Off the Bookshelf: The Difference Engine, The Light Fantastic, Analog Jan/Feb 2007

My autumn reading jag, which saw me tear through a half-dozen novels, petered out this winter as I ran into the slow, meandering text of The Difference Engine, a book that promised a steampunk revolution but got bogged down in its own minutiae. I haven’t done much better on the audio front, after a preachy opening to The Light Fantastic turned me away from audio books for a bit and inspired me to catch up on my podcasts instead.  Meanwhile, the double-sized January/February 2007 issue of Analog has been riding back and forth to work in my backpack for weeks, but I’ve only just started to work my way through its pages.

The Difference Engine by William Gibson, Bruce Sterling

The Difference Engine had me at its premise: a Victorian England reshaped by an 18th century Information Age spawned by steam-powered computers of tremendous power. I loved the idea of a technological, free-market meritocracy arising a hundred years ahead of schedule, and that enthusiasm kept me going through the first few chapters. But then the book took the first of its meandering turns as it introduced Mallory, a brilliant savant and archeologist just returned from a successful dinosaur dig in the wild west of the North American continent (a continent divided between four American-spawned countries — the Union North, the Confederate South, Texas and California).

There’s a lot of fine detail here as we follow Mallory through his version of London, watch him suddenly get caught up in an Engine-driven intrigue, and then struggle to find his way out of it. The problem is the pacing, which is often glacial — it takes pages and pages for the plot to begin to take shape. Perhaps its just my sleep-deprived, geek dad mind, or maybe I’ve just been reading too much space opera, but I’d appreciate less setup and more actual plotting!

That finally happens about two-thirds of the way through the book, when riots erupt throughout a London nearly-smothered by the stench of coal and industrial fumes. Mallory stumbles one of the forces that may be driving the riots … and organizing a revolution.

I’m intrigued again, and as a result I’ll see the book through to its end, but I’m not sue that I’d go so far as to recommend it to others. It has an excellent premise, but the execution leaves much to be desired.

The Light Fantastic by Terry Pratchett

I ran a poll back in January about which book I should listen to next while at the gym. It was a three way tie, but I decided to go with the Discworld novel The Light Fantastic because I thought a nice fantasy comedy would make for a nice break from the science fiction I’d been absorbed by for the last few months. Plus, it was a short, easy listen — less than 7 hours — which would give me fodder for a column and let me quickly move on to the next book.

And then I got to the opening admonishments. Yes, admonishments. At first I though that the stern warning not to copy and redistribute the book, was the setup for a Prachett-style joke. The exact phrasing escapes me, but it basically went like this: Terry Prachett wanted Audible to remind those who bought this book that they should never, ever copy the book and then share it with others, because theft is wrong, and would lead to their immediate expulsion from Audible. It didn’t explicitly state that anyone who did this would burn in hell for all time, but that’s a logical conclusion from listening to it.

This annoyed me. I’m support creator’s rights — authors should get paid for what they do, which is why I bought the book. I do not need to be guilt-tripped or bow-beaten by Mr. Prachett into doing the right thing, because I already did the right thing… because it was the right thing.

I expect that exactly no one who pirates Audible material cared one iota about the warning Mr. Prachett had Audible record for this book; its only real purpose was to antagonize the people who actually bought the book. It was enough to make me stop listening after an hour or so at the gym, and turn to podcasts instead.

Analog for Jan/Feb 2007

Don’t let the date fool you — I got this magazine back in late November/early December. I’ve been focusing on the “Fact” side of the Magazine of Science Fiction and Fact as I pick and choose my way through its hefty page count. “Shielding a Polar Lunar Base” talks about how to use the cryogenically cold temperatures inside of a crater at one of the lunar poles to create a doughnut shaped magnetic shield via superconducting cables. It’s a fascinating read, and — given the plans to return to the Moon — a timely one.

Economist Richard A. Lovett takes on the hype surrounding “peak oil” and the various alternative fuels that are supposed to replace it. He doesn’t doubt the idea that oil production will eventually peak and then fall off; it’s a finite resource, so that has to happen eventually. But he does call into question the idea of a sharp drop off in available oil rather than a steady decline brought on by ever increasing fuel costs. He also offers arguments for and against ethanol, the corn-based alternative fuel that may (or may not) use up more fuel create it then you get as a final product.

There’s a tremendous amount of fiction left to be read in this issue, so much so that this magazine may show up in next month’s bookshelf as well.

The novella “Emerald River, Pearl Sky” by Rajnar Vajra was a fun read about a far future in which our own technology has become magic … and what happens when someone decides to turn that magic off. It raises interesting questions about what happens when no one actually knows how our computers, devices and toys work any more, or more importantly, how to fix them when they stop working.

This issue includes concludes Robert J. Sawyer’s “Rollback” serial, which I read but never really got into. It’s the story of success with SETI: humanity has made contact with an alien race we call the Dracons (after receiving their signal from Sigma Draconis, which is 18.8 light years away). Sarah Halifax, a SETI astronomer, successfully deciphers the first alien message, which is a survey for which the Earth must submit 1000 random responses. The Dracons send their reply, but it finds Sarah and her husband Don old and increasingly fragile. A billionaire entrepreneur asks Sarah to decrypt this new message, and offers to pay for her and her husbands “rollback”, a procedure that will make them both young again. Unfortunately, while it works for Don, it fails for Sarah.

The story flashes back between the couple’s past and present as Sarah tries to understand the Draconic message in the time she has left, and Don struggles with his new-found youth, a youth that means he will see his wife die.

The premise is good, but I think where it fell down for me was in the character of Don. He’s an unexpected Lazarus (ok, he wasn’t dead … but he was getting there … bear with me) and has trouble dealing with that. This I can understand, but what doesn’t ring true to me is how he deals with the future he’s living in. The character is about 10 years older than I am, but he reads like someone three decades older. He retires with only one job, and when he gets the rollback and tries to return to his audio editing job with the CBC, he finds his skills are radically out of date.

Now perhaps my skills and interest in technology just haven’t fossilized yet, but I have a hard time believing that someone on the far end of Generation X would a) only have one career and b) not keep trying new things as he got older. I look at my babyboomer mother, and she’s got a thousand projects flying in retirement — hell, she just started learning PHP and MySQL so she can create a more-perfect canine agility club web site. I look at myself, and I don’t see any of my hobbies going away soon … and I fully expect to have another career or two before I “retire”. I may eat those words in another few decades, but some how, I doubt it. That  admittedly small hang up grew larger with passing chapters, and kept me from fully buying into the story. That said, it was a great concept, and as is so often the case with science fiction, the hook was enough to get me to the end.