Empress of Forever by Max Gladstone – Book

Empress of Forever by Max Gladstone – Book

A space opera of world building, world destroying, planet eaters, strange goddesses who stride across space, like the Suicide Sisters, and a “ragtag” group, united by a mission – Empress of Forever by Max Gladstone is a mashup of Star Wars and a complex video game, all brought to life with words rather than actual graphics.

Viv knows only Earth. She is a businesswoman. She has not been truly ruthless, but she has been heedless of other’s feelings as she climbed her way to the top of the business world. Just as she is in an enormous server room about to finish uploading a program which could give her dominion over her world, the Empress of Forever, very green and powerful in ways Viv has never even imagined reaches in and grabs ahold of Viv’s heart and zaps her into a place in space called High Cacereal. How is Viv still alive? How will Viv get home? How will she get back to Magda to make sure she is safe? How will she find out what happened when she sent out her virus before it was completely loaded?

Well the answers to those questions will not be quick in coming. Viv first saves the Empress’s enemy Zanj, a feisty space pirate who has been imprisoned for 3,000 years, one of the once-famous Suicide Sisters. Zanj, never one to sit still can use the Cloud to travel through space. The first of the group hunting the Empress that Zanj and Viv meet is the loveable Hong, a monk with lots of courage and common sense. Then Xiara of the piloting Ornclan is added, and Gray of the Grayframes. Of course our band of Empress-haters must travel to every corner of Max Gladstone’s  and Zanj’s world to see the damage the Empress has wrought.

Since Viv arrives in this world from the world of business she brings with her the wisdom success in business has taught her. This blend of How-to-Succeed-in-Business book lore, self-help psychological teachings, warcraft, and science fiction is kind of dazzling. How do people think up this stuff? It’s Linked in, Instagram, and World of Warcraft all rolled into one.

Despite this odd marriage of disciplines, Max brings his fantasy-built world richly alive for us. The novel is fun to read and as Viv learns the lesson that would have sealed her success as a businesswoman or made winning irrelevant, so do we. There is no I in team, but having the support of a truly connected team allows you to realize the very best version of yourself. Empress of Forever introduced me to a whole other kind of fantasy/science fiction novel for the computer age, perhaps intended for younger readers. Still, I found it fascinating to see how the genre is being transformed, and I made some new fictional friends.

Anathem by Neal Stephenson – Book

Although I have enjoyed Neal Stephenson’s books in the past I had a little trouble finding the best way to read Anathem. First of all, it uses the word “maths” a lot, and math is not my strong suit, although in the end no deep knowledge of math was required. Since Stephenson is building a world, the planet Arbre, the learning curve is a bit steep in the beginning. The characters have names that are almost familiar, but just a bit off. Main characters are Erasmus, Lio, Arsibalt, Jesry, Tulia, Ala, Orolo, (and many, many others).

So first I tried Audible, but I learned that listening to books puts me to sleep, which tends to destroy the continuity. I bought the paperback so I could read along but the print was just too small. Finally I reserved a hardcover copy from the library and that had another disadvantage. Once I started reading the hardcover edition I could not put this book down.

The book’s title, Anathem– a mash-up of anthem and anathema –  is a perfect example of the way Stephenson plays with our reality to make his invented world seem close enough to what we know in our own world that we can catch on to life in the Concent of Saunt Edhar fairly quickly. By the time we get to sample what is going outside the walls of the concent we are easily able to adjust.

Our characters are on the same clock-winding team. Since the Third Sack praxis (technology) is outlawed in the concent so mechanics are handled in old school ways. This giant clock at the center of concent life is connected to the observatory on the roof and must be wound with ceremony every day. Bells and weights all play important roles in the clock ceremony and in the community. The similarity to a combined monastery and convent helps us realize that our minds already have a schema for this world.

We spend a long time getting acquainted with the world of the concent and the maths that are scattered around the planet. We learn that these communities are not about religion though; they are about philosophy, geometry, history, astronomy, and physics. We also learn that the concents are surrounded by secular cultures lead by the Sæculua and that the concents open their gates at intervals and these separate populations visit each other. Erasmus, first among main characters has a cousin, Cord, who lives in town.

Just as we get familiar with these two adjacent cultures we learn through Raz’s “Fraa” (concent brother) – Orolo that something is going on with the Sun, something the members of the maths are not supposed to know about. But Erasmus is young and worried when Orolo is expelled from the Concent and he takes an enormous risk to find out what’s going on.

Worlds within worlds is a theme in Anathem. The concents share a design and ceremonies and titles. They all wear the bolt and chord and carry the sphere. Outside the concents where the people known as slines live differences vary by geography.

Eramus and his clock-winder group, in response to the emergency connected to what is going on with the Sun, get sent out of their concent to another, much larger concent for a Convox (a working conference). This does not go smoothly for Eramus who gets sent on a side mission by a Thousander prior to arriving at the Convox.

Eventually we see that Stephenson is headed to sucking us into a theory that says that there is more than one cosmos – there are cosmi. We also see that he is a unifier rather than a divider. Tag along with our heroes and see where this takes you and learn a whole new vocabulary along the way. (If you know your Latin roots you’ll have few difficulties.)

Neal Stephenson can transport me into one of his elaborate creations anytime and Anathem was no exception. The only problem is that landing back in my own reality requires an airlock (metaphorically of course).

Exit Strategy: Book 4: Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells – Book

Exit Strategy is Book 4 in The Murderbot Diaries Series by Martha Wells and it is the last book in the series. You’re probably getting pretty sick of hearing the term murderbot by now (although there is something horrifyingly titillating about the idea) and our own murderbot has changed his look so much that he is now actually more of a Sec/Unit (Security Unit). In the world of The Murderbot Diaries, murderbots are frightening bots, taller than humans, half constructed of organics and half non-organics, wearing armor and helmets that they can darken to hide behind. They have, we guess by reading between the lines, a reputation for being almost unbeatable, although it sounds as if combatbots can take them down. Why would people create murderbots to begin with? When you read about some of the illegal things corporations get up to in The Murderbot Diaries you can see that they might need to assassinate people who know their secret evil deeds. This is what a murderbot is, essentially, an assassin, although murderbots can also be used for protection from a universe that is still full of unknown alien things.

Our Murderbot becomes what is essentially a detective, hunting down clues to solve two mysteries at once. One mystery is to unravel whether he/it did actually go off the rails and murder a whole group of miners and their security forces (bots). The other mystery is to find out why GrayCris is filing lawsuits against the very person (Dr. Mensah) who should be filing charges against GrayCris. The corporation covers its tracks and destroys negative evidence or kills anyone who could testify. The only untethered witness snoping into their affairs is Murderbot. GrayCris wants Murderbot murdered. They really want this badly. They have lots of connections and humans don’t realize how bad the corporation is. Murderbot has only the allies he meets on his travels and he is almost reduced to parts many times as he investigates.

Murderbot has also been meeting humans who are not rapacious, greedy crooks. He  works for a few groups of humans he encounters at the various transport hubs he hitches rides to. He favors transports that have bot pilots and are on runs that are empty of humans, but as soon as he gets off a transport (with his disguised appearance – yes apparently a bot can adopt a disguise) he keeps meeting these vulnerable humans who need security but who could never afford it. He’s susceptible to honest, but naïve humans and so he helps them. It has the beneficial side effect of allowing our bot to acquire currency cards. Bots don’t get paid. They do not have money. Money is always helpful to anyone, especially to a detective though.

As Murderbot disguises itself so the corporation and HubSystem cannot find it, interestingly, its appearance gets more and more human, less and less like a murderbot. A murderbot is so distinctive it could never sneak around the universe. ART on the deep space university research transport helps Murderbot make its arms and legs two inches shorter. Murderbot stops wearing the helmet and the armor. He grows his hair. He allows his mentor to instruct the med unit (a machine) to place small hairs on his “skin”, the organic parts of him. He keeps the gun ports in his arms but organic flaps cover them most of the time. He grows out his hair. He wears human clothing. And he has the ability to hack security systems so that his presence is erased. He can also hide his weaponry from security scans.

In Exit Strategy  Murderbot must get Dr. Mensah away from the clutches of GrayCris who will do anything to stop her from escaping, as she happens to be on a transport hub that is home to their corporate offices. They are even more avid to capture her now that Murderbot is back and she seems to have evidence of what they have been up to. We can guess what fate will await each of them if caught. Murderbot also has to decide how much human contact he wants and what he wants to do next. If they make it. It is an action-packed wrap up. Later, Murderbot (perhaps).

Photo Credit: From a Google Image Search – Fiction Unbound

Rogue Protocol: Book 3: Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells – Book

Rogue Protocol: Book 3: Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells continues the adventures of our rogue Murderbot. This is a very strange Murderbot and, as a reader, questions begin to arise. Are all murderbots unhappy with their assignment as killing machines? Do all murderbots feel guilt and have as many self-conscious thoughts as our Murderbot? Could all murderbots override their governor modules and go rogue? If so why aren’t there rogue murderbots all over the place? Did a vague memory of a mass killing that ghosts around in the wiped memory of our bot trigger it to get control of its governor module? Is our bot especially intelligent (it has a very healthy ego), or is that all learned behavior since it now controls its own memory. When we first met Murderbot all it wanted was to be left alone to watch the humans shows and series that it had downloaded. As it gets deeply embroiled in the problems real humans are having, that seem to center around one particular ruthless corporation, it has less and less time to be alone or to devote time to its entertainment feed. Is it that addiction to the entertainment feed that has increased our bot’s self-awareness, hacking talents, and problem-solving abilities?

We humans have spent lots of time thinking deep thoughts about artificial intelligence and how we will interact with robots. There are classic science fiction books about possible glitches in interfaces between humans and machines that look like humans. Isaac Asimov’s book I, Robot gave us three classic rules for robot behavior.

Isaac Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics”

  • robotmay not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  • robotmust obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  • robotmust protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Part of the fun of the Murderbot Diaries is that here is an autonomous (although fictional) robot that gives us access to its thoughts and feelings. It’s an interesting twist because we are usually exploring what we think about interacting with robots rather than what robots might think about interacting with us.

Our bot took the name Eden for a while, but at the end of the duties it took on in Book 2, after it went to see the scene of the nearly wiped mass murder in the Ganaka Pit (a mining operation) it had to avoid pursuit and rename itself. It decided to call itself Rin. When Murderbot checks through news feeds to see if he is being hunted, he learns that his new “owner”, Dr. Mensah, is having trouble with that same ruthless corporation they have run into before, a corporation that will kill to get what it wants, and kill to keep the illegal things it is doing a secret. Dr. Mensah could have been a victim of this corporation without the skills of Murderbot, but now GrayCris (the bad guys) are trying to blame everything on her and are taking her to court. Eden/Rin’s first thought is to gather some evidence that she can use to get the corporation to leave her alone. He hears about a terraforming operation at Milu which failed. The domes were supposed to fall back into the planet as they normally would, but they were purchased at the last minute by another corporation.

Since GrayCris was the company that built the terraforming domes and left so abruptly Murderbot thought that the company might have been up to something illegal once again. If he could get evidence and if he could get it to Dr. Mensah it might end her legal difficulties and allow her to go home to her peaceful community where security was unnecessary. Of course she can’t stay in her home forever since she is a research scientist, but most people do all kinds of things on other moons or planets without running afoul of a company bent on criminal activity. Murderbot is used to needing distance and a certain disconnection in order to feel comfortable around humans. Some things he experiences in Martha Wells book Rogue Protocol might help him begin to understand how a bot and a human can be friends. Murderbot Diaries are fun and easy to read, difficult to put down and  they feel like a ride on a really fast space transport.

Photo Credit: From a Google Image Search – Fiction Unbound

Artificial Condition: Book 2: Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells – Book

In Book 2 of The Murderbot Diaries(Artificial Condition) our reluctant Murderbot leaves the new friends he made in his last assignment, the leader of PreservationAux, Dr. Mensah and her colleagues. Dr. Mensah has just purchased him so he will not have to accept any more company assignments. Although Murderbot really likes and respects Dr. Mensah, he sees this as just another owner who wants to exercise control over his life. He has hacked his governor module. He has turned himself into a free (rogue) construct (an organic and non-organic entity). He is the bot who has been learning how to keep HubSystems from finding him by hacking into security systems and erasing himself. He cannot see a way that he can tolerate a bucolic life among humans. He is terribly uncomfortable around humans, who are usually equally uncomfortable around murderbots. He let these particular humans see his organic face and they now see him as almost human and they want to protect his right to autonomy, even though very few humans seem to even have a true right to autonomy in this world built by the author, Martha Wells.

Why does Murderbot dress up in human clothing, take off his armor and his helmet and run away from PreservationAux? At first it just seems to be panic about feelings for humans that are not a part of his programming. Murderbot looks for transports that are just being ferried around by bots. He offers to share the 35,000 entertainment feeds he has downloaded with the pilot bots and these bored bots usually go for it. But it turns out that Murderbot is also carrying around a mystery. Was he or was he not responsible for killing multiple innocent humans in a mining incident? Is he too tainted to be around humans? Will he be driven to commit more murders, especially now that he is a “rogue” murderbot? He has research to do and documents won’t provide the answers because someone has erased the incident from the records.

He makes a new friend when he hitches a ride on a university’s deep space research transport that is empty of humans right now and being shuttled by a very classy bot. Of course, Murderbot loves to act all cynical and constantly, but only internally, offers satirical observations on the bot he calls “ART”. “ART” uses the university’s medical lab to make certain adjustments in Murderbot so that it won’t be instantly recognizable by its physical configuration. When Murderbot, now known as Eden, reluctantly accepts a new mission from people so clueless that they will be killed if he doesn’t help, he also ends up getting to find out more about the incident in the Ganaka Mine Pit.

 Artificial Condition by Martha Wells offers us a great mix of mystery, corrupt humans and corporations, threats of imminent death, and humor as we follow this particular Murderbot and find the experience very relatable indeed. Who knew a bot could be such an interesting fictional character? OK, we all did, since there are other examples of robots as main characters in novels, but still this is a great addition to this small area of science fiction.

Photo Credit: From a Google Image Search – Check Midnight News

All Systems Red: Book 1: Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells – Book

All System Red: Book 1 of The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells is an instant hit with me. It is a fine addition to the science fiction and artificial intelligence genres. There is a picture of our particular murderbot on the cover of the book but even the term for this class of robots is designed to instill fear. Encountering one could make you start looking back over your life in case you might be a target. Murderbots are big, they are a combination of organic and mechanical elements, which seems like a poor design for a bot that constantly encounters violence and woeful bodily injuries, injuries which can only be repaired with the help of human or tech systems. Many a murderbot ends up on a scrap heap.

But our murderbot is not happy with his assigned role in society. He (it seems like a he) has figured out how to escape the control of HubSystems by overriding his governor module. If a regular murderbot is scary, a rogue murderbot could turn your hair white if it decided that it liked killing and went on a campaign of mass murdering. But our bot discovers 35,000 entertainment modules buried in the  hub system which it can now download at will. He starts binging on series created for human entertainment and he begins to resent any time that he is asked to do the work he was designed to do.

In this first adventure Murderbot finds himself assigned by the company to a group of scientists doing research on an unnamed planet. Mysterious things begin to happen and his humans (horror of horrors) seem to want to befriend him. Martha Wells, you did a good thing, writing The Murderbot Diaries for us to enjoy. I have already moved on to Book 2. These are not long books, sort of a small tray of four tasty amuse bouche. Martha Wells won a Hugo Award and a Nebula Award for best novella All Systems Red.

Photo Credit: From a Google Image Search – Tor.com

Find me on goodreads.com as Nancy Brisson

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson – Book

Neal Stephenson is hardly new to many science fiction readers
but this is the first time he popped up on my radar. Then it was as if a
“flynk” (read the book) captured me and I moved Seveneves immediately to the
top of my reading list. Since then I have been enjoying the future Neal
Stephenson created very much.
The novel begins when an unnamed (and unknown) “agent” hits
our Moon and breaks it into seven large chunks of moon rock spinning in space.
Just imagine, for a minute, looking up and instead of our one Moon, our romantic
Moon that waxes and wanes in the night sky, we are seeing seven spinning chunks
of rock. Scientists name them the Seven Sisters.
Soon enough they begin to collide with each other and break
apart, so Seven Sisters become eight, etc. Scientists and world leaders are
carefully observing the breakup of the Moon. One fictional scientist, obviously
modeled after Neil deGrasse Tyson, is depicted as a serious scientist who can
explain high tech things in low tech ways. He becomes a link between engineers,
computer scientists, physicists, the government, the people and the reader.
All these experts extrapolate from the data available and
postulate that Earth has about two years between now and two key events
precipitated when the moon collisions reach some kind of critical mass. These
two events, the White Sky and the Hard Rain will destroy all life on the
surface of the Earth.
With two years to plan and given that very little progress
has been made in space, the nations of the Earth spend all their resources
finding ways to send a kind of Noah’s Ark into orbit near the Space Station
which is already there. No animals will be sent since all of their DNA info has
been saved to the computer and they can be “reseeded” on Earth 5,000 – 10,000
years in the future when Earth becomes habitable once again. Humans must be
saved, though, as we do not know how to make a human completely from lines of
computer code. This new ark is called the Cloud Ark and every nation chooses
two promising young people to train for this mission.
Be prepared to enjoy lots of hypothetical, but not
necessarily unbelievable, space physics. Neal Stephenson is our Neal deGrasse
Tyson. He takes what Penny on The Big
Bang
would call ‘high techie-techie’ information and dumbs it down for
those of us who need that. He leaves it quite high tech enough to please a
reader with a degree in engineering also, I am guessing. I thought the Seven
Sisters were the seven Eves, but they became eight so soon that I realized that
I would have to read further to find the significance of the title. I really
enjoyed where Stephenson went with this.
The front end of this book seemed to tell this complex story
at just the right pace. However, Part II and especially Part III seemed to lack
the pace and detail of Part I. This book could have been and probably should
have been a trilogy with equal time given to the things that occurred after the
Hard Rain and also to the drama of the return to Earth. However, it really
doesn’t matter because this book is packed with all the adventure of being
forced to live in space and all the ingenuity of space innovations that predict
things we might want to actually build someday. Be prepared, it’s long, but
full of the technology and the human drama that make sci-fi so enjoyable
to fans.

By Nancy Brisson

Space Milestones, My Dad and the Kelly Twins

photo from space.com, link below
I am fascinated by space and I am a real science fiction
junkie, although I am not the least bit interested in going to space. I
inherited my space obsessions from my Dad who would have been an engineer if he
had not been born into a very poor family made even poorer by the Great
Depression. Although my Dad had to leave school in the eighth grade to support
his family, he became a talented mechanic and electrician. He took a mail order
course and taught himself calculus. He rewired our old family home and his
wiring still holds up to the many new demands of our high tech age. We used to
star gaze occasionally on a balmy summer evening and dream of space. My Dad’s
nickname was Brain.
Alas, I did not inherit my Dad’s innate math intelligence; I
was wired for language, words. I never conquered calculus and even advanced
algebra was a real reach. Words have sufficed to keep me connected to outer
space, however, because most of our space exploration is imaginary at this
point. So I am not space literate – I cannot follow the flights of mathematical
formulae that calculate space mechanics or space trajectories or even those
that map stars, planets, galaxies. When I added an astronomy class in college
the math of exponents turned my language-wired brain into a pretzel.
But there is enough romance and hope in the creative
contemplation of space travel that I can’t ever be truly earthbound again.
Somewhere in the bowels of my blog are two lists of the sci-fi books I have
read, and throughout the past five years in the reading diary I have maintained
on my blog the sci-fi genre is still well represented. But I also like to
follow the real life dramas of humans and our mostly unmanned encounters with
the seemingly unlimited and light-spangled space that surrounds our tiny
planet.
We put astronauts on the moon. (My Dad was alive for that
one.) We put a powerful telescope in orbit and named it Hubble. It has sent us
astounding photos of things so distant and enormous that we, in spite of the
beauty of it all, shiver when we imagine fragile humans loose in that
immensity. We know the asteroids that are near earth and we know their paths.
Last week an asteroid whizzed by very near our planet and the event was barely
mentioned. We, along with Russia, maintain a space station in near earth orbit.
But we have not had manned space expeditions that have gone further than the
moon. We have had two Mars landing “robots” meet and greet each other on the
surface of Mars. That’s a bit spacey, but no human has been able to travel in
space beyond the Moon.
So we take our baby steps towards space exploration while we
wait for a technology that will make such ventures less risky and which will
not be quite so challenging in terms of the time such travel entails. One such
baby step, which I will be keeping an eye on, is beginning on March 17, 2015.
Scott Kelly, American astronaut and Mikhail Kornienko, Russian Cosmonaut will
enter the International Space Station for a year long stay. Russian cosmonauts,
in 1980 – 1990, completed one year stays aboard Mir, so this current mission is
not a “first”.
Scott Kelly will be the first American to stay for one year
in space. Scott Kelly is a twin and his twin brother, Mark Kelly, is also an
astronaut and he will remain on earth. What makes this stay in space especially
interesting is the comparisons that will be made between the effects of space
on Scott’s physiology and psychology, with Mark used as a sort of base line or
scientific control factor here on earth. Perhaps this will put us one step
closer to Mars, or the vast universe. It also means that we are not just
wasting time until space technology catches up to our dreams of space travel.
Link to an article about the Kelly Twins and the year in space
Links to my Science Fiction book lists:
Book- My Favorite Science Fiction Stories from 8/23/2010
Reprise – Science Fiction Book Lists 12/26/2011
By Nancy Brisson