The latest Hollywood blockbuster right now is this year’s remake of the science-fiction classic The Day the Earth Stood Still starring Keanu Reeves. In one of the odder publicity moves, the producers have decided to beam the film into outer space just in case any extraterrestrials want to watch it. The transmission is being directed at the star system closest to our own, Alpha Centauri, which is about 4.37 light years away from our Sun, though the studio notes that it is a wide beam transmission so that any aliens who happen to be travelling within the cone of the transmission or even beyond Alpha Centauri should be able to tune in as well.
More seriously, it’s pretty unlikely that any aliens will be close enough to catch it, and it’s a big question whether or not the signal will remain coherent enough to be watchable at any reasonable quality 4.37 light years away. In any case, since Earth has been leaking radio transmissions into space for decades by now, if any aliens are in Alpha Centauri and wanted to send a reply, we’d have heard from them by now.
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It was vaguely man-shaped but in no way human. It stood at least three meters tall. Even when it was at rest, the silvered surface of the thing seemed to shift and flow like mercury suspended in midair. The reddish glow from the crosses etched into the tunnel walls reflected from sharp surfaces and glinted on the curved metal blades protruding from the thing’s forehead, four wrists, oddly jointed elbows, knees, armored back, and thorax. It flowed between the kneeling Bikura, and when it extended four long arms, hands extended but fingers clicking into place like chrome scalpels, I was absurdly reminded of His Holiness on Pacem offering a benediction to the faithful.
I had no doubt that I was looking at the legendary Shrike.
– Dan Simmons in Hyperion
As an avid fan of science-fiction, I’ve read just about all of the classics of the genre. Dan Simmons’ Hyperion is one of the exceptions, so it was with some pleasure that I came across a copy of it while browsing at a bookstore at Warisan Square here in Kota Kinabalu. I’ve already had some familiarity with the plot, having read one or two of Simmons’ short stories based on the same setting in various anthologies, but this was the first time that I’ve actually read the book, and I have to say that it deserves every bit of the many accolades it has been given.
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March is turning out to be a bad month for geeks around the world. Gary Gygax, co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons, died earlier this month and Arthur C. Clarke, one of few remaining writers from the Golden Age of science-fiction and the last of the “Big Three”, has just died today at the age of 90. These days, the media remembers Clarke mostly for his collaboration with Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey, predicting the concept of geosynchronous communications satellites before the technology for them became possible and for the often used quote that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
For me however, Clarke’s most memorable work was Childhood’s End, a novel about humanity transcending itself. It’s also the only one of my novels that my mother liked. Growing up, I had piles of science-fiction and fantasy novels lying all around the place and my mother would occasionally pick one up and flip through it. Most of the time, she never got past the first page. To my surprise, not only did she finish reading Childhood’s End, afterwards she asked me, “I liked that one. Do you have any more like it?”
Childhood’s End had captured my imagination ever since I’ve read an extract of it published as a short story in a collection edited by Isaac Asimov, another one of the “Big Three” writers, who died in 1992. It was collections like this that convinced me that the true soul of science-fiction, as the literature of ideas, lies not in novels but in short stories. I also remember the palpable awe that I felt when I first read Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama. Nowadays, gigantic spaceships in space is an overused theme, but Rama was one of the first examples of it and Clarke’s words captured the huge scale of it in a way that no other author has been able to replicate since.
Clark’s later life in Sri Lanka was blighted by allegations of pedophilia that has been proved to be false and although he tried to continue writing, he never could quite keep up with the new crop of writers. Nevertheless, his place in the history of science-fiction is assured and he will be forever remembered.
Tommie laughed. “You should do some ego surfing. Your hack was noticed. Back when I was young, you could have got a patent off it. Nowadays –”
Xiu patted Tommie’s shoulder. “Nowadays, it should be worth a decent grade in a high school class. You and I — we have things to learn, Thomas.”
– Vernor Vinge in Rainbows End
As the person who came up with the term “Technological Singularity”, any new science-fiction book by Vernor Vinge is always highly anticipated. Unlike his previous two bestsellers, A Deepness in the Sky and A Fire Upon the Deep, both of which were space opera novels set in a universe of his own creation with specific rules to allow a high level of technological development without invoking a singularity, Rainbows End is a solid science-fiction story set in a near-future Earth. There are tech toys aplenty and cyberspace permeates and interconnects with the real world, but it’s still more or less our same old planet with recognizable lifestyles and people. Unnoticed by the most of the world’s population however, who live mostly pleasant and peaceful lives, are events that suggest that the state of the world is not as stable as it seems, and there are hints of upheavals yet to come.
Continue reading A Book: Rainbows End
Max Brooks’ World War Z is a follow-up to The Zombie Survival Guide which became a commercial success largely through word of mouth on the Internet. While The Zombie Survival Guide was a fictional manual covering the biology of zombies and suggested methods of killing them and surviving a zombie outbreak, World War Z tells the story of a worldwide zombie apocalypse scenario through the oral testimonies of over 40 survivors. It has since become popular enough that there are plans to make a film version of the book with a screenplay by J. Michael Straczynski.
World War Z places the initial zombie outbreak in Sichuan Province, China, where a boy diving for treasure amongst the submerged villages of the Three Gorges Reservoir comes to the surface with a mysterious bite mark on his foot and is kept locked in an abandoned house by frightened villages after attacking and biting a number of them. They notify the local hospital and the doctor who is sent is shocked to discover that the boy is as savage as an animal, biting and clawing at anyone who comes near him. His skin has become cold and gray, and though numerous wounds are found all over his body from his struggles to free himself, no blood comes out of them. A hypodermic needle inserted into where his veins should be comes up filled with a strange, viscous matter. He is even able to snap his own arm in an effort to free himself and seems affected by neither pain nor exhaustion. Not unexpectedly, all of the villagers bitten by the boy have become comatose with cold and gray skin as well.
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Now, I have long been nonplussed by Isaac’s Alchemical research, but as years have gone by I have perceived that he would achieve a similar triumph by finding a single common underlying explanation for phænomena that we think of as diverse, and unrelated: free will, God’s presence in the Universe, miracles, and the transmutation of chymical elements. Counched in the willfully obscure jargon of the Alchemists, this cause, or principle, or whatever one wants to call it, is known as the Philosopher’s Stone, or other terms such as the Philosophic Mercury, the Vital Agent, the Latent or Subtile Spirit, the Secret Fire, the Material Soul of Matter, the Invisible Habitant, the Body of Light, the Seed, the Seminal Virtue.
– Neal Stephenson in The System of the World
For a book written by Neal Stephenson, I had a hard time getting into Quicksilver, the first book of his Baroque Cycle. This is astonishing because of how much I enjoyed and how quickly I devoured his earlier books, Snow Crash and The Diamond Age. Quicksilver and its subsequent volumes The Confusion and The System of the World, appear at first glance to be a different beast entirely. For one thing, the events chronicled in the novel take place from roughly the middle of the 17th century to the beginning of the 18th century. For another, real historical figures from the period in question play a central role in the story and while most of the exploits described in the novel are fictional, they are skillfully interleaved with real historical events. For these reasons, ever since the publication of the first volume, debate has raged amongst fans and readers on whether or not it even constitutes science-fiction.
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The solar system is a dead loss right now – dumb all over! Just measure the MIPS per milligram. If it isn’t thinking, it isn’t working. We need to start with the low-mass bodies, reconfigure them for our own use. Dismantle the moon! Dismantle Mars! Build masses of free-flying nanocomputing processor nodes exchanging data via laser link, each layer running off the waste heat of the next one in. Matrioshka brains, Russian doll Dyson spheres the size of solar systems. Teach dumb matter to do the Turing boogie!
– Charles Stross in Accelerando
Accelerando is a hard book to recommend to anyone. At times it reads as if author Charles Stross wrote it by first making a bullet-point list of cool stuff he wanted to include: effective cyclists! Rubberized concrete! Agalmic economies! Corporate regulations written in Python! Distributed Internet reputation servers! As the exclamation points suggest, every mention of the latest and greatest toys is suffused with breathless enthusiasm. Only afterwards is the story worked in and the characters, in this case, three generations of the dysfunctional and idiosyncratic Macx family, created to serve the plot.
Continue reading A Book: Accelerando