Saturday, March 29, 2008

Book Review: "Spin" by Robert Charles Wilson

I have always been of the opinion that the lure of science fiction was its easy entry point and the richer rewards you get when you delve deep enough. I started reading science fiction for the space ships, robots, laser fire and all that Star Wars type special effects laden action. I stayed for the fascinating ideas, the sense of wonder, and the power of science. While I still enjoy the occasional space opera, it's books like the Hugo award winner "Spin" that keep me coming back for more.

Tyler and his best friends; twins Jason and Diane, witness the day that the stars disappeared. The day an unknown alien force wrapped the whole of planet Earth with a mysterious black membrane, for reasons they did not share with humanity. The Spin, as it has been called, allows sunlight to filter to Earth, but little else. What is more disturbing, it has isolated the Earth from time itself. Where only a few minutes pass on Earth, thousands of years pass outside the Spin. The threat of a dying sun killing off humanity is now no longer just a hypothetical exercise of thought. Humanity struggles to make sense of its new position. Some, like Jason, choose to pursue a scientific solution. Some, like Diane, pursue a more spiritual end. Others still, like Tyler, choose apathy.

The idea of a temporally unhinged Earth is a mind bogglingly fascinating idea, and opens several doors to many others. Time has always been one of humanity's greatest identifiers, and taking it out of the equation is an interesting prospect both scientifically and philosophically. If the book had only relied on these elements it would still be a good SciFi book. Asking interesting questions and exploring, along with the reader, the answer(s). But what makes it a great book, is that Wilson didn't stop there. A monumental event like the Spin would also have far reaching sociological implications. Faced by the very real possibility of global Armageddon, humanity itself becomes unhinged. And Wilson explores the new human condition masterfully through his three protagonists. But what makes it (in my opinion) a modern SciFi classic is that Wilson's characters are not just abstract cut outs used as placeholders in a moral debate, Tyler and company are real characters. They grow and they interact. Changing each other as they change themselves as they play out their lives in a well written drama.

"Spin" speculates and fascinates, makes you laugh and makes you cry, takes you to the farthest ends of the universe then reminds you of what it is to be human. That Hugo award is very much deserved. Highly, highly recommended.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

We Don't want no Stinking Democracy!

A couple of days ago the quiet country called Bhutan made the jump from hereditary monarchy to a constitutional one (BBC article), holding their very first parliamentary elections. So far the news, while certainly momentous and historical for the Bhutanese, is of very little note. Bhutan is just a little, mountainous, land-locked kingdom with little to distinguish itself (apart from having a kick ass flag). What made me take pause during my news hounding was the reaction of the Bhutanese people. It can be summed up as "Democracy? Why the hell do we need democracy?!". Bhutan seems to be one of those very few countries that were small enough, and fortunate enough, to have a very stable and prosperous monarchy. The populace just don't see the need to make the shift. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it!" seems to be the mood.

Being a huge fan of Terry Pratchett's Discworld books, I couldn't help draw similarities with the Kingdom of Bhutan and the fictional Kingdom of Lancre. Both are mountainous backwaters that are blessed by young, recently enthroned, progressive-thinking kings. Like real world King Jigme Khesar, Lancre's King Verence II introduced a parliament to his fiefdom among his many reforms, thinking it a marvelous idea. The result? Having to quell a small rebellion by the villagers who protested that it's his job to rule!

Democracy? Pah! Go back to your palace Kingy and get back to reigning! The nerve of some people! :D

Thursday, March 20, 2008

RIP Arthur C. Clarke

And a giant takes his leave of us. The last of the Big Three of Science Fiction (Along with Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein), Arthur C. Clarke died yesterday aged ninety, having left his touch felt by everyone not just readers of SciFi. A pioneer of Hard Science Fiction, a departure from the Flash Gordon style of adventure SciFi and into the realm of tangible physical possibilities, he wrote such classics like "Rendezvous with Rama" and "Childhood's End". Yet he is perhaps best known as the author of the book (and movie, filmed simultaneously by Stanley Kubrick) "2001: A Space Odyssey", an exploratory and prophetic journey into the destiny of Man in space. Both book and movie were not only ahead of their time, predicting space stations and moon landings, they remain untouchable iconic figures in the genre, much like the mysterious black monoliths of Space Odyssey themselves. Space Odyssey was so influential that forever now will the image of space be connected to Strauss' "Thus Spake Zarathustra" echoing the movie's famous musical motif.

But Arthur C. Clarke was more than just a SciFi writer. Trained as a physicist he was also a visionary and a futurist. In 1945, when humanity was just taking its first baby steps into space, he published a paper called "Extra-Terrestrial Relays - Can Rocket Stations Give Worldwide Radio Coverage?" in Wired Magazine. In it, he put the groundwork into what was to become the geosynchronous communication satellite. He used to joke that he would've made millions had he thought of patenting the idea. The orbit that the satellites that give us modern day essentials such as TV, internet and cross continental communication is named after him, the Clarke Orbit. He is also known for popularizing the idea of the Space Elevator, now a fixture in most SciFi and the target of much real research.

Farewell Arthur. You've left the world a better place.

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
- Arthur C. Clarke's Three Laws of Prediction.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Back in the Sandcrawler

It feels good to be behind the driving wheel of the Sandcrawler again. Wow was this place ever dusty. Can't believe how long it's been since my last post. You know the drill; life and work got a whole lot busy ... yadda yadda. My rapidly encroaching wedding day didn't help things either (if you listen carefully you can hear the death throes of my bachelorhood). Anyway, I somehow managed to pull enough energy into updating again. And like they say in Saudi Arabia: "If you're going to steal, steal a camel." Well I'm not into stealing livestock (and certainly not camels, those beasts scare me), so I thought I'd come back with a visual bang. Updating the look of this blog to something a bit more original than a default blogspot template has been one of those things I had filed in the "for later" department, and since nothing gets the blood flowing again like dirtying your hand with some work I went forth and done it.

I hope you like the new look. Be sure to visit again since I'm adamant that I'm going to keep a more or less regular updating schedule.

See you guys in a few...