Category Archives: Technology

“Aurora” and “Seveneves: A Novel”: Earth as Home

[Star-sized spoilers ahead]

At the end of 2015, I read two books: Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson, and Seveneves by Neal Stephenson. My spouse suggested reading both of them together. I found out recently that Seveneves is a nominee for the Hugo award for best novel. I was actually a bit shocked that neither of these books made it on the Nebula list for novel this year.

This led to me thinking about what the characteristics of a good book should be, especially an award winning one. Certainly, there are times when I just want a fun, entertaining read. But other times, I want to be transformed. I want to look at the universe, the world, society, or myself in a new light. It’s a tall order, and, for me, it requires a thoughtful theme. The book asks the right questions, and possibly, points to new answers.

An award-winning book should leave you thinking. I was so overwhelmed by reading both of these novels at the end of last year that I spent considerable time processing them both individually, as well as their implications together. At first, I couldn’t even come up with topic for a post because they generated so many ideas. Ultimately, I realized just how delicate our relationship with Earth, our home, really is. We’re not living on a sterile spaceship. We’re part of a vast ecosystem developed over time that we do not fully comprehend. I no longer have copies of the library books so I’m going to do a general review from memory of these two.

In Aurora, settlers were packed onto a ship and sent out to their destination. During that time, the quantum machine guiding them became sentient.  (How the AI became sentient was a fascinating piece of characterization, although not what I’ll be discussing here.) It was an amazing feat, and yet, the settlers only hung on by a thread. Generations passed before the settlers arrived, and when they did, the first people that ventured onto their new home were quickly killed. And they had no true scientific understanding of why. The idea here is that if there are the conditions for life in a place, the place is likely already occupied. And the occupants, even if they aren’t sentient, will likely be harmful to us because we aren’t a part of the natural arising of their ecosystem. The settlers disagreed on whether to stay in the system or to return to earth. The narrative follows the ones who returned to Earth. Their return was difficult, and they struggled to survive. They only had enough resources to make it to their destination, if that, and not enough to return.  The AI made major contributions to their survival.

Although considerable problems had happened on Earth while the others went exploring, human culture was recognizable and dealing with the consequences of global warming, which emerged from a lack of consideration for the delicate balance of our ecosystem. (This same ignorance of the role of ecosystems led to the idea that people from earth could just fill some blank niche on another planet.) Furthermore, the characters question whether people had a right to send their descendants into the unknown without their consent. This book made me appreciate our home in a new way.

Seveneves was a gripping read from the moment that the moon shatters at the beginning of the book. There is a cast of characters, and they are all constantly trying to survive. It has interesting things to say about community and the breakdown of community. The few survivors of the catastrophe have to wait for many generations for the Earth to be habitable again, and they even help habitability along. Earth is our home, this novel points out, too. It explores how people react in the face of adversity—those who are helpers and those who are hinderers (often trying to ensure only their own survival.) It explored different examples of patterns of in-groups and out-groups. How would a catastrophe impact gender roles?  How would our different biological capacities, like for reproduction, shape the decisions that are made when the very survival of our species is at stake? It also explores how humans would survive and change both physically and culturally in vastly different environmental conditions over many generations. Finally, if you had the power to create an actual “race” of people, what traits would be emphasized?  When are certain traits useful? And perhaps, we need people of different traits and cultures for survival and to avoid groupthink. Yet, this can also lead to conflict.

Again, paired together, the books left me thinking for months about what our role in the universe is. We’re a part of a delicate ecosystem, and it’s where we thrive. And how we may neglect and destroy our home as we gaze longingly at the stars. I don’t think that either of these books is saying that we should ignore space research and technology; however, we also shouldn’t ignore the world around us. Both books, in their own ways, were optimistic, if cautionary.

 

2 Comments

Filed under Book Reviews, Science Fiction, Sociology, Technology

Ethnocentrism and War in “Consider Phlebas”

[Spoilers…]

“Consider Phlebas” is the opening book in the Culture series by Iain M. Banks.  I began reading this book after he passed away earlier this year, although it was published in 1987. It is sociologically relevant due to the exploration of the major warring cultures: the Idirans and the Culture.  The main character, Horza, is a shapeshifter who decides to align himself against the Culture.  He prefers the Idirans and displays prejudice towards the Culture, who have developed extremely advanced machines and robots.  The book explores cultural values, norms, ethnocentrism, stereotypes, and discrimination.  Is war inevitable when you have vastly different cultural values?  Is it possible for one person to make a difference when such vast social forces are at play?  These questions illustrate the powerful ideas explored in “Consider Phlebas.”

While reading this book, I enjoyed the brief scenes of the Culture.  Their society is post-scarcity due to their close relationship with their advanced technology, and I look forward to reading more about them in the series.  They prefer peace.  The Idrians, on the other hand, have vastly different cultural values and practices  including religious beliefs and warfare.  Similar to Horza, the entire Idiran society views the Culture as a threat due to their incorporation of technology into all aspects of their society and lives.  Therefore, the war is fought over ideological differences.

In terms of the plot, there is a sense of bleak inevitability, especially near the end of the book.  Horza is trying to get to Schar’s world to retrieve the Culture’s Mind for the Idirans.  (Schar’s world is essentially just a memorial now for a past civilization that died.)   Horza goes through a series of adventures and misadventures.  Along the way, he finds a partner and she gets pregnant, he gains a crew, and he takes them to the planet of the Dead.  However, a party of Idirans is already on the planet.  One of the Idirans perpetually refuses to call Horza by name, instead referring to him by his species.  At the same time, Horza, who has met a Culture drone named Unaha-Closp refuses to acknowledge this name or the fact that the drone is its own person.  This demonstrates a bit of the ethnocentrism by both the Idirans and the Changers.

In the end, it isn’t his nemesis, the Culture agent, Balveda, that kills him.  It is his own Idiran “ally”.  This speaks to the differences in the two societies.  There is a lovely train metaphor in the book, which one of the Idirans uses to kill Horza’s team.  In the end, only Balveda and the Mind survive.  It’s tragic.  War is tragic.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews, Science Fiction, Sociology, Technology

Technology and Social Inequality in “2312”

This summer, I intended to read all of the 2012 Nebula nominees, but I got distracted by other books like Gaiman’s “The Ocean at the End of the Lane.”  The 2012 Nebula Winner for Novel was “2312” by Kim Stanley Robinson.  In this novel, humanity has spread throughout our entire solar system, but there are still some familiar social problems.  Robinson elegantly and creatively describes what human life would be like on various planets and other places.  The prose relating to these settings was gorgeous.  I particularly loved his descriptions of Mercury and the technologies necessary to allow humans to live there. However, he also deals with deep philosophical and ethical questions.  The book led to reflection on topics like: what is the meaning of life?  At what point do robots gain sentience?  What would their experience of the world be like?  How much should people get involved in other nations’ or worlds’ problems?  He even takes a look at what a meaningful relationship is.

At times, the pacing of the book felt sluggish.  While I understand that Robinson was developing the solar system and preparing the reader to fully understand the plot, I did find it challenging to read at times.  Other times, the book engrossed me.

In terms of sociology, I thought that Robinson took an interesting look at what sociologists call dependency theory versus modernization theory. This video link will take you to a lecture that explains the basic differences between the two theories.  Today, these theories attempt to explain why some nations are wealthy while others are not and how to rectify these problems. Modernization theorists would argue that you need to change culture and technology of the low income nations to make them more like the thriving, wealthier countries.  This might include attempting to help populations with agriculture or controlling their populations.  Often, it blames the specific cultures for their position in the global hierarchy.

On the other hand, dependency theorists come from a social-conflict approach.  They argue that there are deeper structural problems.  These low income countries had their wealth plundered and literally shipped back to the colonizing countries for centuries.  Furthermore, the fruits of their labor also returned to the colonizing powers.  This means the colonizing powers have much more wealth (think GDP) than those countries that were plundered.  Dependency theorists would say that until we address these historical inequalities, we’ll never be able to move forward together.  Modern day capitalism perpetuates these problems.  The wealthiest countries want to stay wealthy and powerful.  They do not want the more impoverished nations to surpass themselves.  Thus, they will block less powerful countries from thriving.

In terms of Robinson’s book, those living off Earth, the Spacers, are perceived by the people on Earth to have abandoned them.  They are seen as the elite.  Earth was not able to be terraformed like the other planets because it already had so many inhabitants and to change much might risk the population. Due to all the tensions between nations and other organizations, it was nearly impossible to get anywhere on Earth to agree to the needed terraforming.  Therefore, Swan and her friend Wahram, among others, decide to take matters into their own hands since they think Earth (and the other planets) will never improve or be safe until the inequalities there are addressed.  For example, the animal species preserved in space, many living in the asteroids, were delivered back to earth.  The reception of these animals and those that reintegrated them Earth were highly controversial.

This is only a tiny sliver of the important sociological ideas incorporated in “2312”.  It also explores changing norms surrounding technology and the body.  Humans have different views of technology, and robots have begun to awaken to sentience.  This topic allows us to explore the ideas of what it means to be human.  How do we feel about the fast paced changes in technology happening in our own time period?  How comfortable are we with technology becoming integrated with the human body or brain?  Swan has an AI, a quantum computer, embedded in her brain.  Pauline stands as her own character, although she is not sentient.  On the other hand, Robinson does present the viewpoint of one of the awakened robots.  These sections in the book seemed jarring and flitted from observation to observation.  Although the passages felt different than the more linear viewpoints of characters like Wahram and Swan, I believe that any person that has tried meditation knows that our thoughts arise in less than organized ways.  Many of the characters judge people like Swan for being willing to have their qube incorporated into their brains.

This year, a media stir happened over the new google glass technology.  Here is a video discussing what it is actually capable of.  Many people are afraid of this technology, even though it is not incorporated into the body.  It reminded me of the fears that people had that Pauline was recording and spying on conversations.  Swan also allowed for herself to be modified with essentially “bird brains.”  As she and Wahram travel in a series of tunnels together after a disaster, they connect through music.  Wahram asks, “‘So was that the bird or you?’” and Swan responds, “‘We are the same.’”  Throughout the book, Wahram comes to accept and love the person that Swan is.  When he asks her to marry him, he actually asks Pauline first, meaning he understands how important the modifications are to Swan.  In fact, she wouldn’t be the Swan he loved without the modifications.  When she’s surprised that he asked Pauline to marry him and not herself, Wahram replies, “‘…I am not the first to observe that since you were the one that programmed Pauline, and continue to do so, she is a kind of projection of you—‘“

Wahram continues, “’—or, well, maybe she would be better described as one of your works of art.  They have often been very personal things.’”

Eventually, he compares Pauline to a ventriloquist’s dummy.  (The new, sentient AIs have their own agendas, a key difference.)  He has accepted Swan as the sum of her parts and loves all of her.

In conclusion, I highly recommend “2313”, although I do think that it was a challenging read.  The future implications of technology and inequality are fascinating, and the descriptions of settings are gorgeous.  If you enjoy detective stories, then you will likely enjoy this book.

1 Comment

Filed under Book Reviews, Science Fiction, Sociology, Technology

Disability, Culture, and Stigmatization in “Darkborn”

Over spring break, I finished reading “Darkborn” by Alison Sinclair. It’s the first book in a trilogy, although I haven’t had a chance to start the next book yet. “Darkborn” is a fantasy adventure with strong elements of romance.  The culture she explores in the book is fascinating.  Although the society being aristocratic is not unusual in fantasy, the focus on a culture in which vision impairments are the norm is unusual.

In United States’ culture, a person with a vision impairment is thought to have a disability. Although our laws have been attempting to help reduce inequalities faced by persons with physical disabilities, individuals with vision impairments face many structural barriers in our society.  (This blog post will point you to a  video from the UK that attempts to explore “disability” through examining what the world would be like if the majority of people had disabilities.  It works well to generate discussion on the structures surrounding persons with disabilities.)  In recent years, several students with vision impairments have been in my sociology classes. I’ve learned a great deal about accessibility in terms of making class materials available for accessible technology like screen readers. Despite these changes, my students often still face inequality and stigmatization in many areas of their lives.  I was excited and a bit nervous to see this explored in a fantasy book.

Centuries before the plot begins in “Darkborn,” a curse happened that caused the Darkborn to be unable to be exposed to light and the Lightborn to be unable to be exposed to darkness. They essentially live in two parallel cultures. Each culture developed different values and norms surrounding magic. The Darkborn reject magic while the Lightborn accept it. While the Darkborn are blind, their society has been designed around this aspect of the physiologies. In fact, they have a magical ability that allows them to use what seems like sonar. This means that they have some abilities that persons with vision would not have.  (At first, I found myself wanting more visual descriptions in the prose.  Of course, this was good writing on the part of Sinclair.)

The protagonist, Telmaine, is an extremely talented mage, although she does not realize the extent of her powers. She has been passing as a non-mage her entire life. She’s from a noble family, and she carefully hides her abilities due to stigmatization. Her family is disturbed when she marries Balthasar Hearne, who is not only from a less powerful family than Telmaine, but he also has a sister who practices magic. The people practicing as mages are ostracized, vilified, and segregated.

Although Telmaine is from rigid patriarchy, she rises to the occasion when her family is threatened.  (While a wife and mother fighting for her family matches traditional gender roles in the US, it is not typical to use the means that Telmaine does.  She doesn’t wait for a man to save her or her daughter.  She takes matters into her own hands.)

In fact, I appreciated Sinclair’s writing of Telmaine.  The love triangle that she becomes embroiled in actually makes sense.  Her attraction to both of her potential partners is understandable, and she (and her partners) grapple with their feelings in the book.  Unlike some of the books I’ve been reading lately, this book does not explore LGBT experiences.

Although I did not love this book the way I did “Curse of Chalion,” its meditation on stigmatization, passing, patriarchy, and culture was intriguing.  Unlike some fantasy, I didn’t get any sense of the light and the dark relating directly to a dichotomy of good and evil.  (In fact, Alison Sinclair discusses why this is the case at the bottom of this page.)  The Darkborn culture seems complex, and I suspect that the Lightborn culture is quite complex, too.  I particularly look forward to seeing how the Lightborn culture differs.

Cover analysis.  Although I usually don’t analyze the covers of books on my blog, I had to comment on this one.  The cover is lovely, but I found it incongruous.  In the edition that I’m reading, Telmaine has her blue eyes focused directly on the reader.  It looks like she is making eye contact, which does not make sense to me given Darkborn and their culture.  Is this just me?

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews, Fantasy, Sociology, Teaching, Technology, Uncategorized

The Tolkien Professor Podcasts

“History often resembles ‘myth’, because they are both ultimately of the same stuff.” Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories”

[Spoiler free for a change.]

This post is a bit different than my previous posts, but in honor of “The Hobbit” coming out next month, I thought that I’d share a delightful discovery that I made this summer.  Last year, I wrote a fantasy novel for National Novel Writing Month. I’ve been trying to analyze how good stories are constructed to improve my second draft.  I bought myself new copies of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy to mark up with my reflections.

While understanding the various critiques of Tolkien’s writings, I admire a great deal of what he did.  The first time I read the books in my early twenties, I was riveted.  And I still find them delightful.  After I had been working on this project of mine for a couple of months, I discovered Dr. Corey Olsen, also known as the Tolkien Professor, on I-tunes.  He has many different podcasts, and I’ve only listened to about ten of them so far.  In some ways, I enjoyed the episodes on Tolkien’s essays the most since I haven’t read them yet.

There’s some fascinating material here that I had never been exposed to before like “On Fairy-Stories,” “Mythopoeia,” and “Leaf By Niggle.”  Olsen discusses Tolkien’s view of the importance of art.  As I have been reading “The Fellowship of the Ring” again, I can really see the elements that are discussed in these other essays and works.

From a sociological view, I love the fact that new technology is changing the landscape of learning.  Listening to an English professor’s thoughts on Tolkien while commuting to work would have been a dream when I was in college.  I’ve thought about doing a series of podcasts for my own online sociology students, and it is great to see that Professor Olsen is making this technology work for both his own students, as well as for people like me with a commute and an inquisitive mind.  Listening to his podcasts has enriched my own study of “The Lord of the Rings,” and  I hope that you’ll enjoy these podcasts as much as I did!

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews, Fantasy, Sociology, Teaching, Technology, Writing