The eli4d Gazette – Issue 014



Issue 014: 2016-09-14

Tech Pick

I’ve been following Julia Evans’s blog for some time. She is deeply technical and enthusiastic, and her writing emphasizes her core opinion about programming (stated in her about page):

I have one main opinion about programming and it’s — understanding the underlying systems you use (the kernel, the operating system, the network layers, your database, HTTP, whatever you’re running on top of) is essential if you want to do amazing work and be able to fix hard problems. It’s served me well so far.

In line with her opinion, Julia has created some excellent zines that cover programming and debugging. They’re fun creations that are well worth reading and printing. You can find them here: http://jvns.ca/zines/

Media Pick

I accidentally came across the Defiance TV series through Amazon Prime video. It is a SyFy funded show that is well done. Even with three seasons, there are some very decent story arcs.

To me, the SyFy channel has been a mixed bag ranging from the amazing Battlestar Galactica TV series to the questionable Ghost Hunters series (questionable from a science fiction perspective).

Time will tell if SyFy has taken a path back to actual SciFi. This reminds me of a Security Now episode covering this:

STEVE: Anyway, so a number of people were happy to have that. But I wanted to answer the question, what has happened at Syfy? And there was a Wired podcast during which they recently interviewed Bill McGoldrick, who is the new head of programming at Syfy.


Then Wired writes: “For years, Syfy has tried to broaden their appeal beyond science fiction fans, populating the channel with ghost hunters, pro wrestlers, and low-budget creature features like ‘Sharknado’ and ‘Mansquito.’ And while that did pull in new viewers, it also alienated sci-fi fans.” And I’m adding, and how. “McGoldrick was brought in with a clear mandate: Lure the fans back with smart, ambitious shows. Adapting classic books is part of that plan. McGoldrick said: ‘We want to honor that core fan base that is passionate about the material. We’re really trying to focus on that core audience. And I think the way to do that is to respect the stuff that they really liked in the first place.'” Which of course is music to my ears.

Book Review: “Swarm” by B.V. Larson

Warning: Spoiler Alert: If you intend to read the book, please do not read this review.

Review

Rating:

  • Harlequin level: n/a
  • Plot/action/story: 5
  • Solid conclusion: 5
  • SciFi thrill: 4
  • Fantasy thrill: n/a
  • Part of a series but doesn’t skimp: n/a – Not sure since I haven’t read any other books in the series (yet)

Overall thoughts about the book

I borrowed B.V. Larson’s “Swarm” from the Kindle Owner’s Library. The reviews were decent though I didn’t have high expectations.

The story is told from the main character’s first person point of view. Although the analogy is weak – it reminds me of the falling into the rabbit hole part of “Alice in Wonderland”. It is a well edited book that has a fast pace.

Kyle Riggs is a computer science teacher at Merced University. He lives on a small family farm with 2 kids. His wife passed away 10 years before in a car accident.

I like the fact that Larson doesn’t dawdle. Within a few pages, the big bad shows up – an alien ship that abducts and kills his son and daughter. Then the big black arm of the ship takes him.

As a parent, it’s heart wrenching to watch Kyle’s helplessness as his kids are killed. When he takes command of the ship after passing its nasty tests, you think that he could bring the kids back due to the ship’s advance technologies but it’s one of those false hope moments that crushes Kyle and you as a reader.

I recognized the voice then, the one in my head that was saying these attractive things. It was the evil, chattering hope-monkey. I had met this creature before, mostly in dreams, after Donna had died. She would be alive in my dreams and I would awaken, smiling, planning my day with her. But each morning I would rediscover with fresh despair that she was still dead. A grief counselor I’d talked to had named the phenomena the hope-monkey.

I think it’s this visceral sort of connection to this character that makes the story great. I’m not sure if I would feel that connection if I wasn’t close to Kyle’s age and life stage.

The technological description is fairly raw and detailed. But I think that beyond the introduction, the thing that kept my interested was Kyle’s computer science approach when dealing with an alien AI. His whole debugging approach resonated with me from a software development point of view.

I think that any software geek would definitely enjoy the book from a problem/puzzle point of view. The automated nature of the Nanos and the Macros is also quite interesting in a programmatic puzzle sort of way.

And just when you think it’s a big happy ending and the ‘good guys win’, Larson smacks you upside the head with cold computer logic setting you up for his second book. If you’ve dealt with computer programming, then the realism of this computer logic based ending is quite sobering and makes the book great.

“Swarm” is the first of the Star Force series (currently at 12 books). I’m definitely willing to give book 2 (“Extinction”) a chance. But I’m leery of such series since many times they end up being more a money play rather than an amazing saga. Maybe Larson’s series is different…I don’t know.

Some neat passages:

I felt as if I were suffocating, as if a great hand had come down and closed over me, putting me out like fingers snuffing a candle flame.

I thought about what Crow had said about achieving independence. No political group was allowed to do so unless it was strong enough to fight for its freedom.

Alliances are always forged in the fires of necessity, rather than poured from the sweet wine of love. I recalled having read that quote somewhere and it seemed particularly apt today.

Internally, I did not call myself a volunteer. I recalled having been drafted by a silent, black starship, in the middle of the night.

A smile split my face. Stupid machine. It had been programmed not to answer any questions about the creators. But it hadn’t been programmed not to answer questions in the negative. In other words, it could talk about what they were not.

Book Review: “Childhood’s End” by Arthur C. Clarke

Warning: Spoiler Alert: If you intend to read the book, please do not read this review.

Rating:

  • Harlequin level: n/a
  • Plot/action/story: 5
  • Solid conclusion: 5
  • SciFi thrill: 5
  • Fantasy thrill: 5
  • Part of a series but doesn’t skimp: n/a

Overall thoughts about the book

While I’ll do my best to describe my impression of “Childhood’s End”, I have to admit that words fail me. It is a stunning novel beyond description. I read it on my Kindle and immediately ordered a 1953 hardcover version the moment that I finished it. I rarely do that…actually, I never do that.

While I understand that scifi purists might scoff at Clarke’s combination of scifi and the paranormal, I don’t think anyone can deny his storytelling mastery when it comes to both.

Clarke divides the book into 3 parts:

  1. Earth and the Overlords
  2. The Golden Age
  3. The Last Generation

In Earth and the Overlords we are introduced to the mysterious Overlords that show up just as man is about to take off to the stars. This theme of man being prevented from reaching the stars is repeated over and over again and the last part of the book resolves this fundamental issue. Mankind does not ever take off but man’s children leave on a completely different route into the universe.

Getting back to this first part, Clarke plays with and refuses to answer whether the Overlords are ‘good’ or ‘evil’. Are they really here to help mankind or do they have a different agenda? He also taunts the reader with the most basic of questions – what do the Overlords look like and why do they refuse to show themselves?

He constantly hints at a hidden agenda and he uses the relationship of overlord Karellen with the human Stormgren to both clarify and obscure the Overlord/mankind relationship. This part of the book is best summed up by the last paragraph of part one:

And Stormgren hoped that when Karellen was free to walk once more on Earth, he would one day come to these northern forests, and stand beside the grave of the first man ever to be his friend.

There’s this bittersweet tone that the above paragraph sets for the next section of the book – The Golden Age.

In The Golden Age we are immediately shown what the Overlords look like. Sure it’s 50 years later and the Overlords have had time to affect man in a way that brings utopia to all mankind. But it’s still shocking to find that the Karellen (and therefore all Overlords) looks like Satan.

At this point I was sure that the Overlords’s agenda was ‘evil’ and of course I was wrong once again. Clarke is like an amazingly strategic volleyball player that sets up a fake spike and has one of his compatriots slam the ball on his confused opponents.

Mankind’s utopia is in full swing when we’re introduced to Rupert Boyce. Through Rupert we meet George Greggson and his future wife – Jean. And through Rupert’s séance party Clarke shows us some slight hints to the Overlord’s actual agenda. It has to do with Jean revealing the exact location of the Overlord’s homeworld (actually the location of their sun). In the process of showing us this we are also introduced to Jan Rodricks, who in the last section of the book, turns out to be the last man on earth.

Jan figures out a brilliant way to be a stowaway on an Overlord ship reaching for the stars and visiting their world. This daring move in conjunction with time dilation assures his place as the last man on earth.

The Golden Age closes with a one-two punch. The first punch is Karellen’s clear dictate that mankind would never reach the stars:

“It is a bitter thought, but you must face it. The planets you may one day possess. But the stars are not for man.” “The stars are not for man.” Yes, it would annoy them to have the celestial portals slammed in their faces.

The second punch is the bittersweet passage that continues the build up of the ending in this constant circular drumbeat sort of way. As I mentioned before – words fail me.

It had been the Golden Age. But gold was also the color of sunset, of autumn: and only Karellen’s ears could catch the first wailings of the winter storms. And only Karellen knew with what inexorable swiftness the Golden Age was rushing to its close.

The Last Generation begins with the pettiness of George Greggson and the eventual move of both him and his family to New Athens – a sort of modern day commune. Here in New Athens Clarke builds up and hammers through the transformation of the Greggson’s children and the eventual transformation of all of the children of the world.

As a parent, some passages are utterly terrifying:

“I’ve only one more question,” he said. “What shall we do about our children?” “Enjoy them while you may,” answered Rashaverak gently. “They will not be yours for long.” It was advice that might have been given to any parent in any age: but now it contained a threat and a terror it had never held before.

and

It was the end of civilization, the end of all that men had striven for since the beginning of time. In the space of a few days, humanity had lost its future, for the heart of any race is destroyed, and its will to survive is utterly broken, when its children are taken from it.

Here Clarke reveals the full plan of the Overlords and the upcoming extinction of mankind. He also intersperses Jan’s journey to the Overlord home-world. It is a sort of high-tech rendition of biblical hell with less drama and lots of tech. Through Jan we get to see that the Overlords are really in their own sort of purgatory.

Jan is truly the last man on earth and through him we see the ascendence of man in the form of the children’s merger with the Overmind. Yet this merger is strange and inexplicable. We don’t know what really becomes of the children, we just know that they are no longer an obvious remnant of mankind.

They were emptier than the faces of the dead, for even a corpse has some record carved by time’s chisel upon its features, to speak when the lips themselves are dumb.

The Overlords are stuck in their own hell. They are servants to a master that they cannot understand. They are at an evolutionary dead-end and the only thing that they can do besides serving the Overmind is to do their best to understand that which they cannot understand. And yet Karellen assures us that they will not bow their heads without a fight.

Yet, Karellen knew, they would hold fast until the end: they would await without despair whatever destiny was theirs. They would serve the Overmind because they had no choice, but even in that service they would not lose their souls.

The above passage reminds me of Invictus and the way Clarke applies it applies to the Overlords – man’s version of Satan is quite astounding.


>Invictus by William Ernest Henley

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.


Man’s children have ascended and become something else (we don’t know if they’re in ‘heaven’, we just know they’re in ‘something else’). But the Overlords…they’re still fighting to be the captains of their soul.

Book Review: “Rendezvous with Rama” by Arthur C. Clarke

Warning: Spoiler Alert: If you intend to read the book, please do not read this review.

Rating:

  • Harlequin level: n/a
  • Plot/action/story: 5
  • Solid conclusion: 5
  • SciFi thrill: 5
  • Fantasy thrill: n/a
  • Part of a series but doesn’t skimp: n/a (I consider this book to be a standalone; later books based on Rama seem to have been an attempt to cash-in on its success)

Overall thoughts about the book

Rendezvous with Rama (RWR) is my first Clarke book and I choose it from the Kindle owner’s library based on the highest rating for his books. I know that he is quite famous for “2001 a Space Odyssey”. I vaguely remember the movie and I’m not sure if the novel interests me since it was written to complement the movie and not before it.

Anyway, back to RWR – where to begin? The build up of the book is really slow, and I initially thought it would be one of those “and a weird alien ship showed up, and it left…the end”. It’s hard to describe the book and maybe that’s the charm of it. The whole book is about aliens that you never meet. The closest description is towards the end of the book, where a holographic library displays the clothing of a typical Raman (and no – it has nothing to do with noodles). You really only see the effects of the Ramans but not the Ramans themselves.

I suppose that another way of looking at this book is that it is like a description of negative space, describing what’s not there by describing what’s there (I know – that this sounds like a crazy way of describing the book…but that’s what it feels like to me). The description of the environment and the ship is extremely rich. I had a hard time in fully comprehend the Cylindrical Sea and how everything was positioned in terms of magnitude and size. There was one part of the book that made me feel some nausea, and I’ve never had that happen to me. Roller coasters equal nausea for me but never a book. That was an unexpected and delicious surprise.

There have been some interesting attempts to model Rama. I wish I was a physics teacher so I could assign a full modeling of Rama as a project to my students. It would be an interesting study in celestial mechanics and a great investigation into the accuracy of Clarke’s physics and description. Besides, I would LOVE to explore a 3D model of Rama with accompanying passages from the book so I could fully appreciate the work. On the other hand, maybe I just need to go back to the book and re-read it more carefully because at the end of the day my imagination will never match someone else’s rendered view of Rama.

The use and description of technology is interesting in that it doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb. The novel was written in 1972 but the tech talk doesn’t jar you as a reader. I suppose that this is another aspect of its brilliance.

Rama’s use of the sun to refuel reminds me of Stargate Universe and how Destiny refueled. There’s also the Tin Man episode from STTNG where where the bioship uses spin to generate an energy pulse. Rama’s spin and the associated cocoon reminds me of Tin Man.

The book parallels Rama’s arrival – a slow build up of suspense, the wonder of exploration, a bomb that’s ready to destroy everything (those crazy Hermians), and a conclusion that leaves one slightly unsettled. If you’re into any sort of science fiction, RWR might be extremely fulfilling. It’s one of the few books that is a worthwhile read and a re-read.

Favorite quotes:

“In every earlier landing, he had known what to expect; there was always the possibility of accident, but never of surprise. With Rama, surprise was the only certainty.”

“Things were not what they seemed; there was something very odd indeed about a place that was simultaneously brand new and a million years old.”

“He had learned a lesson, though it was not one that he could readily impart to others. At all costs, he must not let Rama overwhelm him. That way lay failure, perhaps even madness.”

“To most people, Mercury was a fairly good approximation of Hell; at least, it would do until something worse came along.”

“He would hate to engage in a dogfight with anything larger than a pigeon.”

“He looked back upon the towers and ramparts of New York and the dark cliff of the continent beyond. They were safe now from inquisitive man.”

“It was a good plan—and it failed completely.”

To act or not act—that was the question. Never before had Norton felt such a close kinship with the Prince of Denmark.”

“Whatever honors and achievements the future brought him, for the rest of his life he would be haunted by a sense of anticlimax and the knowledge of opportunities missed.”