Review: Rule 34, by Charles Stross

Fast, fun, and highly rhetorical if not downright political. The standalone – yes, I think it works well on its own – sequel to Halting State Stross‘ Rule 34 is a good read.

The story revolves around sidestepped and showed sidewards Inspector Liz, a set of murders that are too coincidental to be coincidence, and the cast that comes with it.

At first the way the story is told throws me a little. To tell a story from different perspectives is relatively common in modern SF; that was not unusual. No. What got to me was that the story of every person is described as by someone else. Soon enough I got used to it, to the extent that I started to reflect on it… and indeed – it is a clue. The track grows stronger in the last third of the book, where clues are dotted all around – sometimes begging you to backtrack what you read, to check the way another person experienced it… and so the ending does not surprise.

Still, done in a neat way, so not to depend on the surprise moment.

Like with Halting State I think anyone living in the modern world should read it. Not for its poetic values and fantastic storytelling. There are, after all, better authors than Stross out there. No, you should read it because it is highly relevant to the times that we live in, asking questions about where we’re headed, and how.

This perfect day, indeed.

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Review: Cyberabad Days, by Ian McDonald

Good science fiction is the domain of people who have something to say, some questions to pose, regarding what we humans and our societies and our cultures are. In that science fiction is a genre that can be urgent and immediate, facilitating discussion on topics on ethics and identity and cause and consequence on a level way beyond what is possible when you have to deal with the ordinary and everyday life in the here and now. Because to science fiction there is a possibility closed to others – the possibility to extrapolate future, to ask and explore the kind of “what if” that relates to society, politics and economics.

Ian McDonald is one of these great “what if”-people. In Cyberabad Days he explores the “what ifs” of artificial intelligence, man and machine and the self-interested middle class and its hunt for ever more personal glory against a background of  “what if” India got balkanized. The means is a series of short stories, some would call it a short story collection. But this is to belittle the book because each of the stories, together with River of Gods, build to something that is far more than a series of disconnected tales – it is a suite of different perspectives on the suicidal trip India’s upper middle classes enters upon as they try to outdo each other in wealth and glory; the stories showcases the effects on society as a whole, without never ever leaving the little person behind.

My favourite stories are The Dust Assassin, An Eligible Boy, The Little Goddess, and The Djinn’s Wife (which made me think of Iain M Banks‘ Culture books in general and Surface Detail in particular), but all are very good. And most of all – without the rest of them the last story, the one that actually relate to River of Gods in a more substantial way, would lose some of it’s impact.

Anyone who have read and enjoyed River of Gods should read Cyberabad Days. Anyone who have not read River of Gods yet should do so first to be able to wholly appreciate Cyberabad Days but it IS readble on it’s own, too.

And any which way Ian McDonald is one of the most important of our current authors, SF genre or not. Not only because he has something to say but because he says it well, respecting his readership and our brains, to think for ourselves.

Go support a living author. Go get one of his books. And start thinking.

Review: River of Gods, by Ian McDonald

River of Gods is a truly collective story, told as seen through the eyes of nine different people, living their different lives. Some are people of power, some are not, but they are all played by the main, hidden, character the revelation of which is a main turning point in the tale. Some such stories can be hard to follow but this one is not. Instead it reminds me of the ideas of “the weave of time” or “life mosaic”, were a lot of small pieces or different strands all contribute to a greater picture, an image larger than any of it’s pieces. For this is a well written and expertly told tale, as told by the cybernetic fires of the future.

What makes the book so good is not the inventiveness, nor the clever plot. Sometimes when I anticipate a certain development in a story I feel *d’uh* when it finally arrives. Not so this time, nor did the truly sciencefictional conclusion feel beyond belief, even if that’s what it was. No, the true greatness of this book is the vivid textures, the smells, the cast – all interesting, capturing the curiosity of at least this reader, even when they are disgusting or overzealous or delusional. Because when they are they are human, and true to their respective character. And in the end, for all their free will, they have been goaded in the same direction, to replay a greater story…

Definitely recommended reading for anyone enjoying science fiction not for the fun and escapism but for the intelligence and thoughtfulness.

(I’ll also venture that anyone with some knowledge about India will find it interesting, whether you are used to reading science fiction or not.)

Confessional schools, and the future

Swedish law states that schools operating within the public framework has to be non-confessional. The reason for this is the state – in this specific case the municipalities – should not pay for religious schools. Schools operating within this framework are subsidised (I’ll not go into the technical details, this is just an intro for those who aren’t familiar with the background) and grades earned can be used to enter into higher education.

Recent years has seen an explosion in privately run schools, approved by the National Agency for Education, that features confessional elements. The schools are both Christian and Muslim (and others) and the whole gamut is present, from sectarians to people who barely would be accepted as Christian in an US context or as Muslims in Saudi Arabia. They aren’t allowed teach creationism. They have to promote equal rights. And they have to comply with the national grading system and the national tests. Confessional elements are allowed on the grounds but not inside what is considered the curriculum.

This leaves a lot of manoeuvring space. As an example saying the graces is allowed if it’s not compulsory. But what child wants to differ from everyone else?

The general state of the public schools differ. The ones where I live are generally very good. The parents are engaged in the education of their offspring, which I think is key to a good school, and most schools aren’t that big, which to me is another key.
In other places things are not as well – bullying is overlooked by the teachers, who feel ill used, and the quality of the education suffers from negligent parents who don’t help kids with their homework or manages to see to it that they get enough sleep and food to be able to handle school.
In cases like that people that cares moves their kids to a private but publicly endorsed school, in some cases even to a school founded on religious tenets the parents don’t support only because at least there their kids can get peace and quiet. This last thing, that what is needed is a good environment and that it isn’t the faith or the fact the school is private that makes it better, is generally overlooked (sorry, link in Swedish only).

My personal opinion is that it is gross negligence and bad strategies AND tactics, ultimately destructive for Sweden as a nation, that makes public expenses related to the school system ever tighter. And it is restricted funding that is one of the biggest problems for most schools – a scarcity of textbooks, with a lot of them dated and in pieces, low salaries, no money for equipment, no or few resources for kids with special needs.
The situation has made for a reality where a private school has begun to look like an acceptable alternative, not because parents wants a private school but because they want their kid to get a good start in life and the public school closest to them is in a bad state.
It should be noted that only people well off enough to actually be able to be away from work for extended periods, because private schools often have shorter hours than strictly public ones, or who have the freedom to work flexible hours.
Clearly not for those who works shift hours or who have set schedules.

We live in a world were most manual work, things that are made in factories, have moved to low-salary countries. Much as I oppose it this is the world as it looks like, right now and in the foreseeable future. If we in the western world want to avoid unemployment to surge we need to focus our resources on education and on creating a society that encourages research; we need to have schools that encourages kids to think, to learn methods for questioning and theorising. By cutting the funds to the public schools, and by encouraging confessional schools engaging in fostering mono-cultures, the opposite is what is happening. If this is allowed to go on I’m certain in 50 years time Sweden will be a highly segregated country with a huge portion of the people living in relative poverty and with now way out of it.

This is not the future that I want. In just so many words I think the portion of taxes that goes to funding the educational system should increase. Significantly.
After all, it’s our future. And an equal opportunity educational system is one of the few ways to ensure true social mobility but it’s also the key to a just politic society. Which is what I want.

Politicians can eat a few less tax funded dinners.

Review: Halting State, by Charles Stross

Whether you read Halting State as a hightech bagatelle or a nightmare near-future scenario this is a gripping and well-paced read, granted you can get around the gaming lingo and the acronyms showered over you at a steady rate of (at least) one per page.

We follow the proceedings from three different but inevitably interlaced points of view. Each of which gets it’s own self told 2nd person voice. This works very well, or so I think – it makes for a tone simultaneously detached AND personally involved, balancing between the idea driven plot and believable characters. Even if I think you have to know a lot of gamers and software developers to realise just HOW believable they are… ;-)

The core of the plot is a crime committed in game-space, and it seems mind-boggling at first but that’s BEFORE it turns from escapist gaming and into a action-packed spy thriller. It all wraps up nicely in the end, though.

As I’m not very familiar with the spy thriller trope and genre I’m not the right person to identify all the nods Stross makes in that direction, but if they are as many as those towards the gaming community they are aplenty, with the book almost verging on being a homage rather than a plain story about a cybercrime breaking the borders to the realm of flesh and blood – meatspace. As it is it’s enjoyable however you read or view it. Provided you can make peace with the acronyms, of course :D

So. What about this near future, where the borders between meatspace and cyberspace gets all fuzzy? I’d say we’re already there, in some respects. Most of the tech in the book (the one big exception being the quantum computer, as usual) is more or less viable as of today – those glasses/specs might have been pure science fiction back in the mid-90’s when I first encountered them in Gibson’s Virtual Light but today but today it’s more a matter of a route not (yet) taken. Just as an example. But when I say we’re almost there I’m not thinking tech but societies.

Today when I returned from vacation most of my colleagues already knew from Facebook what I had done, just like I knew what they had been up to. I, and a lot of others, socialise with people I know but never have met face to face. And more people than you might think are into on-line games like WoW – it’s not just kids and teenagers. Shops selling records made it from vinyl to CD, but now? The bells do toll… Lots of people are chugging out their amplifiers, players and discs; music is now a purely digital commodity, courtesy of Spotify and their ilk, and music is consumed as pure files – books are on their way there too. The shift has not been made yet, but it’s imminent – physical objects are, with the exception of furniture, food and clothes, a thing of the past – we are committing our memories to a world of ones and zeros.

Which of course makes me think of the Forgetting, as of Century Rain, by Alastair Reynolds – all the files got wiped or scrambled, and where then are our history?

Ah, good books DO make you think!