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 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.
Working my way through the J.J. Abrams Trek timeline, and having some strong feelings about the 2009 reboot’s treatment of Spock in particular. Check back soon for an essay on how killing Amanda Grayson was probably unnecessary and furthermore, how TAS offered a more nuanced portrayal of Vulcan personal growth! Woohoo.
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.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned while keeping this blog, it’s that it’s much harder to be snarky about books I actually liked. Which is why it took me so damn long to write about Dmitry Glukhovsky’s Metro 2033.
But I dug deep, and mustered enough ennui for a small rant, so here goes.
This book is essentially billed as a straight-up sci-fi/horror story – but there’s a lot of nuance to Metro 2033 and that’s exactly what makes it so good. Not only that, but Glukhovsky manages to pull off horror writing that’s actually legitimately creepy.
Quick plot rundown: Metro 2033 takes place, conveniently, in the year 2033, in the metro train tunnels underneath what used to be Moscow. The entire surface of the planet, (presumably; the scope of the story is fairly small and the characters for the most part have no way of knowing what the actual conditions are on the surface of the planet) was rendered uninhabitable a couple decades prior to this by the events of a third world war.
The main character of the novel is a man in his early 20’s named Artyom, who was but a wee baby when they nuked the world, and has spent most of his life in an underground train station, growing mushrooms for sustenance. The Moscow metro is vast – extensive enough that a communist revolution already broke out at some point prior to the events of Metro, with the requisite social upheaval. A number of stations have been taken as territory by the reds, complete with ongoing border skirmishes and prejudice-driven executions.
Aside from humans continuing their grand legacy of being just, so awful, there’s a new threat from the so-called “Dark Ones,” a new race of super-beings that nobody’s really seen but are assumed by everyone to be pure evil and out for blood. Are they horribly disfigured mutants from the surface? The next step in human evolution? Aliens? There’s probably a fan theory about aliens. Nobody knows.
There’s also the threat of a plague and the possibility that Satan himself lives in the tunnels, which are almost certainly haunted by… something, not to mention uncanny numbers of rats. The story makes it very clear how little fun is to be had in the metro.
So a rant: way before I actually picked up this book I watched someone play a demo of the videogame version on the Xbox 360. I was mildly annoyed with the game after only a couple hours’ worth of actual gameplay because it had the player just shooting weird mutant creatures crawling through the tunnels.
Now, I realize the limitations that the developers were working with. Metro 2033 (the game) is a first-person shooter and one of the most fundamental aspects of an FPS is having something to shoot at, and there are a lot of reasons for inserting a non-human foe to fill that slot. I guess it’s a pet peeve of mine that sci-fi horror writers of late frequently seem to fall back on “monsters” that, while certainly unpleasant, still appear to be carbon-based life forms with all the accoutrements like skin and some type of blood, and… eyes maybe.
What I’m saying is these things aren’t really that scary anymore because while they might be super strong and have extra-thick skin or plates of exoskeleton or whatever, you can still fundamentally kill them with guns. In some cases you may need to upgrade to a rocket launcher but I believe my point stands.
Also, if this is how you formulate your monster I have to assume that the monster doesn’t actually have any concept of malice or vengeance because it’s basically just a dumb animal, otherwise it might display the trappings of human-level intelligence, namely some form of combat strategy, external weapons, or perhaps an ability to be reasoned with.
Therefore, I posit that this type of creature isn’t really a scary monster, it’s just a large, angry dog. And I know Cujo was a hit but that was the 80s and I think animalistic monsters like werewolves or swamp things have at this point been distilled into tropes of either harlequin romance or cheeseball black and white horror films.
What I’m getting at is that I picked up Metro 2033 fully prepared to be disappointed that the main antagonist was a big ugly dog, or several big ugly dogs.
I was, however, actually thoroughly impressed with the antagonist forces present in the novel. Glukhovsky seems to understand that part of what makes horror horrifying is to have the character, and the reader by proxy, left uncertain about the true nature of the antagonist. Though Metro sits very comfortably in the “plausible” post-apocalyptic dystopia section of sci-fi, the horror elements are presented as mostly paranormal. This could totally fucking destroy all the scientific plausibility of the setting, but it’s executed with such an expert hand that it works beautifully.
There’s no final boss battle with these supernatural forces – they appear throughout the novel and while a number of possible explanations are explored at various point, none is presented as being specifically correct. What is “certain,” as much as anything can be certain, is that the forces are inherently malicious, and the kind of thing that you could never hope to kill with a gun. Maybe it’s a metaphor for human hate. Maybe the metro is actually purgatory, and the forces are just voices rising up from hell. Maybe a bunch of people living in dark tunnels with hardly any food, medicine or running water will eventually become paranoid enough to start giving physical shape to their anxieties. What is clear, is that the bad things happening in the tunnels are comprehensively unsettling.
At its heart, Metro 2033 is a pretty formulaic hero’s quest, wherein our boy Artyom must travel from his home on the outer reaches of the inhabitable metro, into the very center of human civilization and conflict, to kill the Dark Ones once and for all. You could easily re-skin this as fantasy and it would basically be Soviet Lord of the Rings.
But that’s okay. The structure of the plot falls into the background compared to the tight writing and character development. Artyom is such a pure cinnamon bun that you can’t help but root for him, and the occasional really convenient escape from certain doom is somehow improved by your pure love for a Kalashnikov-toting, gas-mask wearing main character who is, at his heart, an adorable and soft little kid.
I think part of what I loved about this book is that it somehow manages to seem somehow optimistic, in a world where you get a free ski mask with your purchase of an AK-47. The clearest available moral of the story is that humanity is irredeemably stupid and awful and that we deserve everything we have coming, and yet it never becomes an existential slog.
That said, I will say to make sure you’ve got your favorite whiskey in the house, because you’re going to need a drink when you finish this book.
Humanity has made great innovations in the field of robotics in the past few decades. While the idea of robots that interact with us as equals has been explored for centuries in science fiction, we are now closer than ever to a reality in which humans will live alongside robots. As we move closer to creating artificial intelligence, scientists, theorists and philosophers are asking deeper questions about how we will begin to define and redefine our relationships to these machines.
Robots already fulfill numerous applications in fields such as heavy industry and space exploration – and they’re beginning to impact us closer to home. Scientist and theorist Ray Kurzweil was hired by Google in 2012 to help them design the first search engine that is more intelligent than its users. Soon, the ubiquitous webpage might be directing us to answers that we previously wouldn’t have even known to search for. It sounds amazing – but with artificial intelligence poised to integrate itself into our most intimate spaces, how will those spaces, and our experiences, change?
Kurzweil has already predicted that by 2029 or 2030, advances in technology will allow us to construct robots that are as intelligent, if not more intelligent, than the average human. According to Kurzweil, these robots will likely have the ability to understand and utilize intricate emotional strategies such as flirting and humour. A revelation, considering that we humans sometimes have trouble with the emotional complexities and subtleties of our own peers.
There are many that see these coming advancements as a way that we’ll be able to improve and build on our understanding of ourselves, but there are also those who worry about the dangers of creating artificial consciousness. With the development of sentient computers and human-like androids comes the question of what rights we grant to these machines.
A robot that understands flirting and humour, as Kurzweil predicts, has the potential to become more than a co-worker. If machines eventually become sufficiently advanced to be treated as our equals, do we invite them to take part in human social hierarchies? Will robots soon be more adept than humans in the field of dating and relationships? Is a relationship with a robot who understands your every mood and need just around the corner? If dating and sex with robots becomes commonplace, how will it impact our relationships with fellow humans?
The Turing Test
In 1951, codebreaker and mathematician Alan Turing originally proposed what he called “The Imitation Game.” The “game” comprised a simple test in which a man, a woman and an impartial judge were placed in three separate rooms and provided with computer terminals through which to communicate with one another. The man and the woman would both attempt to convince the judge that they were the man, using only what they could convey through words.
From this admittedly problematic origin, Turing later devised what we know today as the Turing Test, a test which aims to determine whether or not a machine is intelligent. In the current model for the Turing Test, a judge sits in one room and another entity, either human or machine, sits in another. Communicating through text on a computer terminal, the judge poses a series of questions to the other participant, who answers to the best of their (or its) abilities. If the judge is unable to determine whether the other participant is man or machine, the machine mind is considered sufficiently intelligent so as to be indistinguishable from a human mind.
Modern science is conflicted on whether the Turing Test is the most accurate method for determining artificial intelligence. Some experts point out that there are many living humans who would not pass the test, while others note that the model leaves too much room for trickery and manipulation to be considered scientifically rigorous. Relatively simplistic computer programs might be able to pass the test simply by being programmed to recognize patterns and keywords in human speech.
Nevertheless, the test has its supporters in the scientific community, and, as of this writing, it remains the only standardized test of artificial intelligence that we have. Each year, a select few advanced robots and software programs are entered into the Turing Test for a chance at winning the Loebner prize. Inaugurated in 1991, the Loebner contest is an annual competition in which entrants participate in the Turing test against a panel of judges.
The Loebner contest has its own set of problems, however. Rather than a single judge, the Loebner contest uses a panel of judges, therefore the parameters for victory are slightly different. Each judge has time to “speak” with each entrant, then each judge ranks their conversation partners in order from least to most human-like. If a computer program entered into the contest has a higher median rank than one of the humans, that program is be considered the winner, and is awarded $100,000.
The first four times the contest was held, the creators knew that the computer programs of the day were unlikely to stand a chance to win the prize, so they restricted the topic of conversation at each terminal. Under these restricted conditions, many pointed out that it would be reasonably simple to program a computer with expert knowledge on that one subject. Seeing this, the creators of the contest lifted these restrictions in 1995. In addition, the judges for the contest were no longer varied laymen, but computer experts. Predictably, the new entrants garnered universally lower rankings than those in the four years prior.
As of 2015, there has yet to be a Loebner Prize winner.
Even so, there are many scientists and theorists who are certain that at some point in the near future, a machine will be able to win the Loebner contest, or pass the Turing Test, or in some other manner prove that it is intelligent enough to be considered conscious. Once a robot “passes the test,” the door will be open for a world of new advantages – and many more legal and moral grey areas.
Humanity’s Convergence with Tech
While the term “robot,” was not coined until 1920, humans have been both fascinated and terrified by machines for many years, since we began building them for industrial and home use. One of the first movies to feature a robot as we now think of them was 1896’s L’Eve Futur, in which a scientist creates a robot in the image of a beautiful woman. A British lord ends up falling in love with this beautiful automaton. Over subsequent decades, we’ve continued to explore the idea of romance with robots –recent films such as Ex Machina, Her and Blade Runner have all explored the ethical and philosophical repercussions of humans entering into sexual relationships with robots and even falling in love with them.
Many of these stories focus on men being seduced by overtly sexualized female robots, acting as temptresses and sirens. Perhaps these stories are simply fables for a modern age, intended as a didactic message about the evils of becoming too reliant on technology, through the lens of popular media’s attachment to women as the original sinners.
Some academics, including noted feminist theorist Donna Haraway, have touched on this. Haraway herself said in her 1985 essay A Cyborg Manifesto that humans need not worry about our increasing reliance on technology and robots to fulfill even our basest desires, because we are already integrated with technology. Biological, organic, “natural” relationships no longer apply as we are already so far removed from that, and all of us exist as “theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism.”
Ray Kurzweil defines the Singularity as the temporal point at which the distinction between human and machine is no longer tangible. According to Kurzweil, technological advancement is speeding up exponentially as increased computing power and wider access to information allows advancements to happen more quickly.
Eventually, the speed of technological advancement will be so fast that we will need to merge our own bodies and minds with technology in order to keep up with it. Devices such as computers and cellphones will shrink until they can be implanted inside of us, and we will all become the literal manifestation of Haraway’s cyborgs. Many of us are already so attached to our phones that losing the device is akin to losing a limb – perhaps in the future this will be even less of an exaggeration.
If we think about our cell phones as an extension of our minds, it isn’t too much of a stretch to imagine plugging our minds in to supercomputers to increase their memory and processing power — similar to the way you’d plug a USB port or external hard drive into your laptop. Thanks to the advent of the internet, the layman of today has access to more information than even government officials did 15 years ago. We are all getting exponentially more intelligent, though the structure of our intelligence is shifting from millions of self-contained minds to one, much larger collective of information.
Sexbots and Technosexuality
So what are these human desires that Haraway and others feel are soon to be fulfilled by robots? The integration of our own biology with technology already comes into play in our sexuality. Some of the more elaborate sex toys on the market today might be considered “robots” by some standard. There is already a large existing market for human-shaped machines, designed specifically to fill our wants and needs.
Robot fetishism, sometimes called technosexuality or ASFR by those who identify with it, has a large enough following for its own Wikipedia page, and scores of individuals produce art and stories to share with other enthusiasts. ASFR stands for “alt.sex.fetish.robots,” taking its name from a group on Usenet, a late-20th century precursor to modern-day internet forums. Some self-identified technosexuals are physically attracted to robots that appear highly mechanical, with sci-fi details like chrome plates and exposed circuitry – while other people fantasize about intimate relations with androids and gynoids who are designed to be indistinguishable from humans. Some people even fantasize about being transformed into a robot, or watching a lover undergo a similar process.
The majority of modern technosexuals still have to live out their fantasies through role play and stories, but advancements in robotics on the horizon may very well open up new avenues for making robots a part of not only our industry, but our love lives. Companies like RealDolls, for instance, specialize in highly-realistic artificial lovers. This company prides itself on paving the way for the creation of realistic android and gynoid sex partners, a goal it has been working toward for over a decade. While at present, RealDolls offer very little in the way of functional robotics, the company is just waiting for the next big advancement in artificial intelligence to offer a whole lot more in the way of customizable lovers.
Robots as Therapists
Sex robots need not be designed for purely hedonistic pursuits, however. They also have potential in medical and mental health fields that intersect with human sexuality.
Sex surrogacy, also called surrogate partner therapy, can be a very important aspect of psychological healing for patients who have been affected by sexual traumas ranging from rape and abuse to medical conditions that affect sexual functioning. In surrogate therapy, a professional surrogate partner helps a patient become comfortable with physical intimacy by playing the role of an intimate or sexual partner for the patient, in a safe and controlled environment.
Right now, surrogate partners are humans who are qualified and specifically trained to help patients overcome mental traumas or issues related to physical intimacy. But could these human partners be replaced with robots over the coming decades? Some scientists believe so. At the very least, robotic sex surrogates could fill a missing step in the rehabilitation process for people with psychological traumas so severe that they are unable to handle the touch of a fellow human. For these patients, a humanoid robot might be provide a safe starting point, where they can simulate touching a human before moving on to the real thing.
Therapy robots already exist, though they don’t necessarily take human forms. PARO is a robot designed to look like a baby seal, complete with soft white fur. This robot plays the role of an animal companion in environments where actual living animals would pose logistical or hygienic issues, such as hospitals and extended care facilities. The robot can discern a gentle touch from an aggressive one, and learns to repeat behaviours that provoke positive reactions. PARO is also able to learn and respond to its own name and respond appropriately to environmental stimuli such as light, touch, sound and temperature. This robot is currently in use in numerous facilities in Japan and Europe, and has been shown to significantly reduce patient stress and improve interactions between patients and caregivers.
A similar robot has been developed in the United States by robotics experts at MIT. Ollie the baby otter is a therapy robot that functions in a similar manner to PARO, but is far cheaper to manufacture. A single PARO robot costs roughly USD $6,000 to manufacture, while Ollie’s cost is a fraction of that — about USD $500 per unit. MIT researchers are hoping that with a higher production volume, the manufacturing cost of an Ollie model might dip as low as USD $100 per unit.
If we use robots to treat sexual dysfunction in humans, what about those humans whose sexuality drives them to harm other members of society? Child-like sex dolls have been posited as a treatment option for offenders. Essentially, the dolls would be to pedophiles what methadone is to heroin addicts. The theory is that giving pedophiles non-sentient outlets for their urges will keep real children safe from harm — but some see these theorized robot children as rewarding or legitimizing the behaviour.
The success of therapy robots hinges on our own willingness to accept the help of artificial beings, rather than rallying against them. Many of us are uncomfortable around robots made to look especially human – for an example, check out artist Jordan Wolfson’s Female Figure which unnerved audiences in galleries and on YouTube. The reason for this is a psychological phenomenon called the uncanny valley.
An increasing amount of compiled evidence shows that our reactions to human facsimiles can be graphed as on a curve, with a significant valley at the point representing facsimile that are extremely close, but still slightly off from the real thing. This valley represents an increased incidence of negative reactions to the facsimile – namely, fear and anxiety.
In the uncanny valley, we are unsure how to categorize the facsimile because we can’t be certain if it’s human or not. It’s this same effect that makes dead bodies creepy to most people – we can’t get comfortable because our brains aren’t quite sure if the stimulus is a fellow human, or a potential threat.
This is partly why robots like Ollie and PARO are designed as an otter and a seal, respectively, rather than kittens. The majority of humans have been around cats and would immediately recognize real cat behaviours. Most of us haven’t spent much time up close and personal with otters, so the effect is not as strong.
Does this mean that those on the chrome-and-circuitry side of technosexuality will get their wish? Will we deliberately make our robotic partners more robot-like, to avoid the creep factor?
The Morality of AI
Thus we arrive at the moral quandary of creating intelligent machines specifically to fill roles and desires that we are unable to fulfill for ourselves. Though a little has been written on the subject of moral law when it comes to robot rights, the idea is still not entirely clear. If a robot is unable to feel pain or fear, do we possess strong enough morals to keep ourselves from exploiting a generation of androids as our slaves?
Kantian philosophy says that our actions dictate our morality. By this logic, if a machine eventually passes the Turing test and becomes indistinguishable from a human mind, we become tyrants if we attempt to predetermine its purpose for existence. It is worth noting that Kant wrote his treatises well before the prospect of intelligent machines. Should these theories be applied to such futuristic ideas?
The difference, as we presently understand it, lies in whether a robot is a true artificial intelligence, or whether it is simply programmed to emulate certain human emotions depending on the function it is designed for. Therapy robots, for example, are programmed to seem caring and empathetic in a way that is relatable to humans – however, if you wanted PARO to beat your friends at chess, the robot wouldn’t be of much use.
A true artificial intelligence, that which would be indistinguishable from a human in every way, would be just that – indistinguishable from a human. As humans, we are inherently flawed, emotional creatures – will we feel more comfortable with robots who are programmed not only to feel love, empathy and compassion, but to feel jealousy, apathy and anger? If this is the case, our relationship with robots might end up teaching us more about ourselves.
From a scientific standpoint, love is hardly a magical spell that occurs between star-crossed lovers. There are a number of recognized factors for humans that can trigger the emotions that we interpret as love. Things like proximity, need fulfillment, reciprocal liking and a sense of mystery could all be easily programmed into a robotic brain. It’s not a stretch to imagine a human falling in love with a computer that is programmed to display these traits.
Ray Kurzweil predicts that robots and computer programs will eventually be millions of times more intelligent than humans. There will be no way for us to continue advancing as a species unless we integrate ourselves with this technology. As mentioned earlier, this integration is a process that has already begun. Through the advent of social media we are opening ourselves up to a constant flow of information, and increasingly feel isolation when we shut off our phones and computers. The fast flow of information and innovation is already creating a need for us to be constantly plugged in. In this way, our own consciousness is changing.
Consciousness itself is already tricky to define. Physicist Michio Kaku defines consciousness in three different levels. The first level of consciousness is a simple awareness of one’s position in space and time. Creatures with the second level of consciousness, such as monkeys, have an awareness of themselves in space and time as well as a social consciousness in relation to their peers. We humans have level three consciousness, able to define ourselves in relation to both our current positions and our projected futures. This means we can make predictions, and plan ahead in time.
Part of our current understanding of consciousness is sentience. In Western philosophies, sentience is thought of as the ability to perceive experience subjectively, or to feel emotions in relation to environment and other external stimulus. Sentience exists separately from rational thought processes.
Some Eastern philosophies have a different idea about sentience. In Tibetan and Japanese Buddhism, all beings, including plants and even inanimate objects that have been imbued with spiritual significance, are considered sentient beings. In Buddhism, sentience is a quality that is attained by all non-enlightened beings with consciousness. By this logic, a robot with the ability to beat us at chess, or to care for ailing patients, robots that have become so culturally important to us, might, in some interpretations, be considered sentient.
Given all this information, it seems almost easy to think of a highly advanced computer program as having at least some level of consciousness. Though it may not be the same “awareness” that humans perceive, a robot is constantly aware of and reacting to its environment, performing commands based on external stimuli. Maybe we don’t so much need a test to determine if a robot is intelligent, but rather, a test that determines if a robot is sentient.
Perhaps one day we will have robots that are sophisticated enough to become our social equals – but it seems unlikely that those robots will be the same androids that we currently picture in our fantasies and nightmares. Humanity itself has a lot of growing to do before we can hope to have all the answers on artificial intelligence. If Kurzweil’s predictions ring true, however, many of us should be gearing up to see these changes happen within our lifetimes.
This book is 800 pages long and still manages to have an abrupt ending.
I don’t know that I’ve ever read a sci-fi novel with such strong character development. If you want to nitpick, you could remind me that this isn’t technically science fiction, but magical realism. Whatever – it was in the science fiction section of the bookstore.
This is a really talk-y novel, but in a good way – I know I said that Honor of the Queen was talky, but it’s a palpably different kind of talky. Samuel Delaney’s Dhalgren unearths your deepest thoughts and opinions on all aspects of humanity, putting them on a pedestal or crushing them.
I don’t know where to start with this novel. Definitively post-modern, its plot isn’t so much an arc as a straight line. Every moment is equally weighted.
So, I’ll try to explain. The novel is set in Bellona, a made-up city somewhere in the continental United States. It’s also the location of a recent but unspecified disaster of near apocalyptic proportions. This event has destroyed not only large parts of the city’s infrastructure, but its entire socioeconomic hierarchy as well.
Basically, Bellona is an anarchist’s paradise. Money and property have virtually no meaning or utility, there’s no organized justice system, no jobs, no schools. You get the idea.
Depending on who you are, this is either a dream come-true, or an absolute nightmare.
(I’m still on the nightmare side, though this has more to do with my own personality than the novel’s actual portrayal of the circumstances.)
Bellona is occupied, it seems, by drifters with nothing else to do and nowhere else to go, plus a few stragglers who didn’t immediately leave when the city was demolished. Many of the drifters have taken to travelling in roving gangs, calling themselves “Scorpions” and going by individual nicknames.
The novel follows one of the aforementioned drifters named the Kid, who is so called because he can’t remember his real name, but has a pretty intense baby face – everyone thinks he’s 17 when in reality he’s at least a decade older (though anyone’s age in Bellona is a point of some contention.) Kid hitchhikes his way to Bellona, presumably out of curiosity and a lack of anything better to do.
The citizens of Bellona are extremely easygoing and open, not only from a social standpoint but from a sexual one as well. Beginning the moment he arrives in Bellona, the Kid falls into a number sexual relationships, whether temporary or ongoing.
He falls in with the Scorpions, who, in spite of being feared by the non-Scorpion residents, are instead a loose group of people who live together and function as a sort of “gang” out of necessity. They have no one and nothing else, and take on a pack mentality, living in dens, and appointing unofficial “leaders” not by diplomatic vote, but through unconscious, animalistic shows of dominance and submission.
The Kid’s bisexuality is introduced circumstantially. His first encounter with another man happens early in the novel and doesn’t seem entirely consensual. At the time, I was unsure if I felt it was because Kid isn’t into men, or if he just wasn’t into that man and that circumstance in particular. Kid doesn’t openly discuss his own sexuality until about a third of the way into the novel, and even at that point there’s no definitive “label.” He just notes that his encounters have always oscillated between genders. I enjoyed, and I think a lot of readers will enjoy a character who could be labelled bisexual, but is never actually defined.
Dhalgren’s plot has no arc because it’s not so much a story as a case study, a hypothesis for a social experiment. Bellona is not only a fictional place, but a fictional circumstance, wherein all the arbitrary social laws and dances that we’ve built up are torn down, and humans are allowed to interact with each other as they might, without considerations for class, race, compatibility, relationship structure, or any number of other apparently false restrictions.
The result is interesting and sort of heartening. Dhalgren is definitely an exploration of a spectrum of human sexuality, not only in terms of orientation, but in terms of how much our desires are dictated and repressed by societal rules, and by that measure, the wide range of formerly deviant activities that become normal once you remove constructed stigma.
Kid almost immediately falls into a relationship with a woman, Layna. Circumstance adds a third – Denny. Despite vastly different pre-Bellona backgrounds and a wide age gap (Denny is only 15), for the rest of the novel the three are the sweetest and most ideal example of a poly triad that I’ve ever come across in any media. It was lovely.
Again, the three never strictly define themselves as anything, though there’s no strict denial of a structured relationship, either.
An aside – apparently at some point or region in the 70’s, “balling” was slang for having sex. At some point in the novel, about halfway through, Delaney starts using this word almost every time sex is mentioned by anyone in any context.
I, as a millennial, had previously ONLY heard this word as a slang term for being, basically, “cool” (wealthy, talented, lucky, well-dressed, whatever constitutes coolness) i.e. wish I was a little bit taller/wish I was a baller, etc.
This lack of context made the term jarring at first, and slightly annoying thereafter. I still don’t like it as a term. It seems kind of silly. I mean, I can see the connection, obviously balls are frequently involved in sex, but it’s clear to me why this didn’t catch on.
If someone asked me what Dhalgren was about, I’d say: human interaction, and writing. While in the city, the Kid is struck by a sudden compulsion to write poetry and by virtue of community isolation and being basically the only actual writer in the city, his book of poetry published. There are many passages that seem to come directly from the psyche of the author, meditating on the price of having your writing recognized, the reasons one writes, the constant balancing act between begrudging compulsion and actual enjoyment of the craft. As a writer myself, I was surprised that these all managed to be interesting and insightful, and only once or twice, for a brief moment, did they feel overly masturbatory.
Especially important are the moments in which Kid realizes that perhaps people are being dishonestly “nice” with their opinions on his writing. He asks for honesty, but is hurt by the response. It’s a very telling struggle between blissful ignorance and the knowledge we’re led to believe we actually want.
The last 100 (200?) pages of the novel devolve into a simulacra of a “found journal,” with different trains of thought overlapping in different fonts on the same page. In order to read each page fully, the story itself became necessarily fragmented. I found these extremely annoying to read, which I take to mean they were extremely effective.
I won’t say how it ends partly because I don’t want to give it away and partly because I still don’t really know how it ended. It’s as if Delaney was working with a set number of pages and he ran out before he was able to tie things up.
The ending of Dhalgren left me gasping and certain that I would have to read it again.
The second installment in the Honor Harrington series really gets down to business in addressing some of the issues that were raised by the first novel, such as “holy shit, a female main character!?” and also “holy shit, a female space battleship captain!?”
I’ll freely admit that even if I hadn’t already read – and thoroughly enjoyed – the first Honor Harrington book I probably would have picked this one up based on the ridiculousness of the cover illustration and summary alone. Look, we put covers on books so that we have something by which to judge them. Not everyone has the time to read a whole chapter of something they might hate.
Look at that fucking cover! That scene doesn’t happen anywhere in the book, to my recollection, but unlike the cover of the first book, which actively annoyed me, this one is irresistibly over-the-top. You know what you’re getting into with this cover. That is a woman who can comfortably ride in a flying convertible, standing up, with a huge cat perched on her shoulders, while the dude driving doesn’t even question it. That woman is a stone cold bad-ass.
The Honor of The Queen lays down some feminist anger with hands heavier than Mjolnir, to start. Things pick up right where they left off on Basilisk Station. The inevitable war between the Republic of Haven, and Honor’s Kingdom of Manticore is still encroaching and Manticore is trying to gather strategic allies before shit blows up in their collective faces. Enter the planet Grayson, which boasts a strategic location and potential motive for allying with Manticore – as well as an incredibly hostile surface environment, stunted technological development, and some deeply ingrained fundamentalist Christian views on women’s rights.
For some reason Manticore decides that a diplomatic mission will make for a great opportunity to shove their social advancements down the throats of the Grayson dignitaries, and sends Honor to head the excursion.
While the women on Grayson are treated reasonably well (for pets), they’re not really allowed to work, go to school or own property. Seeing Honor and her female officers in uniform and ordering dudes around is just too much for the men of Grayson. Sexism ensues. Comments are made about Honor being on the rag. The hand is so, so heavy.
We soon find out, though, that the original colonists of the Grayson planet were split into two sects. The current citizens of Grayson are the descendants of the more moderate of the two, while the remaining extremist division escaped to a nearby planet called Masada. David Weber lays down a few really solid passages that not only serve to explain the differences, but also to give the reader an opportunity to change their minds about the Grayson people. The admirals of the two navies meet, and the Grayson commander repents, admitting that Honor’s captaining is on-point and there isn’t a legitimate argument to be made against her abilities or position. However, he notes that his culture’s views on women are so deeply ingrained that it will take many decades to make a dent in changing them.
I like the way Weber pulls this off. He made me sympathize with a character I was prepared to hate, and he did so without relying on a comparison to a greater evil (despite having one in the chamber.) So I give kudos for that.
Political stuff happens. This is a very talk-y novel. I’m not sure I appreciated that aspect of it, beyond what I just talked about. Anyhow, midway through, Honor and her treecat nearly single-handedly thwart an assassination attempt by some Masadan thugs. This makes a huge impression on the Grayson people, and suddenly a lot more of them are on board with the idea of a female naval officer. During the scuffle, our hero takes a rifle butt to the head and loses vision and muscle control on one side of her face.
That’s right, Honor Harrington has an eyepatch, now and presumably for the rest of the series. Because she wasn’t hard enough. Damn, Weber! You’re really taking no prisoners with this one.
Unlike the Masadans, who take a whole bunch of Maticoran P.O.W.s and, obviously, because this novel has feminist undertones, rape them half to death. Honor barely restrains herself from justifiable homicide, and from then on it’s a Grayson/Manticore versus Masada death-match.
I won’t talk too much about the web of lies that Masada weaves throughout the novel, partly because it would be spoilers and mostly because I found it hard to follow. Honestly that’s my biggest issue with this book. It’s fucking hard to follow. It’s densely tactical and political, and while I don’t tend to write off a book on that basis alone, I found that it really dragged in places because it spent so much time setting up and explaining strategic maneuvers.
If you’re expecting an intense feminist shit-kicking bonanza, well, you pretty much get it – just, diluted with a lot of men talking about how big their ships are. It’s the novel equivalent of a cocktail with way too much ice.
I also just need to point out that Weber knows all the rules for writing a book that feminists will like, and he likes to fucking flaunt it. At the very start of the book we’re treated to a scene in which Honor’s mom does the mom thing and pesters her about getting a boyfriend, pointing out which of her crew members are the hottest and generally being perfectly and wonderfully inappropriate.
And it never pays off. There is not a single moment of sexual tension in this novel. No one gives a shit. Ships get blown to particles in the vacuum of space and there’s not a single “we’re about to get fucked, kiss me now!” So I have to congratulate Weber on that because honestly, with such a potentially campy premise I myself probably would have wedged in at least one awkward sex scene.
I just finished reading David Marusek’s Counting Heads. This was another thrift store find so I had no expectations going in – aside from wondering how far off the many glowing reviews printed on the book’s covers would be.
Not too far off, as it turned out, though a little exaggerated. Printed in 2005, this is the most recent book I’ve had a chance to read in quite a while. On that note, if there isn’t already a distinct genre for “post-Internet sci-fi,” I think that needs to be made official. Like I said, I read this following a bunch of books from the 70’s and 80’s and the difference is palpable.
In terms of speculative tech and world-building this novel is great. It presents technological advancements with total elegance. Incredible innovations are explained and integrated into the story so well that they seem totally plausible.
There’s no exposition for function or usage. We learn enough about this stuff by seeing characters use it, so in many cases, the extent of its function is left up to the reader.
So that’s fine. Lets’ get to the plot. There are a lot of moving parts in this story. At times it seemed to me like Marusek had bitten off more than he could chew. He treats every event with near equal importance, which is nice, but it also makes it difficult to parse what I should be paying attention to.
The first part of the book, as the author states, is a short novella called We Were Out of Our Minds with Joy, written before the rest of the body of the novel. It’s unfortunately obvious that part one of the novel was written separately. The novella focuses on the relationship between Sam Harger and Eleanor Starke, two “affs” – as you can probably guess, members of the upper class.
In Sam and Eleanor’s world, medicine has advanced to a point where humans are basically immortal so long as they continue to receive expensive regular treatments that stop or reverse the aging process for a limited time. As we later find out, you can even reverse puberty with these treatments, leading to a whole new subculture of people called “retroboys” or “retrogirls.” Yeah! You can bet that gets all kinds of creepy. Luckily (or disappointingly?) we don’t get to see much of that side of society.
As the novel begins, Sam and Eleanor are both over 100 years old but physically appear to be in their late 20’s to mid 30’s. Sam, the Main Character, is a packaging designer who was a successful and well-known artist in the 20th century. As an art school graduate myself, I got a little excited about this – it seems like art hardly ever gets discussed in science fiction. All the effort of world building gets thrown at weapons, medicine and communications technology, while leisure is always presented as a dirty, hedonistic game for the wealthy.
I get the sense that Marusek has some art education as his forays into art description, however brief, seem era accurate and knowing. There’s also some very interesting descriptions of innovations in art materials later in the novel. It never comes into play in any particularly important sense, but it’s cool.
That aside, as I read the first couple chapters of the novel I was yelling. David, my man, I said to myself, you’ve created such a wonderful world and you’re going to show it to us through the eyes of a pair of old, boring WASPs?
I couldn’t fully get behind the first part of the novel, pretty much for that reason alone. I know, I’m shallow. But like… 2005. Truly, the first few chapters follow Sam and Eleanor along a whirlwind courtship made possible by their medical immortality, stunning good looks, ability to be anywhere in the world at the press of a button, and seemingly endless bank accounts. Yawn.
Fear not, it does get better. Now don’t get mad, but I liked that the novel treated the class divide as, well, normal. It’s not the product of actual malice on the part of the more affluent citizens. The affs are not evil, they’re just people living their endless, leisurely lives, oblivious to the plight of the lower classes. You know, just like today.
The middle class is largely made up of clones in a variety of types, each of which is named after the original human gene donor. This can be confusing at first – the main clone characters are a Russ named Fred and his wife, an Evangeline named Mary. Once I figured it out, I found it was a really interesting and honestly believable convention. Another point for Marusek’s techsplaining skills.
The main plot of the story doesn’t really pick up until the latter half. At the end of the novella Sam and Eleanor are awarded a license to have a child (there’s another one if you’re playing sci-fi trope bingo at home.) Neither has, up until this point, expressed a desire for a child, plus it’s explicitly noted that a child will seriously fuck up both of their careers and general life plans, but they decide to have that baby because as soon as she’s presented with the option Eleanor goes insane with maternal instinct and Sam… imagines Eleanor pregnant and immediately gets a boner.
Anyway, having a child just involves pasting your DNA onto a fetus that’s been stored in suspended animation, adorably referred to as a chassis. Very cute. Love it.
While the child is being grown, Sam gets wrongly accused of being a terrorist and he’s “seared,” a process that basically results in all of his cells becoming tiny explosive charges. Whenever a cell dies or becomes separated from his body, it bursts into flames. Yes, fire-retardant condoms are a thing in this universe.
The seared are identified as a major marginalized group that has become mostly known for protesting their mistreatment by committing suicide in public areas, calculating their deaths to do as much property damage as possible. This is a somewhat effective technique and by the time the story switches back to following Sam, he’s pretty much the last seared individual left alive as the process was deemed inhumane and stopped some years after his incident.
There are certain loose ends in this novel that don’t seem to get tied up. In fact, one might argue that the entire book is one long loose end that was precariously tacked on to a perfectly okay postmodern sci-fi novella. I’m having trouble writing about this because a bunch of the plot moments that I’d like to get into require an explanation of another plot moment that I can’t rightly outline without getting into a further plot moment and it’s all just, well, you had to be there.
Sam and Eleanor’s lives intertwine with numerous others, all of which are explored in detail. Eleanor’s high-up coworkers become involved in unexpected ways. The story has quite admirable nuance.
This is both a pro and a con, I suppose. While it seems like three separate stories are being told, they are so seamlessly integrated that you can’t really have one without the other. Maybe I’m looking at this all wrong. Maybe the point of Marusek’s writing is not to have a neat ending, but rather to look at the infinite tiny connections between people, living and dead, clone and human, aff and seared.
Which is a big improvement from “two old rich white people get married and have a kid.”
The one thing I’m going to nitpick is that there doesn’t seem to be any indication of progress in social roles. The accepted gender identities, sexual orientations and relationship structures in Marusek’s future apparently never progressed past the 60’s. Everyone seems pretty cis and hetero. I may regret this, but I have to say, even Friday did a better job on this front. There is the barest hint that triad marriages might be a regular thing in the epilogue, but other than that we get nothing.
I’m not saying this is a prerequisite for good sci-fi but I feel like it’s a legitimately interesting avenue of exploration that goes alongside the tech in creating a fully realized future, and it’s a shame when it gets ignored.
So, there’s that. I wouldn’t let it stop you, though. If you can get into this book, it’s really quite interesting, and I’d still say totally worth it for the imaginative speculation.
Before I start this review I feel the need to preface, given that it’s my first review of a Black Library novel on this blog. All future 40K-related posts will link back to this one.
Anyone who has even a passing knowledge of 40K knows that most of the 40K universe is utter bullshit, which isn’t entirely surprising seeing as it is, at its heart, just a futuristic reskin of regular Warhammer, which is, like the vast majority of popular fantasy tabletop franchises, made for cishet white boys.
So, why do I give 40K any of my time considering the overarching tone of this blog (which, for those keeping score is “almost all male science fiction writers suck”)? To be honest, I can’t explain it. I guess it’s something of a guilty pleasure. It appeals to my nihilism, and I find it fascinating to speculate that humanity is destined to simultaneously advance and regress so completely that we end up reliving our own shitty history over and over again, each time on a different planet.
But it’s not even a guilty pleasure because it is such a pleasure to hate on it, even in spite of that seed of genuine enjoyment of the subject matter. It’s because of 40K’s utter disregard for any sort of social progress, its complete and shameless embrace of the sweaty, women-hating, nice-guy with hentai posters on his bedroom wall that we probably all picture when we hear the words “Games Workshop.”
So I ask you to take it on faith that I am fully aware of how incredibly problematic and stupid the 40K universe is when I say I’m a huge fan of it.
On to the novel, then! Descent of Angels is the sixth book in the Horus Heresy series, and Mitchel Scanlon’s first contribution. It’s also the first HH novel that doesn’t throw the reader into battle with an Astartes legion right off the bat. Descent of Angels is interesting because it’s the first Black Library novel that I’ve read that follows a recruited space marine from birth, starting from before he had any knowledge of the Emperor or the primarchs.
As the novel opens we meet Zahariel, a young boy living on the planet Caliban. Caliban has been inhabited by humans for the past 5000 years and has evolved a stoic patriarchal culture that views success through knightly combat as the highest honor one can achieve. As you can see, it’s super original, right from the start.
The entire planet of Caliban is overrun with “beasts” – huge, man-eating chimeras that come in a variety of flavours and are the main source of conflict for the world’s many schools and orders of knights.
Early on, we’re informed that, a number of years before Descent’s plot takes place, a lone man was found wandering in the beast-infested woods of the planet, and by virtue of not being dead, was instantly knighted and became a legendary figure known across the planet. The man was given the name Lion El’Jonson which means “the lion, the son of the forest” and is also one of the dumbest sci-fi barbarian names I have ever heard. By physical description, Jonson is basically Arnold Schwarzenegger as Conan.
Jonson starts a campaign to exterminate all the beasts on the planet, convincing everyone that Caliban is the rightful possession of the human colonists, because this is Warhammer “Fuck All Cultures Except for Ours” 40K.
This is all going on while our boy Zahariel becomes a man. He gets to join the Lion on his crusade and manages to kill one of the beasts single-handedly, a feat which earns him an instant promotion to knighthood.
By this point, I was feeling encouraged – the novel had raised a few interesting, if heavy-handed points, and I thought maybe Mitchel Scanlon was going to take more of an introspective approach to the Heresy. There had been implications of tapping into the warp for the power of good, mentions of Zahariel meddling in forces he didn’t understand, and an argument speculating that removing an external source of conflict (the beasts) would cause humans to turn on each other. I thought maybe I was going to get to see some genuine internal conflict or some critique of humanity’s xenophobic politics within the fiction. Was I going to get a glimpse of what a self-aware 40K could look like?
Shame on me for getting my hopes up. Scanlon posits his debate topics then buries them again like a nervous fox. The Lion’s campaign is a success and the beasts are vanquished, but before anyone has time to study the aftermath, a spacefaring deus ex machina full of Astartes drops on Caliban and starts preparing the planet for assimilation into the Imperium.
Obviously all the young knights want a piece of that action, because the Astartes are the biggest, shiniest phalluses they’ve ever seen and this is Games “we think the crusades were awesome because we’re a bunch of white dudes” Workshop.
As it predictably turns out, Lion El’Jonson is a primarch and Zahariel and friends are recruited and turned into space marines of the Dark Angels legion. They go on to have adventures and not learn from their mistakes ever at all, because boys will be boys and the Emperor knows best. Little did I know that Mitchel Scanlon wasn’t finished cockblocking readers who were looking for a bit more provocation.
The Dark Angels get stationed on a planet called Sarosh, with orders to take over for the White Scars legion. The White Scars have, for the past year, been trying to penetrate the planet’s convoluted bureaucratic system to make the Saroshi people “compliant.”
Sarosh is portrayed as a peaceful if slightly slow-paced utopia, so naturally the Dark Angels are super annoyed to be there because they won’t be allowed to shoot guns and fuck shit up in the Emperor’s name. I got my hopes up again and thought that Scanlon had been saving his Big Subversive Message for later in the novel, when the stakes were higher.
But no. The Saroshi try to blow up the Dark Angels’ ship because, twist ending, this isn’t just a confusing but benign foreign bureaucracy – it’s a terrorist organization and a cult. Everyone knows that if you aren’t willing to conform to the Imperium’s will it means that you are literally Satan.
Oh, and it’s bad. The Dark Angels discover that the Saroshi people are not actually human but rather non-Euclidian nightmare creatures disguised as humans who worship some sort of shapeless Lovecraftian blob thing, sacrificing millions of their own kin to its insatiable hunger.
Okay. I will say: the book has a cool ending, and readers who are reading it because they love 40K in all its stupid, ridiculous glory will love it. It’s action-packed and bombastic and dripping with gory chainsword porn.
Descent is a unique story in terms of the Horus Heresy novels, and I appreciated where it came from. As with most Black Library books, I can’t know exactly how much blame to lay on the author himself, and how much to lay on the publishers behind Warhammer “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” 40K.
Now, obviously I don’t think that Black Library authors need to be inserting tidbits of philosophy into every other paragraph because these are supposed to be action/adventure books and people are reading them for the alien-slaying, not the abyss-gazing. That said, the moral lessons in this novel seem so obvious that the fact that they are not explored at all makes the story feel disjointed. It’s like Mitchel Scanlon had some kind of shock collar on while he was writing it, and got jolted every time he even hinted at a critique of the deeply fucked up machinations of the 40K universe.
I understand that these novels are simply fleshing out a world that already exists with a fully-realized time frame of certain events, so there are things that you can’t actually change as an author coming in post-creation. But the world is also so massive that it’s pretty easy to tell sweeping, complex, even progressive stories without affecting the overall canon in the slightest.
Can you imagine how interesting it would be to have one Astartes legion realize what a dick move it is to force an apparently peaceful and civilized planet to arbitrarily conform to your system of government and religion? I know the space marines are clones bred for one purpose (war), but I consistently see Black Library authors trying to paint them as complex individuals with their own thoughts, desires and opinions, so I don’t think it would be such a stretch to have one of them go off the rails a little bit, have some sort of identity crisis.
Show me a 40K novel featuring a non-Imperial religion that doesn’t involve ritual sacrifice or demonic possession, that isn’t actually a malignant force. Show me humanity seeing an alien culture and going “you know what? This is actually better.” Show me the challenge and upheaval that comes with trying to impose your law and religion while still feeling empathy.
Or so help me God-Emperor, I will write it myself.