Some notes about the science fiction I read. These aren’t reviews, and often they’ll be about a tiny part of a book that I think is interesting, or a book that’s ruined for me because of some minor detail.
I read a bunch of science fiction. Some of it is even good! And worse, I read very little of non-science fiction.
Note: there are spoilers below. I don’t think they’re central to the books I talk about, but they do involve plot points. You have been warned.
It’s fair to say that I’m obsessed about how KSR sees the world. For me, the best part about the Red Mars trilogy isn’t all the bits about Mars: it’s about what people do in Mars. The book isn’t about the planet, it’s about what people are really about: why they decide to wake up in the morning, who and how they choose to live and have sex with, why they seek power — or don’t. The books are quite slow and rambly, that’s for sure. That they’re on Mars just serves as kind of a local approximation method: to truly understand something (people), we try to understand how they would behave in different situations. Put them in a weird world, take away their community; their gender; their religion; their ethnicity. This is what science fiction is really about for me.
The body of KSR’s main fiction work, to me, seems to be the set of trilogies (the three californias, then science in the capital, then red mars), then followed by 2312 and Aurora. Without giving too much away, 2312 is a natural progression of the Red Mars Trilogy, and although I think it’s an phenomenal book, it doesn’t fundamentally change anything on the combined trajectory of his books.
Aurora, on the other hand? It. Changes. Everything.
One of the ways I’ve started thinking about KSR’s writing is that he’s in a sense telling us that, no matter where — or how — people choose to live, there’s something fundamental and unchanging about being human. It’s like he’s written a dozen or so novels trying to get at some notion of a Soul, but without having to get theistic about it (in passing, KSR is the most spiritual writer of hard scifi I can think of, though people tell me that Gene Wolfe is a worthy competitor in this respect.) A central notion of his books, in my view, have been that environments are fragile but humans are hardy: we will live in Other Places, and we will thrive. This stands in direct contast with what Aurora is about! It’s a really fascinating change of perspective, and it left me really wanting to read the next installment (even though it seems clear that Aurora is not a trilogy).
New York 2140 is a fine chapter of Humans are (Fool)Hardy, but it’s passable overall unless you are a KSR completionist.
Disclaimer: I’ve only read Star Fraction so far. It’s a series, though, so it’s possible I’m getting this stuff completely wrong.
I’ve never lived in Europe, but reading this book — especially in contrast to typical science fiction written in the US — made me think about just how densely diverse Europe is, in ethnicity, culture, and politics. It really is as if multiple worlds and histories all folded right on top of each other. Throw in a multi-century conspiracy, the lure of central planning given infinite wisdom and computational planning, space exploration, and drugs, and you have Star Fraction.
I’ve come to realize that the better a book is, the slower I have to read it: there’s more in each sentence, each character, and it takes me a lot of time to unpack it.
Star Fraction was very slow going, maybe slower than Foucault’s Pendulum. They definitely belong in the same shelf, together with Infinite Jest, even if MacLeod doesn’t ramble as much as DFW (sadly, the way I see it. But it makes for a tighter book).
(Update: I’ve now read the Stone Canal and am halfway through the Cassini Division. They’re all great, and they move the series closer to Stross and Doctorow’s singularity ideas.)
If KSR represents the humanist streak I like in sci-fi, Stephenson is the Ur-Nerd-Badass representative. When shit hits the fan, get the slide rule out first, but heavy machinery right after that (Have you read Stephenson on the Hole Hawg?). This is, to be clear, not something I’m particularly proud of reading, but I cannot help but enjoying it. And Stephenson writes proper rants throughout his fiction, which is great. Take the discussion on suits vs beards from Cryptonomicon, for example. That is 100% representative of his perspective of the world: leave the stuff that matters to the beards. (I’ve come to realize that this, of course, is childish. Suits are just as smart as you. Stephenson realizes this, too. But he writes from the beard perspective, there’s no question about that.)
If you’ve never read Stephenson, you should start with Cryptonomicon. If you think it’s too long, then read Snow Crash and nothing else. If you think Cryptonomicon was fine, but You Would Like To Know More, then read Diamond Age, and then Anathem, then Seveneves, and only then try the Baroque Cycle. The trilogy is a real gem, but you really have to enjoy his writing, and it’s not for everyone.
This is, to me, what has recently made scifi Good. Even if it makes me uncomfortable, I think these are the themes by which scifi rightfully belongs right there with classic literature (of which I’m of course completely ignorant about - you did read the part where I said I read mostly trash scifi, right?)
Polylaw. What happens when cultures and communities truly internalize that they can create their own set of laws — and splinter off to make new laws — and that the only “meta-law” that needs to be accepted everywhere is that One Abides By The Local Laws? (And what happens when people, fickle as they are, choose to break the meta-law?) Examples: Too Like The Lightning; Accelerando; 2312; The Moon is a Harsh Mistress; The Star Fraction
Gender. To what extent people are defined by the gender they’re born in (and what does that even mean?), or the one they perform? What happens when people can change their own biologies, their societies? Are they changing their own selves? If so, is gender not really a part of the self? Who gets to decide it? You, or the people around you? Examples: Too Like The Lightning; The Rapture of the Nerds; 2312; Lock In
Power and Politics. What is power besides the ability to control other people’s choices? Is there, fundamentally, political power that is not tyranny? If we accept that there exist problems that require agent coordination (subtheme: What If There is Actually Evil in This World?), then we must accept the existence of Society. And with it, Power - and tyranny, and violence? Can people escape this? Examples: The Star Fraction; Accelerando; Too Like the Lightning; The Red Mars Trilogy; The Long Earth; Starship Troopers; The Broken Earth Trilogy
When I read these, I’m a little too suspicious that someone is reading into my brain and preparing a custom-tailored dopamine delivery mechanism. Predictably, I can’t stay away from the stuff.
The Nerds Shall Inherit The Earth. True nerdery is transcendent and badass. Often, it’s not just math and engineering nerdery. It’s the obsessive geeking out over some specific thing that ends up saving the world. Examples: Seveneves; Cryptonomicon; The Martian;
The Nice Guy Gets The Girl. Subthemes here include: Badass Damsel Suddenly In Distress, Only To Be Saved By Emotionally-Stunted Nerd Protagonist Who Then Realizes He Is, In Fact, Badass (But Worry Not, Damsel Will Go Back To Being A Backdrop At End of Chapter); Damsel Learns She Matters Only Through The Magic Power Of Protagonist Love. Sigh, enough with this shit already. (Bonus mini-rant. Joss Whedon is a feminist in the same sense that Hunter Thompson isn’t a total misanthrope. Compare it to the average of a big enough sample and you’re technically right. But is that really the best we could do?) Examples: Ready Player One; The Reckoners; The Atrocity Archives; Altered Carbon; Artemis (in Artemis this happens in the novel’s negative space, but it’s so telegraphed and annoying that I have to bring it up. Not to mention that Artemis suffers from men-writing-about-womenitis)
These big guns go pew pew pew and then we win. I don’t enjoy space opera largely because of this. Examples: Prador Moon, Consider Phlebas.