Saturday, August 13, 2005

The Science of the Discworld III: Darwin's Watch by Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart, and Jack Cohen

The Sciences are books that I don't read for Pratchett's contributions, in fact in this one and the second I've found the fiction chapters to be lacklustre at best. The wizards amuse me, but the wizards always amuse me.

No, what I enjoy is having the comparison between a fictional world, and our own. Narrativium is an element I understand, and the resulting contrast means that the science served up I find easier to swallow.

Most of the time.

The theme of this Science was evolution, although for reasons I never quite grasped, several chapters were spent dwelling on time travel. At first, I was interested (who isn't?), and although physics normally makes me shriek and run away, I stuck with it. It was interesting to learn about all these theories on how time travel could theoretically possible, usually involving cutting black holes and white holes in half and sticking them together, or folding space into a tube, but I had to wonder how anyone arrived at these theories. The practicality of all of them was non-existent. Perhaps because I am a physics pleb, but rolling space into a tube doesn't seem like a possible or even practial thing to do.

Then, however, it moved on to string theory.

Sweet mercy, given me quantum, please! Whilst I think I may have grasped a hazy idea of what they thought they were talking about, that's all it is. String theory seems even less practical than cutting black holes in half. I remember branes, and I remember Goldilocks, and that's all. Mostly, I found it a bit disappointing that I just didn't get it, but I don't think String Theory exists for bum-wannabe-writers to get.

Once free of string theory, it was smooth sailing. The chapters detailing Darwin's life were fascinating (barnacles! ha!), and especially the notion of 'steam engine time'. It was something I noticed before the concept actually appeared in the book; regardless of Darwin's publication of The Origin of Species, it looked as though the concept of evolution was stirring the water, and would have found an outlet in any other of a number of people if Darwin hadn't trod the path he did. Time, progress, science create the conditions that make some inventions/discoveries/ideas just about inevitable. Like steam engine time (so many people were making steam engines, it was only because Watt had the money to make lots of them that he gets the credit).

But, I don't feel I came out of the book haven't had the boundaries of my mind reset. Sure, string theory made a mess in my head, but in regards to the rest, I don't look at the world any differently. It was an interesting read, and I picked up many useless/useful facts, but I wasn't blown away.

Except possibly about the barnacles. That still makes me laugh.

Verdict: interesting, amusing, easy to read. 'cept for the string theory.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

The Risen Empire & The Killing of Worlds by Scott Westerfeld

Having emerged from The Time Traveler's Wife I wanted something entirely different to read. Preferably something with guns and explosions. I ended up nibbling on Scott's books, as when he signed the first he wrote, 'within these pages you'll find all the action scenes you'll ever need'. (For his week at Clarion South, I wrote an unbalanced action piece that broke my brain.) With a promise like that, I couldn't go wrong.

(I feel I should apologise for any typos. I'm making a lot more than I normally do. Tired.)

I don't know that I've read much space opera previously. Maxine McArthur's books and those Star Wars ones, and that's pretty much the sum total. I think, all things considering, I could get really obsessive about space opera. One of the reasons I haven't read much science fiction is the vague menace of hard science - I don't have a scientifically wired mind, and I hate the idea of not getting the central conceit of a book. That, and I have a quite loathing of physics. Space opera isn't so much science, as stories in a science fiction setting. I hope that makes sense. My own brain isn't making sense. Regardless, these books didn't intimidate me, which is just what I wanted.

The Risen Empire was founded around 5000 years ago, and for its duration has only had the one immortal Emperor, he who defeated the Old Enemy, Death. Those deemed worth, those of influential families, those who died in combat are given the symbiant which returns them to life, and grants them immortality. The social implications of having previous generations hang around and retain the balance of power and wealth are amazing, and as much as I liked the guns and explosions, exploring the fallout of such a civilisation was fascinating. It stagnates as the living bow beneath the dead. New ideas can't take hold, progress stops because those who cling to the old ideas are those in power, are those who will not die and thus step aside. It's horrifyingly stifling.

However, mostly I find the idea of living forever horrible, and not something I will even wish for. Ugh.

The kick off sees the Child Empress, the Emperor's sister, hostage in her own palace. Warriors from the Rix cult are holding her to ransom, threatening to kill her if imperial forces attempt to interfer with the seeding of a compound mind in the planet's infrastructure. An AI the size of a planet wakes up. Captain Zai has the impossible task of rescuing the Child Empress from the bridge of the Lynx high above the planet, and it all spirals out of control from there.

There have been very few scenes in books that have started my heart thumping and got the adrenaline going. In fact, I think the scene with the rail gun is the only time I've ever reached the end of a chapter in a book, looked up, and said "Holy cow. That was cool." And that is impressive.

Most of all, from reading these books I learned how to balance action in writing, something I wasn't aware of with my week six story. In real time, action does go indefinitely, but the reader doesn't. The reader needs regular breaks to step back and take a breath. This doesn't necessarily mean that the character in the thick of it gets to (oh no, that would be easy). In this case, Scott used flash backs exceptionally well. I quite liked the House Mind, and was waiting for it to single-handedly taken on and thwart the Compund Mind.

That said, I got to the end, and something very large was missing. Tying up of ends? What happened to Alexander? I mean, it's kind of big and creepy...I guess I'll live not knowing the answer.

I know this vedict doesn't really say anything, but the wiring in my brain is kind of faulty right now.

Verdict: All the action scenes you'll ever want, and some damn cool shit to boot.