May. 30th, 2008


21. We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, translated by Mirra Ginsburg

We is a dystopian satire, written in 1922, in the early days of the Soviet Union. It is said to have been an influence on 1984 and Brave New World, but it is, I think, superior to those works. It is far less dark than 1984, with a wonderfully satirical feel to it, as opposed to the preachiness of 1984.

We takes place 1,000 years after the establishment of the One State, a worldwide nation, run on the basis of pure logic and mathematical precision. It is written as a diary by the narrator, D-503, chief builder of the spacecraft Integral. The Integral is to bring happiness to alien worlds who may still be living in the "primitive condition of freedom". By way of evangelizing to any aliens who may be discovered, all citizens of the One State who are capable of doing so are ordered to produce writings exalting the joys of the One State.

D-503 begins innocently, enthusiastically, believing in the perfection of the One State and the carefully-regimented, unfree, society. However, he encounters a woman, I-330, who causes him to question his society. Gradually he loses faith in the One State, descending - as he sees it - into sickness, into madness. He develops a sense of individuality, a soul.

Despite his growing discontent, he continues to see the problem as being within himself, not with the One State.

Amidst this discontent, which is shared by a growing number of citizens of the One State, a bold new discovery is announced - State Science has found the location of the imagination in the brain, and has developed an operation which will remove the imagination, removing the last barrier to "happiness".

Apr. 4th, 2008


17. Startide Rising by David Brin

I've read Startide Rising before. It is book 2 of Brin's Uplift Trilogy (I can't find book one for some reason; I know I own it, but it's nowhere to be found).

The Uplift Trilogy takes place in the Five Galaxies, a group of galaxies including our own which are linked by hyperspatial travel and a common set of traditions, a 2-billion-year-old civilization. This civilization was started by the semi-legendary Progenitors, the first sentient species. Since the time of the Progenitors, every species has been linked in the Uplift Cycle. Sentient races find pre-sentient species, intelligent animals effectively, and, through a millennia-long process of genetic engineering, breeding, and social engineering raise them up to be starfaring, sentient, species. This cycle was first started by the Progentor, and since that time, it is believed that no species has evolved sentience on their own. Indeed, most of the species in the Five Galaxies believe that it is impossible for sentience to evolve without Uplift. The species that is uplifted is referred to as the Client, and the species that does the uplift is the Patron. Clients are expected to "repay" their Patrons with a 100,000-year-long period of indenture, during which the Patron race has tremendous legal power over their clients. There is little in the way of galactic government, each species (and any clients) is a nation-type entity. There are various institutions bringing them together, such as the Library and the Galactic Institute of Migration, which have some power over the various species. Galactic civilization is very slow-paced. Science and technology grow with extreme slowness, as most simply prefer to refer to the Library. Independent research is generally frowned upon, as, for one, it's often useless. Chances are, whatever you discover has been discovered before. Also, there is a strongly-engrained antipathy to innovation. Eventually, most species either die out or evolve onto another plane, and leave galactic civilization. In the final stages, they generally retire to a small number of worlds and cut off contact.

Some 300 years prior to the book, humanity made first contact with Galactic Civilization when they unknowingly violated Galactic Law by colonizing a planet that was off-limits to settlement (planets are regularly declared off-limits to allow for natural evolutionary processes to procede, and possibly produce new pre-sentients). As it turns out, humanity had already begun uplifting chimpanzees and dolphins on their own before encountering the Galactics, or "Eatees" as they are derogatorily known. Humanity was massively shaken by this encounter. Everything they were proud of, all their accomplishments, were now seen as hopelessly primitive. They were technological primitives in a dangerous galaxy, a galaxy in which many species were hostile towards humanity. Their unwitting violation of galactic law was forgiven, as they'd been ignorant of the law. More seriously however is the challenge to the generally-held doctrine that sapience cannot evolve. Most galactics assume that some unknown species must have begun humanity's uplift, and then abandoned them half-way. (There have been a few other stories of such species; but few "wolfling" races have survived long) Humanity initially rejected this view, holding fast to the view that they evolved on their own, but by the time of Startide Rising, most had accepted the "lost Patron" view, though some "heretics" did still remain. Humanity was also looked upon with suspicion for their love of innovation and general ignorance of galactic civilization. In the past 300 years, humanity had incorporated a great deal of Galactic science, but still remained behind the rest of the galaxies. The fact that they had begun Uplifting chimps and dolphins gave them Patron status, but there are still many species which would like to wipe out humanity or have them declared a client.

In the midst of this tense situation, a mostly-dolphin-crewed Earth ship, the Streaker, makes a startling discovery - ancient ships, over a billion years old, in an isolated region of space. They report their discovery back to Earth, and are immediately ordered to go into hiding, and avoid capture if at all possible. Their message had, however, been intercepted, and ships from dozens of powerful fanatic species attempt to capture them. Something about their discovery had religious meaning. The galactic religions all center on the Progenitors, and what their fate was. Many believe that the Progenitors will return some day, and different groups have different beliefs about how and when this will happen. These variations can inspire the same degree of religious hatred as Catholic/Protestant or Sunni/Shiite or other such divisions have among humanity. And so the Streaker finds itself pursued by huge fleets of religious fanatics, saved only by the same fanatics fighting each other over the right to capture the Streaker and gain the information they'd discovered.

The Streaker hides on a mostly-ocean-covered world known as Kithrup, where they are discovered. The book takes place on Kithrup as the Earthlings tensely await the outcome of the battle in surrounding space, and try to find a way to escape. They also discover a pre-sentient race living on Kithrup. The story largely focuses on the events on the planetbound starship, with some of the dolphins reverting to less-sentient behaviors under the stress. This story is interspersed with brief chapters taking place on various alien ships.

Mar. 24th, 2008


16. Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke

Rendezvous with Rama is a classic of hard sci-fi. The plot revolved around a mysterious alien ship dubbed Rama by its discoverers, who initially thought it was a peculiar asteroid, until it got close enough for more detailed observations. A survey ship is sent to Rama, the only one close enough to rendezvous with it. The crew enter Rama and explore it, initially in darkness. At first it's believed that the ship was dead, that whatever its original purpose had been, it had failed and was devoid of any kind of life. But then it comes to life, though the creatures that fill it completely ignore humanity. They only had a few weeks to explore before they were forced to break off from Rama due to Rama approaching too close to the Sun. And then Rama simply slingshots around the Sun and leaves the Solar System, completely ignoring humanity.

It's a very interesting book. There isn't much in the way of interpersonal drama or other character-driven storylines (and many reviewers on Amazon considered the book rather dull for that reason), however, there is a strong sense of mystery and awe. It involved professionals attempting to figure out a scientific puzzle, and leaving nearly as ignorant as they'd come. It's one of my favorite Clarke books, but admittedly not for everyone.