Off the Bookshelf: Learning the World, Difference Engine, Wizard’s First Rule

For my birthday this year I headed out to Barnes & Noble with my son Neutronlad for an afternoon of browsing books and drinking coffee. NeutronLad, being about 5 months old at the time, was enthusiastic about the outing, as only a baby can be, smiling, gurgling and generally looking forward to flirting with every woman he could see at the bookstore.

I arrived with short list of books I was hoping to find, including The Star Faction by Ken MacLeod, The Stars Are Also Fire by Poul Anderson and Marooned in Realtime by Vernor Vinge. Mainstream bookstores being what they are, and the Long Tail being what it is, I was unable to find any of these books on the shelf. I was forced to fall back on my secondary choices, and left the store with Ken MacLeod’s novel of alien first contact Learning the World, William Gibson and Bruce Sterlings’ steampunk novel The Difference Engine (Amazon) and Terry Goodkind’s Objectivist fantasy Wizard’s First Rule (Amazon)

Neutronlad and I fled B&N’s cramped coffee shop for the more intimate and ultimately far more comfortable environs of The Cosmic Cup, my neighborhood coffee shop in Easton. There my plan to quietly start reading Learning the World fell apart as the baby decided he’d had enough time in his car seat. Once on my lap, he happily sucked down a bottle of formula, but discovered the family at the neighboring table. Said family had a redheaded baby of their own, a 15-month-old girl who was fascinated by Luke. I managed to sneak a few pages of MacLeod’s book prior to Luke’s discovery, but most of the time was spent being cordial. Yeah, fatherhood causes geeks to do the oddest things…

After we finished our respective drinks, Luke and I went home, where he took a nap and I curled up on the sofa with my book, some Mountain Dew, and the knowledge that my wife and three-year-old daughter wouldn’t be home from watching the Nutcracker at the state theatre for another two hours. And two uninterrupted hours spent reading a good book strikes me as just about the best birthday present a 35-year-old geek dad could ask for.

Learning the World by Ken MacLeod

My thirst for science fiction continues unabated, and I’ve started to branch out into authors I’ve been hearing about for years, but never got around to reading. Ken MacLeod is one of these, and I’d hoped to start reading him with The Star Faction, which is the first novel in his Fall Revolution trilogy and which involved a variety of rarified political systems competing for resources and control of the solar system. B&N’s failure to stock the book meant I had to go with Learning the World, a novel which earned MacLeod a Prometheus Award in 2006.

It’s not hard to see why. The novel tells the store of the generational starship But My Lady, The Sky! The Sky! as the starship arrives at its destination solar system, a virgin system of worlds the crew is intent on colonizing. The inhabitants of the starship are divided into the Founding Generation (those who financed the expedition), the Ship Generation (those who were born in-flight) and the Crew (who staff the ship and will take it on to its next destination after the current system is colonized). The ship is a libertarian paradise, where the government is based on an extensive Contract and everyone — from fledgling teenagers to veteran founders — is busy planning the myriad business ventures they’ll undertake once they arrive in-system.

Then they discover something unprecedented: alien intelligence in the form of bat-like creatures about to enter their own Industrial Age on the system’s terrestrial planet. And they’ve just spotted the starship entering the system.

The novel tells the story of the unfolding first contact, from the bat people’s observations of the starship and the subsequent impact it has on their society, to the chaos that the discovering of alien life evokes on the ship itself, as the Founders argue to avoid first contact until the aliens are more advanced, and the Ship generation chomps at the bit to get out and start building. It’s a good read — I particularly enjoyed the idea of a capitalist society that enthusiastically trains its kids to become capitalists, allowing them to experiment with myriad forms of business undertakings before undertaking them for real. It’s a radical concept for today’s age, particularly when we seem to be doing the opposite — forcing kids to perform community service rather than develop the practical skills they’ll need to earn a living That said, we do have our own virtual worlds being spawned that give kids a chance to experiment with organizational and social skills in the form of World of Warcraft and Second Life, so maybe MacLeod’s future isn’t that far off.

The Difference Engine by William Gibson, Bruce Sterling

I’ve long enjoyed the cyberpunk workings of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling — while it may not be my philosophical cup of tea (I can take only so much nightmarish future dystopia) I certainly appreciate the style and craftsmanship of their work. The Difference Engine is a novel I’ve been meaning to read for years, but never quite got around to. It imagines a different 19th century, one in which the Information Age has arrived a century earlier thanks to the creation of steam-powered computers. The world they imagine has been massively re-worked, with Napoleon never defeated, America divided into three separate powers, and Britain reaching heights of Victorian power even greater than what it achieved in our reality.

I’m only a few dozen pages into this novel, but so far I’m enjoying its mix of historical fiction and modern intrigue, and I look forward to reading more of the novel that was a major influence on the steampunk subgenre.

Wizard’s First Rule by Terry Goodkind

The last time I read Atlas Shrugged and went on the inevitably Objectivist surfing expeditions, I came across mention of Terry Goodkin and his Sword of Truth series of fantasy novels inspired — at least in some small part — by Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. I wishlisted the book on Amazon, but it languished there for years until my most recent B&N expedition. The back cover gives the standard fantasy setup — young adventurer seeks power to confront evil bad guys — but the reviews I’ve read say there are enough twists to make it interesting.

I’m not sure exactly when I’ll start reading this book; my science fiction itch still hasn’t been satisfied, and I can’t see launching into a new fantasy novel while I’m still dreaming of starscapes. Plus, I hear that Berin Kinsman is planning on tackling Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle in January, and that strikes me as the perfect excuse to try reading Quicksilver again. The book very may well have to wait a few more months to be read.

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