Tuesday, December 30, 2014

A Fire Upon The Deep by Vernor Vinge

A group of human explorers have found an ancient and valuable data archive. While they study it, they accidentally wake up a powerful artificial intelligence with apparently very malicious goals. One of the human ships manages to escape and eventually lands on an unknown planet. The natives are dog-like creatures with a group intelligence of sorts. A single unit is slightly smarted than a common dog, a group of five or six is at least on the human level. All the adults of the ship are killed in a surprise attack and two young children survive in care of two different and opposing groups of aliens. Meanwhile, the newly woken intelligence seems to be spreading. At first it is assumed to be a “normal" transcended “evil” AI, which appear about once every century and usually run their course in about a decade and generally destroy only a few dozen civilizations at most - nothing really significant from the galactic viewpoint. But it seems that something more might be going on.
The universe where the book happens is an interesting one: there are zones which enable different levels of technology and thought. Near the core of the Milky Way there are areas where all intelligence is impossible, a little farther (where the Earth is situated) the birth of intelligent species is possible, but true artificial intelligence, faster than light travel and antigravity are impossible. Farther out those are possible and common and there are god-like supers intelligences which usually have little interest on the affairs of lesser races.
The book was slightly overlong and especially those parts, where the rescue ship was slowly approaching the planet felt pretty slow. And the parts which happened on the planet involving the dog creatures and children felt far too short and too far apart, those were the interesting bits. This was probably my least favorite book by Vernor Vinge, but it was by no means a bad one, but I was expecting more from it – I had read so many positive reviews of it. Hugo winners: three to go – the completion of that reading challenge might happen during the next year.

624 pp.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

I Think You'll Find it's a Bit More Complicated Than That by Ben Goldacre

A collection of mostly fairly short critical and skeptical essays. Most of them have been published on Goldcare’s column on Guardian (apparently the best newspaper in Britain). There were a few pretty random and not so readable or interesting ones (like a foreword to a book about small railroads – what did that have to do with this book?), but most of the essays were very good, even when some of them concerned pretty local details like some intricacies of NHS, while many have wider interest. Especially interesting were a couple articles about the “Medical Hypothesis” journal, the chosen journal where the Finnish scammer, Valkee, publishes its’ “studies” about how an ear light “cures” seasonal fatigue. The quality of that journal seems to be even worse than I imagined. Certainly there would be a dire need for a similar journalist in Finland, who is capable of critique stupid misuses of numbers, statistics and mathematics in journalism and in “public” science reporting which is made government and other official or semi-official organizations. Bad reporting and poor grasp of numbers is truly international. As a whole this is not as good and interesting book as “Bad Science” was, but very interesting one anyway. The book contains exhaustive references, so many them that I was surprised when the actual book ended – as according to the reading app there was still a significant percentage of the book left.

496 pp.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Mauri Sariola: Susikoski ottaa omansa

A detective tries to find out who killed a beautiful young wife of a rich businessman. A smoothly written book which was fast to read. No a great literary work, but entertaining.

Olen viimeksi Mauri Sariolan kirjoja lukenut joskus noin 20 vuotta sitten. Niistä oli jäänyt ihan kohtalaisen hyvät mielikuvat, mitään suurta kirjallisuutta en niiden muistanut olevan, mutta viihdyttäviä letkeää kevyttä viihde luettavaa kuitenkin. Elisa kirjaan oli tullut Sariolan vanhoja dekkareita varsin edullisesti myytäväksi, ja ostin sieltä yhden aikalailla umpimähkään luettavakseni. Valitsin sellaisen, jonka nimi tuntui oudolta ajatellen, että näin ainakaan en lukisi uudelleen sellaista kirjaa, jonka olin jo aikaisemmin lukenut. Tämä kirja oli mitä siltä odotinkin, eli kevyttä varsin sujuvasti kirjoitettua ja viihdyttävää ja samalla melko perinteistä salapoliisi kirjallisuutta. Etsivä Susikosken nuori työtoveri lähtee alkoholin huuruisen illanvieton päätteeksi mukaan käytännön pilaan, jossa hän kutsuu jo tunnetun etsivän Kulosaarelaiseen hienostohuvilaan keksityn murhan varjolla. Yllättäen tuo ”keksitty” murha sitten osoittautuukin todeksi ja rikkaan teollisuuspampun nuori ja kaunis vaimo on myrkytetty vauhdikkaan illanvieton päätteeksi. Aluksi kenelläkään ei oikein hyvää motiivia tunnu olevan, paitsi vuorineuvoksen kauniilla tyttärellä, joka ei montaa vuotta äitipuoltaan nuorempi ollut, ja joiden keskinäiset välit vähemmän yllättävästi eivät kaikkein parhaimpia olleet olleet. Mutta voisiko fiksu, kaunis (ja rikas) tyttö, joka erittäin helposti kietoo kymmenkunta vuotta iäkkäämmän rikostarkastajankin pikkusormensa ympärille voinut syyllistä tällaiseen tekoon – ja etenkin mikä motivaatio hänellä olisi voinut olla pian tapahtuvaan toiseen murhaan? Voiko etsivä Susikosken objektiivisuuteen luottaa?
Tosiaan nopealukuinen ja viihdyttävä kirja, jonka loppuratkaisu olisi ehkä hiukan lian helppo, eikä välttämättä täysin looginen. Itse lukiessani keksi parikin muuta mahdollista syytä ja motiivia murhiin, jotka ainakin oman arvioni mukaan olisivat jopa toimineet paremmin.
272 s

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Mammoth Book of Science Fiction

A large (and pretty good) collection stories read piece by piece during the last 12-14 months. The overall quality was pretty good; most of the stories were well worth reading. There from a wide variety of source and time periods giving an interesting cross section of science fiction.

Ulla, Ulla • (2002) • shortstory by Eric Brown
The first expedition to Mars returns. There was a strange break-up of transmission during a Mars-walk, and rumors abound that the expedition made some strange discovery. The members of the expedition naturally deny everything and tell that to breakup was due from one member of the group dropping into a chasm. But there was really a find – something really unexpected. A very well told story. There was perhaps too little drama, but otherwise excellent story. ****
Deathday • [Confederation Universe Stories] • (1991) • novelette by Peter F. Hamilton
A man, whose wife has died from a disease on a new, very sparsely habited colony planet, hunts an alien beast as a way to cope with his grief. A well-written story with a twist which was surprising on other hand, but on the other was a pretty well know sf trope. ***½
The Infinite Assassin • (1991) • shortstory by Greg Egan
An assassin is able to perceive the countless (countless like the real numbers, not just countless like integers) alternative realities. His goal is to stop the spread of a vortex of slippage between realities, caused by dreams of a drug user. As he gets closer, the reality is shifting more and more. As he is the same in all the realities he, or at least some version of him, is able to get closer…A very good, well written alternative realities story. ****
Anachron • (1954) • shortstory by Damon Knight
A man discovers a way to make a sort of time portal. He starts to steal antiques through it. It seems that there are some strict natural laws preventing paradoxes. The story is fairly confusing, and even the protagonist has some trouble understanding what exactly is going on. A pretty average story. ***
Firewatch • [Time Travel] • (1982) • novelette by Connie Willis (variant of Fire Watch)
A story from the Oxford time travel series. As usual all characters are bumbling idiots and the organization of time travelers is totally incompetent. A student who was supposed to study the actual St Paul at Middle East journeys to the St. Paul Cathedral during the Blitz. I wonder if the world of these stories suffered some sort of plague, which lowered everyone’s IQ by 30-40 points? The “hero” of the story is a very good example of a typical whiny and stupid person, who is the common protagonist in Willis’s stories. ***
At the 'Me' Shop • (1995) • novelette by Robert Reed
A young boy is taking care of a shop, where you can’t book “a date” with yourself at earlier age. There are different people who meeting different age versions of themselves for different purposes. A poetically written story, but seems to lack something. ***
Vinland the Dream • (1991) • shortstory by Kim Stanley Robinson
A dig which studies the remains of the Vikings in the presumed site of Vinland. It is starting to seem that all the ruins are a very elaborate hoax from the 19th century. The writing is pretty good but aside some philosophical points I really didn’t get what was the meaning of the story. ***+
A Ticket to Tranai • (1955) • novelette by Robert Sheckley
A well known classic about a man who hears about a nice planet where life is really free. There are no taxes, there ample opportunities for everyone and women are young and beautiful. But it turns out that there are some catches. And then some more catches. And then even more. An excellent ironic story, one of the funniest and best science fiction novelettes ever. *****
The Exit Door Leads In • (1979) • shortstory by Philip K. Dick
A man takes part to a lottery and “wins” a compulsory military college education. The school and education seem kind of surreal and there might be a hidden agenda behind everything. Not one what could be expected, though. A pretty good story which felt a bit rushed, a slightly longer form might have been better. ***+
What Have I Done? • (1952) • shortstory by Mark Clifton
A man is able to “see” inside anyone almost instantly. He can tell what kind of person anyone is. He is working as an employment agent and is perfectly suited for the job. One day he meets a man who feels empty inside. He turns out to be an alien and the aliens are planning to conquer the Earth. The employment agent is more or less blackmailed to help the aliens in their assimilation. But he has a plan, a pretty nihilistic one. A pretty dark story considering that aliens are most likely defeated. Mark Clifton apparently really hated humankind. ***½
Finis • (1906) • shortstory by Frank Lillie Pollock [as by Frank L. Pollock ]
End of the world story. The light of the giant sun at the exact centre of the universe finally arrives at Earth. The scientific background was very quaint and likely implausible even from the standard of 1906, but the writing was surprisingly readable and even moving. I wonder if Larry Niven was familiar with this story – there is a major similarity with “Inconstant Moon”. ***½
The Last Days of Earth: Being the Story of the Launching of the "Red Sphere" • (1901) • shortstory by Geo. C. Wallis [as by George C. Wallis ]
Another end of the world story. This time the sun is running out, and the few last humans are waiting for the failure of last human machines. For some reason they are allowed to leave only then in a ball shaped space ship, which is apparently run by magic. Clearly less good than the former story and more dated. **½
Approaching Perimelasma • (1998) • novelette by Geoffrey A. Landis
A trip through a black hole. The protagonist is an AI copy of a human who is loaded to a very tiny robot onboard a tiny experimental ship. A first part was kind of slow, but the second half gave a lot of wonderful sense of wonder. A nice story. ***½
The Pen and the Dark • (1966) • novelette by Colin Kapp
An expedition to a strange alien artifact, which seems to absorb everything, both matter and energy which hits it, and seems to suck out all energy which even comes near. A pretty talky and pretty stupid story, with fairly fascinating alien object, but with horribly inane science. So absurd, that it could have been written in the 30s. Badly overlong and with weak finish. **
Inanimate Objection • (1954) • novelette by H. Chandler Elliott
Physical objects have malicious effort against people, or at least a mental patient thinks so. His doctors might be persuaded to think so, also as the evidence seems to be mounting. Pretty unlikely, but okayish story. ***-
The Very Pulse of the Machine • (1998) • novelette by Michael Swanwick
A woman is trying to survive on Io. She is the lone survivor of an accident which left her friend dead. There is a fair chance that she is able to hike to a base where there is oxygen and supplies available. But then someone or something establishes a radio contact with her. Who is talking to her? Or is it only a hallucination? And should she do what the voice suggests? A well written and excellent story with interesting main character. Could have been longer. ****
High Eight • (1965) • novelette by Keith Roberts [as by David Stringer ]
People burnt to crisp are found more and more near electric installations. A maintenance boss of an electric company tries to find out what is going on. There doesn’t seem to be any god explanation why people suddenly electrocute themselves. A badly overlong and rambling story with a downbeat ending. **½
Shards • (1962) • shortstory by Brian W. Aldiss
The start is confusing and very fragmented, just a stream of feeling and sights. The end explains everything pretty well. A nice story which works pretty well. ***½
Except My Life³ • (1991) • novelette by John Morressy (variant of Except My Life, Except My Life, Except My Life)
A group of clones (who works as a private detective) tries to solve a crime involving the best actor/actress (also cloned) ever have existed. A pretty inventive and well written story, but some tightened might have made it more effective. A fascinating way to indicated what clone was doing and saying what. They were all “I”, but with different superscripts, like I1 and me3. ****-
Into Your Tent I'll Creep • (1957) • shortstory by Eric Frank Russell
An emissary of alien visitors finds that he can hear the thoughts of dogs. Dogs are apparently the real masters of the earth, subtly influencing humans via mind control. And humans have already donated a breeding pair of dogs for the aliens. And the dogs seem really, really cute and something which should be pampered…A fun little story. But I was slightly disappointed that the REAL masters of Earth were not mentioned. Not a word about cats. ****
A Death in the House • (1959) • shortstory by Clifford D. Simak
A lonely farmer rescues a ship wrecked alien. He tries to get help from someone, but doesn’t find anyone who would be able and/or ready to offer any. When the alien dies the local priest refuses burial in the cemetery. The farmer respectfully buries the alien on his own property. He is due for a surprise, but he must also make a sacrifice. A wonderfully story thematically very close to Way Station, one of my all-time favorite novels. This might even be a prequel of sorts? ****+
Refugium • shortstory by Stephen Baxter
Humans have started to explore other solar systems with remote probes. No intelligent life has been found, but there are a lot of ruins which seem abandoned. There are some strange looking bubbles orbiting many of those worlds. Then similar bubbles are found on Oort Cloud making it possible to get to them. Two men with severe financial trouble are more or less forced to go inside one by a fairly disrespectful business man. (I believe there would be a few million volunteers...). And there is a solution for the Fermi paradox. An excellent story, but too short. Well, _nothing_ would long enough to properly convey what might happen next. ****+

498 pp.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Analog Science Fiction and Fact, January-February 2015

A pretty good issue, mostly nice, well written stories.

Malnutrition • novelette by J. T. Sharrah
An alien ambassador is almost murdered at a diplomatic reception. The species in question has an extremely strong taboo against eating in public. While he is unconscious he is fed and that causes “some” problems for all concerned. The first half of the story was better than the last half where events “rolled in” fairly fast and fairly unsatisfactorily. Also, I wonder how the diplomatic corps (both alien and human) are so unfamiliar with different customs and can’t really even suspect that the alien habits might be unfamiliar and strange. ***+
The Yoni Sutra • shortstory by Priya Chand
A short story about future India where women wear implants which prevent any men (outside of family) even touching them. And even looking at a woman without permission is punishable – painfully so. Just a glimpse to a fascinating world. A newlywed woman (with no knowledge of sex) is coping with different pressures and attitudes. Good writing, but too short. ***+
The Great Leap of Shin • novella by Henry Lien
A prequel (?) for a story which was published in Asimov’s. A scientific advisor of the emperor of China is trying to trigger a huge earthquake (by getting almost everyone in China to jump at a harmonic frequency – among other schemes). The resulting earthquake would destroy the island of Pearl, a wonderful island made from extremely slippery material enabling skating everywhere. A group of youngster has come to make the plea for stopping the “great leap” so that their home would be saved. An excellent and well written story. If this were published later in the year, it would have been a strong contender for awards. Now it is going to take more than a year before it is eligible. ****+
Just Browsing • novelette by Stephen Lombard
Aliens have come. They have only limited time, but one thing they want to see is a library in a small town. Why? There is a somewhat good reason and they find something else interesting, another fairly good story, but the relationship stuff somehow didn't ring true. ***
Ulenge Prime • shortstory by Chuck Rothman
An African dictator builds a space station by a rule of terror. When the inevitable coup comes he escapes there with his wife. Is there a reason for his madness? A short, implausible but even sad story. ***
Long Way Gone • shortstory by David L. Clements
A copy of a man despairs on an alien planet. He and his wife were supposed to be copied simultaneously to a ready built (by nano machines) base, but for some reason she didn't do it. He has some trouble adjusting. Another well written story, but it is just a glance, just a "changing point", and something is lacking from the whole. ***
Why the Titanic Hit the Iceberg • shortstory by Jerry Oltion
Earth is almost destroyed. The richest of the rich live at a huge space station enjoying indecent luxury, while the service staff is planning a revolution. A good but nihilistic and pessimistic story. ***½
Fool's Errand • shortstory by Judith Tarr
A horse wakes up from deep sleep during a hyperspace journey. Unfortunately, no living things can survive jumping phase of the trip without proper shielding (except cats and ferrets). Should the magnificent animal be put down or is there a way? A fairly good story with perhaps too easy ending. ***
Samsara and Ice • shortstory by Andy Dudak
Two soldiers have battle which last centuries. The wake up periodically, and one kills another. The is a conditioning to perform like that. But once another put down his weapon. The back story in the beginning was pretty thick, but when the story got going it was pretty good.***+
Unmother • shortstory by Lex Wilson
Sentient white cells/nano machines/alien invaders (?) live inside a human brain. One of the “cells” (or whatever they are) leads a mutiny of sorts against theirs “mother” and helps other to escape probable doom (a brain tumor?). A pretty strange story where it was kind of hard to grasp what really was going on, and what the protagonists were. But surprisingly readable in spite of that. ***
Marduk's Folly • shortstory by Sean Vivier
Aliens are approaching solar system, and miss earth as they believe no habitable planets might be so close the sun. Very short, nothing really special. **
Usher • novelette by Jay Werkheiser
Aliens have landed on Canada. They don't seem to be able to hear anything and they don't respond to any visual means of communication, either. A psychologist with Usher's syndrome (almost blind and deaf, using cochlear implants) tries to establish contact. But the UN troops are arriving to take over. Unreasonably unreasonable UN troops who apparent are able to arrive to Canada by jaunting, or how the takeover is so fast? But the way the aliens perceive the reality is pretty novel. Not bad, but the hint of US paranoia with invading UN troops is irritating. ***+
Defender of Worms • [Floyd and Brittney] • novella by Richard A. Lovett
Continues a series an Artificial Intelligence, who was born more or less accidently. She is on run, as other AIs who live on the Internet want to assimilate her – and as she really values her individuality she really doesn’t want that. She lives inside a chip which is installed in a rich heiress, who is avoiding the politician mother. Together their form a firm friendship and try to survive “off the grid”. A good story, like the other instalments of the series. Probably wouldn’t work alone, as it is an integral (the last one?) part of the series. ***½