Artificial intelligence has become one of the most common staples in science-fiction, the embodiment of human concerns with being replaced. Our collective worry about creating machines smarter and stronger than us crystallized into its own genre. Artificial intelligence, or A.I., is all over fiction, yet very difficult to get just right. For every successful A.I. story, there are piles of unsuccessful ones. Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, and Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell all come to mind as stories about A.I. done right. Unfortunately, The God Game by Danny Tobey never quite reaches the heights its predecessors achieved.
Every story has a theme, a focus running side-by-side with the plot that thoroughly defines the very nature of the book. When a person asks what a book is about, there are always two answers; the plot, and the themes. For example, The Lord of the Rings is about the battle between good and evil, and the nature of heroism. It is also the story of a hobbit crossing the world to throw an evil ring into a volcano. In a similar vein, Splintegrate, by Deborah Teramis Christian, is a story about bodily autonomy and the nature of identity. It is about what happens when outside machinations violate one’s body and personality without consent. It is also an engaging science-fiction thriller about a professional dominatrix charged with assassinating a mob boss. The high level of technology present in a science-fiction setting allows for a practical examination of identity outside of the thought experiments of today.
Science-fiction and fantasy may appear to be very different genres at first glance. Once is full of advanced technologies, with a focus on scientific progress and how that works within the setting. Fantasy focuses on magic and oftentimes breaking the rules of the physical world in the pursuit of power. However, the two are full of more similarities than differences. Both can take place on Earth, or on another world. The world can have creatures other than humans, be they aliens or elves. Fantasy can sometimes show technology powered by magic, while highly advanced technology can sometimes appear indistinguishable from magic depending on who witnesses it. Popular franchises such as Warhammer, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, and even Star Wars, all find compelling ways to blend genres. Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir, blends science-fiction and fantasy in a wonderfully gruesome way.
Science-fiction is one of the most versatile genres of fiction around, capable of combining settings with any other tale. Science-fiction as a genre is also a bit of a misnomer. The average science-fiction story is not just science-fiction. Tales can be action films, adventure stories, romance, horror, and more. From Blade Runner to Black Mirror, from Polaris Rising to Foundation. Science-fiction can be defined by both fun and thoughtfulness, and there is always a place for a fun adventure that does not require readers to analyze every paragraph. Books like The Forbidden Stars, Tim Pratt’s third novel in the Axiom trilogy, show the importance of such escapism while also taking the opportunity to define a possible future. While entertaining, the novels also take some time to normalize behaviors and lifestyles, sexual orientations and body modifications. Science-fiction lets us see all futures and revel in them.
There is a certain amount of joy gained in reading some fiction. Fiction meant to entertain, to transport the readers to fantastical worlds and witness the deeds of heroic peoples. Where literary fiction tends to prioritize specific word choice and meaning over plot and character, many authors realize that there can be greater value in drawing in and entertaining your audience. Sometimes the best books are the ones that make you forget that you are reading words on a page, instead conjuring images in your imagination. These are the kinds of books that are hard to put down, and you wonder how you managed to read through them so quickly. These types of books thrive in science-fiction, where most things, if not all things, are possible. The only barrier is the author’s imagination.
Read the Rest!
Time travel is one of the best travelled staples of science-fiction, from books to television shows to movies, it is the ultimate form of exploration. The concept of time travel is almost as old as the history of writing, with the first known written example dating to around 400 BCE. In the Sanskrit epic, Mahabharata, King Raivata Kakudmi journeys to heaven to meet Brahma, the Hindu creator god. When he returns to the moral world, centuries have passed. Time travel in fiction, from this ancient epic to Stargate and Doctor Who, usually involves physically transporting one-self through time, bringing your body and memories with you. Threats include meeting your past self, or encountering the grandfather paradox, or making changes to the past which may affect the future. Very rarely do we get a novel in a similar vein to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, where time travel is a person journey into your own memories.
This month we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, where the first humans in history stepped foot on the Moon. The first steps a human took on a celestial body other than the Earth. For all of known history, we have looked to the stars and wondered what was out there. Today, we know more than we ever have about the worlds beyond our own, but that has does nothing to stop people’s imaginations from filling in the blanks. Tiamat’s Wrath is the latest novel in James S. A. Corey’s ground-breaking science fiction series, The Expanse. Beginning in 2011 with Leviathan Wakes, these books have taken a realistic approach to fictional space travel, using the technology of today to extrapolate and imagine what space exploration may look like in the future. It is not an exaggeration to say that The Expanse is one of the greatest works of modern science-fiction.
Tomorrow morning I will be posting a review of James S. A. Corey’s Tiamat’s Wrath, book 8 in one of my favorite works of modern science-fiction, The Expanse. This eventual 9 book series has been released almost every year since 2011, and even spawned The Expanse tv series, recently purchased by Amazon. As this review is concerning a sequel, much of what I discuss may not make sense to someone who is not familiar with the story. Unfortunately, this is not a series I would recommend jumping into partway through.
If you have not read The Expanse series yet, I highly suggest catching up on this excellent work of science-fiction. I consider this series to be one of the defining works of modern science-fiction. To see my thoughts on the series until now, check out my previous posts “2017 Reading List Part 5” which talks about the first 6 books in the series, and “The Art of Empire Building,” my review of book 7.
The first episode of Doctor Who aired on November 23rd, 1963. William Hartnell starred as The First Doctor, although he would not known to be only the first until a couple years later when, as part of a plot device, the Doctor regenerated into another body played by another actor. This is a character who travels through time with their companions, solving problems and resolving conflicts. There have been Thirteen doctors to date, with a few unnumbered appearing in small roles. The latest episode aired on January 1st, 2019. Like the title character, Doctor Who transforms itself for newer generations while maintaining a place in the heart of pop culture. This is a show that means so much to so many and the world is better for it.
Science-fiction takes many forms, but there are two archetypes which nearly all science-fiction stories fall into. First, there is the hard sci-fi. The Expanse, The Three-Body Problem, anything by Robert A. Heinlein. These are the stories which pay extra attention to the technologies of the future and go to great lengths to explain exactly how races have progressed to their points. This type of science-fiction can be literary, it can be intellectual, and it can be gritty. On the other end of the spectrum is the space opera. Star Wars, Firefly, A Princess of Mars. In space operas the technology is present, but is not central to the story. These stories are all about the characters. Where hard sci-fi series can fluctuate between multiple viewpoints, space operas relish in following an individual or a group of characters throughout their adventure. As our world changes and progresses, hard science-fiction and sometimes feel outdated, but space operas are timeless. Polaris Rising is very much a space opera.