...Prove Their Worth...

"Problems worthy of attack
prove their worth
by hitting back." - Piet Hein

A kind of running diary and rambling pieces on my struggles with assorted books, classes, and other things, as they happen. You must be pretty bored to be reading this...

Friday, July 19, 2002

I've been silent for a while now. Main reason is, I haven't felt very motivated to write lately. Mind you, I've been keeping up my reading. I've read a couple of great fiction books (libraries are a wonderful thing), and I have another technical book now, with yet another in the mail from bn.com.

So. One of the fiction books is called Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russel. On the surface, this is a tale of First Contact, if the Society of Jesus (aka the Jesuits) were the ones to send out the exploration ship. It's a great read, with jarring and well-executed ideas, lots of moral exploration, very good character work, and so on. This is part of the 'literary' subgenre of science fiction, and it is one of its best representatives. Unfortunately, it's got a few of the problems commonly found in the subgenre, such as highly improbably science and technology (ex.: an interstellar spaceship made from a large asteroid that flies the whole way to Alpha Centauri (and back!) under a continuous 1g acceleration - apparently using a mass driver for propulsion!) But technology isn't the point of the story, so that's really a quibble. Highly recommended.

The other book is called Schild's Ladder, by Greg Egan. I'm a couple of chapters from finishing it, but I can already easily say that it's his strongest novel yet (though I wouldn't be surprised if upon rereading Diaspora I'd make it a tie.) Before I plunge into a mini-review of Schild's Ladder, I can't stop myself for raving about Greg Egan.

Mr. Egan is an Australian writer of hard science fiction, and is considered one of the strongest writers working in science fiction today. My opinion of him is rather higher, as I place him among my favorite writers period.

Now, 'hard science fiction' just means science fiction where the 'science' part sticks to plausible science, and the science is actually a significant part of the story. Greg Egan's work is, for lack of a better metaphor, diamond-hard. I'm aware of no one writing 'harder' SF than Egan. Egan is very well educated in mathematics and physics (for instance, he's collaborated with some full-time researchers on a bona-fide paper on loop quantum gravity), and is also well-versed in biology (I'm sure he knows about other things, too, but those are the ones I've seen in his writing).

The majority of his work plays harps on the theme of the nature of concsiousness, the nature of physical laws and mathematics, AI, and so on. His books attacking these themes tend to be set in the Really Far Future, which is nonetheless plausible. The main characters are not even Homo Sapiens in these books (for the most part), but they are both sympathetic and authetically different - as they damn well should be. For instance, in Diaspora, the main character is Yatima, a (way) superhuman AI, who happens to be a curious sort of orphan, and who also happens to be a mathematician. Yatima is, if memory serves, neuter - doesn't have a sex. As are many (but not by any means all) of the AIs. Who actually happen to be human descendants. The second half of Diaspora takes place in a five-dimensional universe. Yes, you get to actually try to visualize this, to play with it, to roll in it like a happy pig in pungent poo. Go read it. It will blow your mind. But anyway, moving on...

To get a taste of Egan's work, hit his website, and check out one of hisshort stores. I recommend starting with Border Guards (click 'complete text' to read the story). If the more technical parts of the tale read like gibberish, feel free to treat them like Star Trek technobabble (with the knowledge that actually, it's not technobabble.)

So. Err. To finally get to Schild's Ladder. I haven't quite digested it yet (as I said, I haven't even finished it just yet!), but I can tell you about a physics experiment that goes wrong, and results in the creation of what is apparently a more stable vacuum than, err, our vacuum. Which then starts expanding at half the speed of light and gobbling things up, and talks about the various fun consequences. It's great. I'll probably say more once I'm done with the book and have had a chance to digest it a bit.

Enough for now, 'cause this is getting painfully long.


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