Monday, August 16, 2010

I got too depressed by politics so I started reading a bunch of SF books I had lying around. The first was Verner Vinge's Rainbows End which predicts that by 2025 or so we'll all be wearing computers all the time and living in the web, traveling virtually and in contact with anybody world wide. It's an interesting picture, both of the wonders and dangers of such a world although I'm definitely skeptical about things developing that way or that soon. I expect that something new that nobody has foreseen will change the world. I doubt that the possibilities of computers are anywhere near their limits. Wearable computers have been Real Soon Now for 20 years. Maybe they'll finally arrive. What out there is presently too expensive for most people that could be knocked off by disruptive technology? The next transistor radios or personal computers.

My guess is that it will be some kind of battery technology that will make electric cars possible at prices low enough to replace internal combustion, combined with a nationwide building program of safe nuclear generation plants. Hey, if France can do it, we should be able to. What it takes is a commitment to safety and excellence that seems to have disappeared here except in some parts of the military. You'd think that's what unions would be insisting on. Some of them to. A friend of mine is a boilermaker, a welding specialist who has worked on nuclear plants, requiring special certification. Anybody working in industries like nuclear electricity generating should be a proven elite.

The second, third and fourth books were old Jack Vance novels. More about them later.

The latest two were Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons. Don't read what follows if you don't want spoilers. Simmons is both an academic and a professional fiction writer. Hyperion won the Hugo Award when it came out. In many ways it's a tour de force of scholarship about the life of John Keats and different storytelling styles all worked into a sort of Canterbury Tales set nearly a millennium in the future. What annoyed me about it is that the book is really only half the story ending at a climax without resolving anything. It should have been called Hyperion Volume I.

It's vision is of mankind having developed faster than light transportation drives, named after Stephen Hawking, as well as communications media that break the light barrier, and something called farcasters that enable instantaneous movement through what is dubbed the World Web which enables human civilization to spread throughout hundreds of worlds and establish a single federated government to assure economic union and common defense. It's a rich portrayal of how humans might develop on different worlds, while remaining recognizable to us.

But the world named Hyperion is an anomaly, containing bizarre native life like Tesla trees which accumulate electricity and generate lightning which sets surrounding forests on fire. The more important thing about Hyperion is the mystery surrounding its "Time Tombs," a group of ancient monuments in a valley where they generate anti-entropy fields which change, even reverse the flow of time. They resemble structures from our past, one is an obelisk, one a sphinx, one seems to be some sort of mausoleum and three are caves. A number of the worlds, including Hyperion, have been found to have underground mysterious labyrinths, explored only by unmanned robots. During the book it is revealed that Hyperion is also the home to a strange parasite in the shape of a crucifix called "cruciforms" which attach themselves to humans which encounter them and penetrate their bodies, causing the bearer to "resurrect" in a form that is slightly less than the original in personality or independent will.

The last mystery of Hyperion is a creature dubbed the Shrike, which has become the focus of a new religion. This creature is also called the Lord of Pain, a three meter tall humanoid shape with four arms. It is covered with blades and spikes of all sorts and has red multifaceted eyes, and appears mysteriously, seemingly from another time or space and embraces individuals who seek it, killing them. Accompanying it is a giant tree with spikes instead of branches and leaves on which the Shrike's victims are impaled suffering eternal torment. Why anyone would seek out such a creature or worship it is not really clear, other than that it is seen as the bringer of the Eschaton, the end of the world. The church of the Shrike doesn't believe in anything behind the End, no Millennium or Reign of God. Bummer of a religion. Christianity has disappeared except for the Catholic Church which has shrunk to about a million faithful.

Oh, by the way, the Earth has been destroyed, swallowed by a man-made black hole in an incident called the Big Mistake. Fortunately, much of its population was able to evacuate and through terraforming, settle on other worlds.

The enemy of the World Web civilization are the Ousters, humanoids who rejected terraforming and went to live separately, adapting to what they found, such as zero-g space, asteroids, comets and alien planets. They have declared war on Hyperion for reasons which are never clear, other than a need to keep the World Web from discovering its secrets.

If this seems to make for a complicated setting, you have no idea. There is another major religion called Zen Christianity which has no real god and one called the Templars which is apparently the descendant of our present environmental movement, which, many have noticed, resembles a religion in many ways. It's prophet is The Muir (John Muir) and worships trees, especially the largest ones ever seen named after Muir. They have grown exceptionally large specimens and converted them to space-going vehicles, however, so apparently they don't really reject technology as such.

The books became tedious reading for me, partly due to graphic sex scenes and obscenities. The only thing that kept me at the task were the sections without those, one involving the story of a priest, one a detective investigating the murder of a "cybrid" clone of Poet John Keats, and a third the story of a professor whose daughter became an archeologist and visited the Time Tombs during which her life began to reverse, each day awaking without memories of the events of her life which her parents remembered. It's not really scientifically believable, but the concept is a study of the experience of parenthood and is quite poignant. After his wife dies and all efforts to treat his daughter's condition fail, in response to a series of dreams in which he is told to take his only daughter and sacrifice her to the Shrike, he joins a pilgrimage bringing her as an infant to comply in the desperate hope that she will be saved like Isaac, the son of Abraham.

Just describing this story makes my head hurt. It does have a major plot, the war launched against the World Web, but that becomes secondary to all the subplots, by the time the climax of the war is reached, the foreshadowing has pretty much given the game away. I was left with a number of questions and knowing more than I ever wanted to know about John Keats, whose tragic death at 27 is covered in gruesome detail. I really didn't know much about Keats, other than having read his "Ode on a Grecian Urn" and the ending lines,
'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.'
"Grecian Urn" is never mentioned in these books. Why Keats was chosen, I don't know. His unfinished poem "Hyperion" is a central theme, being a retelling of the final struggle and fall of the Titans in mythology, to be supplanted by the Olympian gods. The suggestion that humanity is in a similar struggle with its own creation of machine intelligence seems to be the point, but I'm not a big believer in Artificial Intelligence. We may be drowning in our data, but I don't think that as much of it is truth or really understood as we seem to assume. What we have today is more scientists churning out studies, statistics and findings than anyone really can assimilate or bring into a clear complete understanding. God is not going to be unnecessary anytime soon, even if he didn't exist. The ultimate truths of human experience remain, the experiences of love and parenthood, the struggle to live as we feel we should and the sense of failure, and resolving the question of how to go on despite our flaws and failures without abandoning our faith in our sense of what is right.

Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion have a number of interesting concepts and visions, but they would have been better presented in smaller, less intertwined form. Simmons created an amazing interesting world in these books, but he could have told all these stories in many more than four novels. I'm not sure that I want to make the trek through the follow ups Endymion and The Rise of Endymion. As it is, I feel like I've hiked with the pilgrims all the way to see the Shrike and don't have enough to show for the experience.

I'd better reserve comments on Jack Vance for another post.


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