After Earth

I became convinced, while watching After Earth, that it was based on a novel. I was wrong, and I’m disappointed, because this is a story that I really believe could be told more effectively in prose.

That said, it could also be told more effectively in the medium of film. After Earth underestimates its audience at some junctures, and at others seems to paint itself into a narrative corner, leaving itself with only cliches and overtly telegraphed character moments to pull it back out.

Aesthetically, the movie is lush, and presents a vision of humanity’s far-future that is paradoxically both bleak and somehow more hopeful than today. The design of space ships, architecture, and even clothing is very organic — akin to the natural-futuristic aesthetic found in films like Aeon Flux.

Tonally, however, this is an apocalyptic war film. We’re met with a doomed humanity, in a desperate race to save itself again annihilation by the Ursa — a breed of predatory aliens apparently designed to kill humans. 

ursa
What a cutie!

This is where the first set of questions arises.

Why are the Ursa “designed” to kill humans? Is that just a throwaway line, akin to calling them “apex predators”? Or were they actually engineered? If the latter, how, why, and by whom? Are they the natural inhabitants of the planet that humanity attempted to colonize after leaving Earth, not vicious predators at all but just regular life-forms living their own lives a la Alien?

Alas, we viewers never get those answers.

As Cypher Raige (Will Smith) and his son Kitai (Jaden Smith) crash-land on Earth we learn that the planet is now quarantined for being completely inhospitable to human life. Accoring to Smith’s character, “everything on this planet has evolved to kill humans.” On top of this, the climate has changed drastically — but not in a way that would be believably consistent with climate change. No, instead, Earth is now an evil realm in a fantasy novel where nightfall brings a literal creeping frost that descends over previously mild biospheres and freezes everything instantly, somehow without doing any long-term damage to the plant life.

It’s almost like Earth has been transformed into an elaborate training simulation meant to strengthen Earth’s military forces — which could be an interesting, Ender’s Game-esque turning point for the narrative. Unfortunately I can’t give the writers that much credit. This is just worldbuilding that tries to be cool but ends up so broken that it can barely support the narrative. 

The function of the film’s technology is just as wobbly. Raige Sr., his leg wrecked, stays on board the ruins of their spacecraft while Kitai goes off in search of a rescue beacon that ended up at the crash site of the front half of the ship. Ostensibly, a combination of video and 3-D mapping technology allows Raige Sr. to observe his son from all angles at all times. But Kitai hides things from his dad at key junctures.

How much can Raige Sr. actually observe at a given time? Why does Kitai deign to hide things from his father when his father is miles away, unable to touch him, only trying to offer realistic guidance? How did Raige Sr. actually survive the crash in the first place, when the last thing we see is him being sucked out an airlock and (presumably, if we’re dealing with physics here) dumped several hundred miles away from the site where Kitai finds him?

Honestly, at this point, the story doesn’t even matter. There’s some pseudo-philosophical themes about self-control and letting go of fear, but they become so mired in the utterly nonsensical background structure of the tale that any poignancy that they would have had is totally drained.

I can’t recommend After Earth in any way, but if you’re feeling up to the task of constructing some wild fan theories to fill in those plot holes, have at it.

 

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The Doomed City by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

If someone asked me what The Doomed City was about, I’d probably say it’s like a Soviet Dhalgren. It’s also like a Cold-War Russian Dark City, but since this novel obviously came first, I’m inclined to say that at least one of these properties ripped off The Doomed City to some extent.

(It’s Dark City.)

The actual plot of The Doomed City is rather loose — the story follows Andrei Voronin and a selection of other men through their lives in “The Experiment.”

The Experiment is nebulously described at a variety of junctions, but basically it comprises everything that the characters experience and interact with. They live in a city, but one with no defined location, climate or demographic. The inhabitants of the city come from a variety of nations and time periods, though all seem to represent, in one way or another, different political viewpoints that would have been of concern to a Russian citizen in the 1970s.

One might think of the Experiment as a massive fish tank, controlled by some unknown race of superintelligent aliens, in which humans take part in the building and daily function of a society, one that’s an odd amalgum of the societies from which they came.

dark
Maybe they’re just floating on a rock in space?

The one key factor that seems consistent in The Experiment is that each subject begins his time on the lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder and slowly rises through the ranks of society. When we first meet Andrei, he’s working as a garbage collector along with a ragtag group of friends. As the novel progresses, he becomes a detective, then a newspaper editor, then a city councillor. His close friends become policemen, reporters, and fellow councillors in turn, maintaining a similar, if progressively more powerful, group dynamic.

As numerous characters remark throughout the book, “The Experiment is The Experiment.” The apathetic claim becomes something of a mantra, a short, faithful prayer, a confirmation that they know nothing, that everything makes sense because it just does.

When baboons run rampant through the streets, when a seemingly sentient building devours citizens, when an expedition to the outer reaches of this uncharted “world” devolves into a madness of walking statues, temporal anomalies, and mysterious ruins, “The Experiment is The Experiment.”

For all this strangeness, The Doomed City never seems to veer into the same “supernatural” territory that fans of the Strugatsky’s best-known novel, Roadside Picnic, are probably familiar with. It’s a bit odd — The Doomed City might actually contain more of the observable supernatural, but that isn’t its focus.

Rather than painting a landscape, in The Doomed City the Sturgatsky brothers paint a dense party scene, an interpersonal drama with countless players major and minor, each with their own wants, aspirations, faults and failings. Certainly, many of these characters are political mascots, straw men built to represent political ideologies and time periods.

There’s a distinct lack of women in the novel. Those who do appear could be replaced with either men or blow-up dolls without affecting the plot in the slightest.  The Doomed City is as much a product of its time as it is a comment on it. Does that make this particular flaw forgiveable? Maybe, at a stretch, although it does make it glaringly obvious that the Sturgatsky brothers are also the white men by and for whom history is interpreted — perhaps their coded opinion of events (for as much merit as it does have) should also be taken with a grain of salt.

There are a lot of grey areas here, and in the novel, and one thing that I can appreciate about it is that the authors do very little to try to adjust the contrast.

Is The Experiment the afterlife? Is it hell? A genuine scientific study by ultra-advanced aliens, or some kind of government conspiracy? By the end of the novel, you might have formed your own theories, which will either be shattered or supported by the novel’s deliberately ambiguous ending.

Read the book for its dense character studies and fascinatingly nihilistic social commentary — or put it down for its alienation of women and failure to build any real suspense.

Mechanicum by Graham McNeill

Hey, it’s the second Horus Heresy novel that I’ve ever reviewed on the blog!

I’ve always been more partial to the Adeptus Mechanicus than the space marines or Imperial Guard, so I was expecting to enjoy Mechanicum. And it’s pretty good. My main complaint with it is its insistence on cleaving the plot into two (three?) distinct stories that don’t really overlap until the final chapter (and even then, it’s not particularly meaningful.)

The main plot follows Dalia Cythera, an Administratum transcriber with some latent psyker abilities who’s conscripted into helping Adept Koriel Zeth build a device called an Akashic Reader. Dalia’s not a particularly interesting character — her abilities come close to pushing her into Mary Sue territory and she doesn’t seem experienced or opinionated enough to really drive her own narrative. 

Zeth is more interesting — here’s a tech adept who actually values scientific knowledge and experimentation over faith in the Mechanicum’s “god,” the Omnissiah. (Of course, her values are ripped to shreds along with the rest of the planet, but, it’s nice of a 40K property to actually acknowledge the possibility of science over faith.)

Plus, look — a 40K novel with TWO female main characters! Too bad that Zeth gets an introductory description that spends more time on her “lithe, muscular physique,” “shapely armoured legs,” and “the curve of her thighs and the swell of her breasts” than on any demonstration of skill or personality.

Still, for all its failings, the book has charm. There are some great moments that express the conflicted humanity of the Mechanicum, and the age-old cyberpunk question of how much flesh and bone one needs to be considered “human.”

pain
Nice one, Graham

It’s also got a few moments where it’s clear the editor was asleep at the wheel.

 

 

Eye of Terror by Barrington J. Bayley

This is the oldest Warhammer 40K book I’ve thus far read and the tonal differences between the Black Library of the late 90s and the Black Library of today are palpable. This book was a thrift store find and honestly after reading it I’m not surprised it ended up there.

Eye of Terror includes (to its credit and detriment):

  • The old brand of Warhammer 40K that feels like original Warhammer (but in space!)
  • Visible, fully realized depictions of Chaos instead of subtlety and vague allusions
  • Characters that would easily feel at home in an actual tabletop RPG

If you like the above, you’re in for treat. This story is far less bogged-down in bureaucracy than a lot of the later 40K stuff.

The main plot follows a down-on-his luck rogue trader and a misfit psyker through some bad but ultimately fairly inconsequential misadventure. I mean inconsequential in the grander scope of the 40K universe, of course.  Pretty much everyone in the novel still ends up dead. Speaking of scope, though, it’s necessarily a lot smaller in Eye of Terror than in most of the Horus Heresy tomes and whatever Dan Abnett’s been up to for the last few years. 

And I think it works — in such a vast fictional universe, it feels refreshing to see something a little more focused on individual experience. And the aforementioned overtness of the supernatural aspects is pleasing, especially if you’re more interested in the mythology of 40K than the bureaucracy.

This book is also riddled with spelling errors, which I find speaks to an interesting era in the franchise, one of extremely bad sourcebook art and character classes that have long since died out for being too ridiculous to fit into the whole grimdark aesthetic. 

Enemy Mine

What an odd movie. The concept of Enemy Mine doesn’t seem new, but maybe that’s because I’ve been watching so much Star Trek for the past two and a half years. If Enemy Mine came first, then it certainly inspired a number of Star Trek episodes (along with episodes of Battlestar Galactica, Stargate, and the like.)

Roger Ebert told the Chicago Sun Times in 1985 that Enemy Mine “made no compromises in its art direction, its special effects and its performances – and then compromised everything else in sight.” That holds up as an accurate description of the movie. Set design, acting, sound — all these are incredible. The Drac language sounds totally foreign, seems to take into account the physiology of its speakers, and is all-around believable as an alien language. The Drac themselves are still bipedal and humanoid but the asexual reproductive systems and lack of binary gender are brave in a time of green-skinned alien babes.

That said, the writing often feels very lazy. Zero — absolutely zero — thought is given to how human culture will have changed in this future. Look at Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. That show is ridiculous (ridiculously awesome), but at least it recognized that baseball is probably going to be a relic of the past in a couple centuries. 

Enemy Mine, on the other hand, proudly and obliviously features a scene of Dennis Quaid (as Willis E. Davidge) teaching his alien child how to play touch football — it’s a part of human culture!

Enemy Mine baby
Sometimes a family is just a single unshaven man and his adopted alien baby.

I have to give Quaid credit for really selling the idea that he loved that slime baby like his own first born child. The costuming and makeup in this movie is amazing, and the baby is no exception, but it was also a bit difficult to not laugh derisively at this scene. (Sorry.)

My personal annoyance with this movie is that it really seems to wind up for a big strike at the political implications of a human and a Drac — two species at war with each other — being forced to survive together, and coming to understand their similarities. It’s peace on a microcosmic scale, but still — the fact that Davidge and Shigan become friends, I feel, should have had some impact on someone, somewhere. Maybe a group of humans would have heard about it and lost their taste for the war, or for Drac slavery. Maybe eventually enough people on both sides would have heard the story, forcing negotiations to take a more peaceful turn.

But instead, Enemy Mine keeps its scope exceedingly narrow — something I normally like in movies, but something that seems like a terrible waste here. After Davidge is rescued, the second half of the story revolves around his efforts to rescue his adopted son — and all the other characters seem to just completely ignore the implications of the fact that this guy is trying to rescue a Drac like the kid’s his very own.

In the end, I found Enemy Mine frustrating. It had a simple, but potentially powerful story concept, and a production team that was obviously dedicated to realizing the world in which that story takes place. I don’t know if I should blame the writers or the director for its fiery trainwreck of a denouement, but it really left me wishing I could blame someone.

 

Dark City

What we have here is an extremely flawed movie that in my humble opinion still manages to be somehow charming.

I have to point out right away that there are a lot of parallels between Dark City and the Sturgatsky brothers’ The Doomed Cityenough that I’d balk at chalking it up to mere coincidence. I would not be surprised to learn that someone on the writing team for this movie was a big fan of the book. 

Dark City follows protagonist John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) as he wakes up in a bathtub in the eponymous city with no recollection of who he is or where he’s been. In trying to figure out just what’s going on, John finds himself pitted against a city whose inhabitants who seem to change occupations and identities at intervals. No one can remember the last time they saw the sun, and no one can seem to remember a route out of the city.

The biggest issue with this movie is its complete and utter lack of subtlety. Where The Doomed City meanders for well over 400 pages without ever revealing the true nature of the city, Dark City opens with two minutes of expositional narration in which everything is handed to the viewer on a silver platter. The city is an experiment devised by a dying, but technologically far superior race of aliens dubbed “The Strangers” who have come to Earth in the hopes of discovering the secrets of the human soul, and somehow using this information to reinvigorate their society.

That could have been an interesting reveal if it were made at the film’s climax. Instead, we the viewers yawn along as Sewell’s character struggles to grasp the facts that we already know.

The design of the aliens, too, really drops the ball. Seriously, what do you picture when someone says “millenia-old race of technologically superior aliens”?

dark city 2
An aging gothic industrial band?

Did the production company have a bunch of outfits left over from Blade: Trinity?

Oh, it’s true that the “actual” aliens are more like parasitic energy-based worms that dwell in the brains of their human hosts. They’re just driving human meat suits in order to “blend in.” But… why exactly do they have to do this? Did they have other bodies they possessed before they discovered Earth? What happened to those?

Not once in the film, during a confrontation with a city inhabitant, do the Strangers even attempt subtlety. They’re a roving band of mobster Nosferatus, threatening their victims with knives. Luckily, they also have the power to erase the memories of all the humans they encounter, not to mention bending reality to their will… so the point seems moot.

The city itself exists in an indiscernible climate, and apparently simultaneously in several different time periods — the clothing, interiors, and building design range from Victorian to late eighties’ imaginings of a near-future. The aesthetic of the whole film feels dated, but at the same time very cool — not quite on par with the aesthetics of, say, 2001: a Space Odyssey, but perhaps a poor-man’s version of that.

The performances are overall decent, despite the over-the-top of the aliens, and the pacing of the movie would be excellent were it not for the fact that it spills all of its secrets right from the get-go.

If you read The Doomed City, though, I do recommend this one — if only to get a feel for what the American fan version is like.

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

The Three Body-Problem by Cixin Liu

I bought this book and made it halfway through before I realized it was part of a trilogy. I rarely have the patience for trilogies anymore so I tend to avoid them, but now I’m locked in for another two books so this should be interesting! Hah! Hopefully this turns out better than the time I attempted to review more than one Horus Heresy novel in a row.

Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem is a Hugo-Award-winning book that was on the “staff picks” shelf in Powell’s when I was in Portland back in November. It’s an Obviously Good ™ book, so I’ll admit I went in prepared to sing its praises.

Not that I’m disappointed, it certainly is good. I found that for a number of reasons the pacing of the novel tended to ebb and flow for me. There were bits where I devoured entire chapters, unable to put it down, and bits where it took me several days to make it through 10 pages.

Liu plants an extraterrestrial first-contact tale deeply in the mire of contemporary Chinese history. I’ll admit that my knowledge of the Cultural Revolution is vague at best, and the novel starts by presenting a not-entirely-objective interpretation of events so I still can’t call myself an expert. Liu’s focus lies with the impact of the revolution on academia and scientific research, particularly in the field of theoretical physics.

In Liu’s fiction, the events of the Cultural Revolution indirectly set in motion an extraterrestrial invasion of Earth by fostering a disdain and mistrust for humanity in the best and brightest of astronomers, physicists, and military personnel.

First contact reveals itself slowly as characters in two different timelines play their separate parts. Ye Wenjie, an astrophysicist who is sent to work at a military base using radio scanning equipment for tactical purposes during the revolution, discovers a novel method of amplifying radio waves, allowing a later transmission to be sent into another solar system.

Decades after this discovery, Wang Miao, a present-day nanomaterials researcher, stumbles upon a bizarre VR game in which players are unknowingly introduced to the aliens that Ye Wenjie opened communications with decades before, by attempting to solve a physics problem that plagues the in-game NPCs.

The aliens are called Trisolarans, as they inhabit a planet caught in the unpredictable orbit of three stars. These three stars (the three bodies identified in the book’s title) cause the planet to oscillate violently between periods of extreme cold, incinerating heat, and occasionally, an era of mild and predictable temperatures known by locals as a “stable era.”

The communication that Ye Wenjie opens causes a cascade of events leading to a sort of multi-tiered invasion, the first phase of which manifests in the individual minds of high-level physicists, and which is designed to culminate in a physical invasion some four centuries in Earth’s future. Humanity must coordinate and plan ahead on a scale never before imagined, or doom a distant future generation to certain death.

Phrased that way it seems like an apt metaphor for the climate change issues of today, but rest assured that I’m oversimplifying it.

Throughout the novel, Liu does an incredible job of evoking complex processes on magnitudes both extremely large and extremely small, using clever metaphor and visualization. The basic binary function of a computer, for example, is at one point depicted with thousands of pairs of soldiers raising and lowering alternating flags. In another scene, the unfolding of a photon into additional dimensions is described in beautiful visual detail, and reminded me of some of the more fascinating descriptions of life in six dimensional spaces, in Greg Egan’s Diaspora.

The aliens themselves are interestingly thought out – with characteristics that would be plausible for their extreme environment, as well as others that seem deliberately designed to reflect the worst aspects of human nature back at the reader. While the scope of the novel is massive – in some cases too massive to easily relate to – I appreciated that it did not extend all the way to preemptively describing the physical appearance of the Trisolarans. They remain enticingly alien through the very end of the book.

I’ve started reading The Dark Forest at this point already and it so far holds to the same level of scope, in which the story spans the entire globe, yet will occasionally stop to focus intently on the tiniest minutiae of Earth, or spend pages on the inner thoughts of a single character. It’s an interesting strategy, one that allows for a large number of threads to eventually come together, even if they take their sweet time getting there.

Pick up this book if you want to contemplate the destruction of the human race as a psychological, rather than a physical process. Read it if you want to feel small, or to lament the heartbreaking shortness of the human lifespan – and the daunting idea of continuing to operate as a unit despite the routine death and replacement of every aspect of a system.

The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer

The Southern Reach is a weird series of novels – part science fiction, part magical realism, part classic horror. I acquired the compilation volume so thankfully I was able to read all three of them in one go. I find the older I get the less patience I have for committing myself to entire trilogies.

That said, I did enjoy the clear tonal distinction between each of these books. Annihilation, certainly, could function as a standalone novel. Authority and Acceptance less so, but they still each have a tangibly different focus.

At the center of the stories, a mystery – a bizarre stretch of landscape where some unspeakable cosmic event took place, now quarantined by a government body. A series of expeditions sent in to attempt to study the area, with results ranging from unexplained death and disappearance to expedition members in zombie-like states of Zen upon returning.

When the novel first introduced Area X I started having very strong flashbacks to Boris and Arkady Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic, and naturally, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. A bizarre thing has happened, but what exactly occurred is decidedly less important than the lasting effects of the event.

Vandermeer’s decision to withhold the names of most of his characters, having the reader know them instead by their job title, is one that I found really helpful for enforcing that focus on landscape. Characters have their own human dramas, definitely, but always within the larger context of an overarching biosphere of moving parts.

So, Annihilation is incredibly creepy. I will freely confess that it kept me awake for several nights until I finally had to stop reading it before bed. I may startle easily, but it takes a lot to leave me genuinely uneasy in the way that this book did, so I have to give it major points for that alone.

I won’t tiptoe around the Lovecraftian aspects of the story. Spoiler alert: the events of Area X are not of this Earth. Possibly not of this dimension or universe. Indescribable cosmic horror unfolds in a way that’s more believable than most of the explicitly Lovecraftian fiction that I’ve come across.

The entire trilogy leans heavily into that uncertainty, that deep tension between being intensely curious about something, while understanding that you’re probably better off not knowing. There’s an unavoidable sense of despair, as well. Despair over relationships, despair over ones’ own mortality, the despair of realizing how truly powerless we all are.

I also have to say that I really enjoyed the way gender and sexuality was employed, (or, successfully ignored) by Vandermeer. Which is to say, gender dynamics are hardly a focal point, and I don’t want to reward mediocrity here, but I still feel the need to mention what a breath of fresh air it was to read a novel with so many believable, fully realized, uncompromised female characters (including the Main Character, at least in Annihilation.)

There’s a gay character, and a bisexual character, both of whose orientations are completely incidental to their roles in the story. There’s even a brief mention of the existence of non-binary individuals. It may not be much but when this kind of thing is as rare as it is, I have to take a moment to offer encouragement for what it’s worth.

For a novel about terror from beyond our galaxy, it’s a story that suffused with incredibly believable human experiences and reactions, one that manages to maintain a small scope despite the immense measure of its primary conflict. The trilogy may be about horrors of the highest magnitude, but serves to remind us that there’s horror inside every one of us, as well.

Diaspora by Greg Egan

Have you ever loved a novel so much that you wanted to get every word of it tattooed on your body?

Allow me to introduce Greg Egan’s Diaspora.

This is speculative fiction at its absolute finest, in my opinion: the type that’s grounded in what seems scientifically plausible to feeble yet physics-loving minds such as my own, while also doing what I have yet to see a pre-1990’s sci-fi story do, which is to recognize that not only the medium, but the nature of human interaction, can change.

(This is ’98, so it’s close, but no dice.)

The novel starts about 800 years into our future, with a large portion of humanity having voluntarily given up their physical bodies in order to live as sentient software programs inside servers buried deep under terrestrial ground. Each different server is called a polis, named after, presumably, the original creators. We’re introduced to Konishi Polis and Carter-Zimmerman Polis, and it’s implied that there are more.

Our hero, Yatima, is a Konishi polis “orphan”—a parentless, genderless being created from what could be called a glitch in the software that makes up reality within the polis. Essentially, Yatima’s birth was an immaculate conception in programming terms. Egan never truly leans toward a Messianic interpretation for the character, though I suppose that reading would be there, if you wanted it to be.

An aside, here: Yatima is far from the only genderless character. In fact, the majority of the characters use the pronouns ve/ver/vis, and at no point is the reader assaulted with explicit reasoning for this (though there’s plenty of implicit reasoning.) It feels natural, and I love it, and it’s great.

The remainder of humanity has split off into sects of “fleshers” – a fairly self-explanatory term. Naturally there are extremes within the fleshers: those who opt for a ton of genetic modifications and augmentations to make them essentially superhuman, and those who reject these opportunities—while paradoxically using them—to regress back to a more primitive state.

In the grand scheme of the novel, the fleshers don’t really matter. They are wiped out fairly early in the story by an unexpected cosmic event, something that shouldn’t have been possible according to the laws of physics as they are understood in the novel’s future (the Theory of Relativity has been replaced by Kozuch theory, which without giving too much away is a once again, entirely-too-plausible-sounding explanation for some of the weirdness that physics as we know it can’t definitively explain.)

The polises, buried deep under the Earth and backed up on other galactic worlds, survive the event. The remainder of the novel is focused on the Diaspora, the journey of the citizens of the Carter-Zimmerman polis (including Yatima) away from earth and into uncharted territories of the universe, across several more millennia and shifts into areas where our understanding of time no longer holds up.

This book really excels at telling a compelling story of massive, exponential progress in technology and social design, while remaining mostly aware of the bits of human nature that can and do tend to confound such progress. The scope of the story is vaster than that of any novel in my recent memory, yet Egan grounds it well by filtering through the experiences of a small, tight group of characters.

The polises are predictably hyper-advanced and allow their citizens to think and act hundreds of times faster than humans in the “real” world, yet polis citizens still fall victim to the type of overthinking and emotional blindness that frequently plagues today’s interactions.

In Konishi polis, autonomy is valued above all else, leading to a localized reality in which citizens are unable to touch each other, as even the slightest sensory intervention by another being is considered a loss of autonomy for the one being touched. Naturally, sexuality and romantic love have fallen deeply out of fashion and are largely considered outdated and off-putting, a point that I consider a refreshing turn away from the tropes of 60’s and 70’s sci-fi in which everyone is banging hot space babes with the help of off-world alcohol and massive leaps in birth control science.

Early in the book, attempts at saving what remains of the flesher population are mostly thwarted by the fleshers themselves fearing the unknown, refusing to accept the severity of the threat, and misconstruing the polis citizens’ invitations as some sort of invasion plot. Fairly topical issues.

In Carter-Zimmerman the focus is heavier on artistic pursuit and sensory experience, making it fitting that it should be the polis that creates thousands of cloned copies of its citizens and sends them off to distant planets. Which is where the story gets cool. Egan’s descriptions of life, and “life” on other planets are incredible, especially his descriptions of life that exists in more than four dimensions.

Technological advancement isn’t demonstrated with floating cities or Dyson spheres or FTL drives, but rather with the ability to physically change and manipulate the atoms in a planet’s atmosphere – to leave decipherable messages in the form of isotopes, for example. There’s the underlying idea that sufficient advancement would lead to technologies that are increasingly unobtrusive, difficult to detect, a contrast to the constant race to build the biggest, the tallest, the strongest.

Eventually, the pursuit of an ultra-advanced non-human civilization, following clues that have been left throughout the universe, leads the citizens of C-Z out of Earth’s universe, into exponential higher dimensions and physical descriptions that are dizzyingly difficult to picture.

The end of the novel is almost disappointing, if only because by that point I half expected that Egan would be revealing some sort of undiscovered, unifying universal truth. In reality though, the story reaches its logical conclusion when it becomes clear that there isn’t any point in continuing. The Diaspora discovers multitudes, but in the end what it truly reveals is the ambivalence of the universe at large, the sort of optimistic pointlessness of attempts to map or fully understand the extent of the universe, to even know what reality is.

And you know by now that I’m a sucker for endings that resolve nothing.

Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

This book almost broke me.

It’s excellent in nearly every way and yet when I think about it I still feel a vague sense of disappointment or anger. As I said to a friend in response to their beginning to read Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson is an excellent writer in every way – except in writing female characters with more than one dimension.

Which is to say that in this sweeping, deeply informative, pleasantly convoluted, century-spanning novel, you could still more or less replace every female character with a blowup doll and have the same amount of impact on the plot.

(This is excepting the instances where Stephenson seems to mistake psychotic, red-flag jealousy for the behavior of that mythical beast, the Strong Female Character.)

All that said, I actively hate myself for being a feminist nitpick when the overall structure of the book is so. Fucking. Good. I just want to unabashedly love it for its manly wartime swashbuckling and fascinating descriptions of hacking and math. The writing is tight, it never drags. I hate historical fiction and Cryptonomicon somehow turned WWII into an endlessly interesting setting.

Is it the non-female-identifying aspects of myself that make me think I should be able to just set aside the flat, lazy, women-writing and focus on a classic fucking story? Maybe?

Anyway, I’ve been trying to write about this book since I finished it literally months ago and I haven’t been able to come up with a review that I can fully stand behind. I’ve read other things and I want to move on with my life so here it is. Read Cryptonomicon yourself. Make up your own damn mind.

I can’t even begin to tell you how to feel about it.