The Martian by Andy Weir

Prose changes over time. Popular fiction has always been influenced by other popular forms. Early novels borrowed structure from the epics and plays that came before, and some of those techniques still persist in the books and movies of today.

For better or worse, as attention spans for the written word have gradually shortened, it only makes sense to see fiction fitting itself into the abbreviated forms we’ve grown accustomed to in the age of the tweet.

The Martian is written mostly in the form of protagonist Mark Watney’s personal log, beginning on the day his team was forced to leave him for dead on Mars due to catastrophically bad luck.

With the main character in such complete isolation, his log entries are centered on himself, his thoughts, and the record of his own activities, written down without knowing whether anyone out there will ever read his words. So in effect you’re reading his blog. Some entries are rich with technical information, others are short, informal observations. Some are jokes that would fit into a tweet. All of it drips with a dark sense of humor that would be completely at home in social media.

If you’re the type who insists on traditional literary forms, where the tale is told in objective third-person and has a definite first, second, and third act, this style might feel un-literary. If you expect an almost allegorical level of metaphor — as we’ve seen in popular young adult fiction lately — the story may feel pointless.

But I assure you on both counts: it isn’t. The story comes at you in small, rapidly-digestible chunks, each one ending at the cusp of yet another one of Mark Watney’s life-and-death conundrums. There are larger conclusions about life and humanity one could draw from the story, but except for a one-paragraph homily toward the end, the author isn’t trying to thrust any of them on you.

You should read this book for the adventure, and for the utterly convincing realism. You will be transported to Mars, under some of the worst conditions, and you’ll love it.

Neuromancer: Digital Poetry

One can’t read Neuromancer today without noticing the strong influence it had on the writer(s) of The Matrix. Not only in terminology, but in the aesthetics of the story’s world. The universe of Neuromancer is not quite dystopian, but it is a world where technology, biological life, and artificial intelligences jumble together in an existence rife with conflict and death. As the novel that practically invented the cyberpunk genre, this should be no surprise.

The obvious piece of terminology borrowed from Neuromancer is the matrix itself. Except in the case of this novel, it is the word used to describe the digital realm, like the Internet, except it is experienced as direct sensory input. The matrix is a glowing three-dimensional world of fantastical colors and movement. Someone adept at navigating it, such as Case, the story’s protagonist, can break into storehouses of data the same way a master burglar might break into a museum. And that is the primary plot of this story: An epic digital heist orchestrated by a shadowy, unknown figure with consequences that are cosmic in scope.

If you want to see an author demonstrate a poetic ability to describe altered-consciousness experiences, you should read this book. For me, the single most striking feature of the book was the author’s treatment of Case’s experiences with mind-altering drugs and the world of the Matrix. It had a visceral clarity I normally associate with excellent poetry. Gibson’s flourishes of sound and timing created the sensation that I was in Case’s head, feeling his euphoria, his disorientation, or even his pain. I can remember setting the book down after one of Case’s harrowing episodes with drugs and saying to myself, “Well, now I know what it’s like to be on LSD.”

Rushing through the Matrix to steal an AI program or suffering the comedown from an acid trip were some of the book’s more exciting parts, but there was a more abstract reason I feel this book is best described with the phrase “digital poetry.” This digital world was a living universe of extremes, of danger and adventure. Most people picture the world of technology as stark, lifeless and harsh: like HAL9000, the merciless creature of logic in 2001: A Space Odyssey. For William Gibson the future technological world will cross-pollinate with our organic lives so completely it will be hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. He sees a future where artificial intelligences not only exist, but are in a sense more alive than we are. Over a century and a half before, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, wherein technology produces something monstrous and irreconcilable. Neuromancer is far more optimistic: Technology produces a world that is more real (for some people at least) than reality, and produces creatures that are bigger, more intelligent, and possibly more alive, than human beings. In the world of Neuromancer, technology augments human bodies, extends the reach of their senses, and amplifies their minds.

The concept of a superior artificial being is used in many science fiction stories, so often in fact that it seems as though we assume one day our creations will surpass us, and almost certainly kill us. In most cases the artifice turns on us, as in 2001The Matrix, and a thousand other dystopian futures where the robots take over. For Gibson, most of those expectations of mankind’s digital progeny are there, including their high intelligence, incredible speed, and mastery even of manipulating human minds. But absent is much of the menace, malice or vengeance. Indeed, the characters fear and distrust the AI even while it employs them, but one of the great surprises of the novel is what it does with its power.

I take this to mean the author sees technology not as a Pandora’s Box, but as a beautiful and inevitable part of mankind’s future.

A Deepness in the Sky: A Fable of Liberty and Tyranny

A Deepness in the Sky is easily in my top three favorite science fiction novels of all time. It is a story that envisions what humanity’s spacefaring future might be, and the questions we’ll have to answer when making first contact. Best of all, it is about the eternal struggle between liberty and tyranny.

Vernor Vinge has a remarkable talent for world-building. In this book he constructs a universe in which planetary civilizations rise and fall, while a culture of traders called the Qeng Ho (pronounced “Cheng Ho”) shuttle across the cosmos in great ramscoop fleets. The traders themselves live on their ships in a commercial meritocracy, and through their extensive travel and trade manage to spark settled human planets that have fallen into poverty, and glean the best advances from worlds that have come up with new inventions.

The story begins with the discovery of a non-human intelligence orbiting a mysterious star making its first radio signals. A Qeng Ho fleet rushes to investigate, only to be met by a fleet calling themselves Emergents. The Emergents come from an authoritarian society, as opposed to the free-trading meritocracy enjoyed by the Qeng Ho. The Emergents are not merely totalitarians. They have invented a unique technology that allows them to hijack human minds, and turn those humans into highly efficient automatons. This process called “focus” is a form of slavery, and appears to be more than a match for the sophisticated technological automation used by the Qeng Ho.

From the very first meeting of these two societies, there is tension. The two are competitors. Whoever is able to open trade first with the newly discovered race of “Spiders” on the planet below will enjoy unheard-of profits. Cooperation would benefit them both, but as in real life, authoritarians are not as interested in cooperation as they are in domination. Continue reading “A Deepness in the Sky: A Fable of Liberty and Tyranny”