight off the Capitol before seventy-plus years of repression, why would they assume they could do any better in the present? More broadly, though, the system of the Reaping is specifically designed to isolate dissent; it affects, after all, only two families at a time, passing over all others in the District at any given moment. For those who aren't affected, then, particularly those who either have no children or children safely past the danger of being selected in the Reaping, not only is rebellion dangerous (it has already failed at least once, and catastrophically), but it offers no real, personal gain. It's a rather brilliant bit of game theory on the part of those in the Capitol who originally organized the system. There's no incentive to resist the Reapings but their general immorality, and as we've seen time and again in human history, that's a weak motivating factor.

The Hunger Games, the competition, are to any decent person utterly abhorrent to watch. Which is the point, of course; the hook of the story is, how will this awful institution be overthrown, and the more awful the institution, the stronger the hook. But it's not unrealistically abhorrent. Like all good science fiction, it's a feature of society drawn out into the future, allowed to grow beyond what we might consider its logical end to something even more outrageous and even obscene, because to a lesser degree that is how human society works. And that's part of what makes The Hunger Games, the film, so good.

That, and Woody Harrelson is darn funny.