Cyborgs in the making?

March 18, 2014

Yesterday our younger son asked why science fiction so often portrays problems that arise from a mix of the biological with the mechanical. We had an interesting conversation about real-life instances of machines embedded in people’s bodies, such as mechanical heart valves and cochlear implants. Such devices clearly improve a person’s quality of life without raising concerns that machines could be taking over.

Science fiction, of course, is always looking at what could happen in the future based on current trends. Might we someday have implants that challenge our ability to distinguish between person and machine? Or that make the distinction meaningless?

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Books: Children of God

October 6, 2013

I had no idea that Mary Doria Russell had written a sequel to her excellent novel The Sparrow. It didn’t need a sequel and any continuation of the story could easily be a disappointment.

But I happened to notice Children of God in the library and recognized the author’s name. Considering the spiritual depth and emotional impact of the first book, I decided to finish up some lighter reading before tackling this new novel.

Once I started it, however, I was engrossed in the story. It deals less with specifically spiritual issues (i.e. in terms of our relationship with God – though everything we do has spiritual significance) and more with sociological and political matters. Much of the story takes place on the planet Rakhat, and I have to agree with those reviewers who see those as the more interesting parts of the book. I cared what happened to Emilio Sandoz, but as a character he is less of a draw than in The Sparrow.

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Books: Ender’s World

May 17, 2013

Orson Scott Card is a prolific writer, and there are a number of his books that I haven’t read, but whenever I see another book related to Ender’s Game, I read it. First he wrote sequels, starting with Speaker for the Dead, then later he went back and wrote a parallel series in which the central character is Bean rather than Ender.

I don’t think any of them are as good as Ender’s Game, but I read all of them, because Card is a good writer and I’m interested in the characters and themes he explores in the series. So when I saw Ender’s World in the library, it was a given that I would read it, even before I knew what it was about.

Ender’s World is a book of essays, rather than fiction, and written by other people about Card’s classic novel (but edited by Card, who includes Q&A about how and why he wrote various aspects of the book the way he did). As one reader review at amazon.com says, it’s a bit like having a book club discussion about Ender’s Game. Everyone has a slightly different take on it.

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Books: Anvil of Stars

April 23, 2013

Anvil of Stars is the sequel to Greg Bear’s The Forge of God. While the previous novel dealt with human reactions to the impending end of the world, this book chronicles what follows: the journey of a small group of human survivors whose purpose is to find and destroy whatever race of beings is responsible for the destruction of Earth.

The larger part of the remnant of humanity – rescued by some other unknown alien group referred to only as the Benefactors – has been settled on New Mars, a newly terraformed version of the Red Planet. But the Benefactors require that a group of children from a destroyed planet set out on a Ship of the Law to bring the Killers to justice.

By the time the novel starts, they aren’t exactly “children” anymore – the youngest of them are teens, and their current leader is in his early twenties. But they continue to be referred to as “the children,” which I found somewhat discordant. Perhaps it emphasizes their sense of dependence on the “moms” – robots belonging to the Ship of the Law who have taught them the Law and trained them for war with the Killers.

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Books: The Forge of God

April 3, 2013

Having decided to read something else by Greg Bear (after reading Dinosaur Summer), I chose The Forge of God.  I’ve read a number of post-apocalyptic science fiction stories, usually where humans are the cause of worldwide destruction. This is the first I can think of that I’ve read – from a sci-fi perspective anyway – about the time period before the end of the world.

It’s not humans who threaten to cause their own doom; aliens from some unknown place in the universe are the villains here. They send out machines that destroy planets, presumably to re-make them in a form more suited to the aliens. The science behind the means of the expected destruction is explained in some detail, though my knowledge of those areas of science isn’t enough to know how convincing the scenarios are.

What is of more interest to me is how different people react to the prospect of not only their own death but the end of humanity. Some want to fight back, even if they can’t change the ultimate outcome. Some turn to religion, convinced that the aliens are acting as agents of God’s judgment. Some try to squeeze in all the enjoyable experiences they can have before the end. Others seem overwhelmed by anger, fear, and or despair.

Hardly anyone just goes on with life as usual. Parents keep their children home from school. Businesses fail to deliver products on their normal schedules so stores run out of fresh food.

I can’t say how I would react if I knew for certain that the end was coming in the near future. But it has always made sense to me that one should live in such a way that, if one were to find out that death was coming soon, there would be no need to start living differently. I’m not saying I succeed in living up to that ideal, but I can’t think of major changes I think I would make if I found out I were dying (in a sense other than the way we all are).


Turning science fiction into science

March 9, 2013

I read recently about a number of scientific advances in 2012 that would once have been possible only in science fiction. None of them seem especially surprising, considering previous scientific advances I already knew about.

Today, however, I was surprised to read a discussion of the pros and cons of bringing an extinct species back to life. I knew that cloning techniques had continued to develop since it first made big news. But I wasn’t aware that there was serious work on recovering DNA from extinct species for the purpose of creating live animals.

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Books: The Time Traders

February 23, 2013

Some of the first science fiction books I read were by Andre Norton. That was after I had read Eleanor Cameron‘s Mushroom Planet series, and before I moved on to novels by Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein.

I’m sure I must have read the Time Traders series at some point, though I’m not sure if it’s the one I remember doing a book report on in sixth grade. Part of the assignment was to make something to show the class along with talking about the book, so I made a 3D scene showing a rocket made with aluminum foil and some men holding blasters. For a long time I’ve wondered what book that was, and tried to figure out based on a vague impression of those men having been stranded on an alien planet, finding and exploring abandoned buildings.

I came across the title Galactic Derelict (the second book in the series), and thought that sounded vaguely familiar. So when I discovered our library had the entire four-book series, I decided it was a good time to reread it, and perhaps introduce my son to Andre Norton’s writing also (he likes books about time travel).

It’s strange, going back and reading books I last read when I was younger than my son is now – and that were written when I was a baby or before I was born. Little things – the time agents going back in time as Beaker traders, the name of a character – seem to tickle a very faint sense of recognition, but no more than that. And the stories themselves are so different, in some ways, from the science fiction/fantasy I have read more recently.

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Books: WWW Trilogy

August 7, 2012

I won’t say that Robert Sawyer is my new favorite author – that’s still Dean Koontz. But Sawyer is now my favorite science fiction author. His WWW Trilogy (Wake, Watch, and Wonder) is thought-provoking, full of real science as well as science fiction, and just plain good story-telling.

The trilogy chronicles the emergence of a conscious mind that somehow exists in the infrastructure of the World Wide Web.Because it has all the resources of the Web at its disposal, it has capabilities humans – and human governments – can only dream of. People use the internet to collaborate, but their efforts are puny next to a “being” that can instantaneously access any and all data of all kinds residing on any computer anywhere in the world so long as it is connected to the internet.

The question is whether such a being will use its vast power in ways that will help or hurt human beings. Because it is not localized in any particular part of the Web, it cannot be controlled.  Without risking devastating effects on the worldwide network of computers that are essential to commerce today, it cannot be removed. But some people think such a powerful non-human intelligence is so dangerous that it is worth the risk involved in destroying it.

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Books: Triggers

July 18, 2012

I’ve read a number of science fiction books over the years that deal with the idea of being able to read someone else’s mind. Triggers uses a different approach than the others, where one person gets to know another person’s memories rather than his thoughts. But considering that your thoughts about what you are experiencing right now will be in your memories within a very short period of time, it can amount to nearly the same thing.

This is the first book I have read by Robert Sawyer, and I don’t plan for it to be the last. In the past two weeks I’ve also read books by Jack Higgins and Orson Scott Card, and while they were moderately entertaining, I felt I would not have missed out on anything by not reading them. Sawyer’s book, on the other hand, gave me something to think about.

What would it be like to have access to someone else’s memories? If you’re one of the characters in this book, you suddenly found yourself in possession of memories that are not your own, and in most cases they turn out to belong to someone you never met before – and perhaps would not want to know. Meanwhile, someone else now has your memories (it is not a reciprocal arrangement).

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Movies: Men in Black III

May 31, 2012

I’ve had trouble deciding what to say about this movie. It was definitely entertaining, but not particularly memorable. Like many “threequels,” it is superior to its immediate predecessor but not nearly as good as the original.

We had originally planned to spend Memorial Day at the Iowa Renaissance Festival at Amana Colonies, but Jon’s knee was not doing well and Renaissance Fairs mean lots of walking. An afternoon in a movie theater seemed like a good alternative that the family could enjoy together.

We opted for the 3D version, partly because Jon figures any movie is cooler in 3D, and partly because there were more choices of movie times so that we could find one to fit our schedule. I didn’t notice the 3D aspects of the movie much – I don’t know if that’s because they were fairly subtle or just that I’m getting used to seeing movies in 3D. I suspect I wouldn’t have lost a lot by seeing it in 2D.

The plot of MIB 3 revolves around the idea of time travel. I enjoy sci-fi that deals with time travel, but this movie did nothing particularly original with the subject. The point in history picked as the focus is the launch of Apollo 11. I remember watching the moon landing, but I never saw the launch as all that interesting.

I am surprised, looking at the “Goofs” section of imdb.com’s site on MIB 3, how many historical details they managed to get wrong. None of them are material to the plot, and only people looking for such mistakes are likely to catch them, but you would think that with the kind of budget they work with, and the focus on time travel, that they would have made sure of getting things like that right.

I suppose what disappointed me most was the characters. I read other viewers’ reviews saying that the banter between Agents J and K was as great as ever, but I didn’t see it that way. The older K seemed more tired or wooden than deadpan. The younger K admittedly did a great job, but I just didn’t see the chemistry there between him and J that made the first MIB so appealing.

A relatively minor character named Griffin was actually the highlight of the movie for me. Both the character concept and the way Michael Stuhlbarg played Griffin were great. I don’t really hope there is a MIB 4, but I agree with Jon that if there is, they’d better bring back Griffin and give him a significant role in the movie.


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