Science fiction in the distant future is sometimes so fantastical it’s hard to relate to the characters and their society. A highly advanced technology is one thing, but when the characters have evolved into gelatinous tubes, one questions how they even got there. Science fiction of the near future, on the other hand, is a great way for an author to play not just with science but sociology. Instead of taking a giant leap you’re seeing an evolution of change from where we are today to where we might be. The resultant behavior of characters can be just as fascinating as the technology.
By asking “what if,” science fiction explores the possibility of anything and the scenarios that sprout from it. If every politician read science fiction the world might be a better place. Ray Bradbury once said, “people ask me to predict the future, when all I want to do is prevent it.”
Case in point, two science fiction books that were released this year and both appearing on Amazon’s Best Book of the Month lists: The Games and Arctic Rising. Both are set in the not-too-distant future and focused on real world problems of today. The Games deals with advancements in genetics, where humanity is allowed to bend the rules set by mother nature to make monsters that do battle in the Olympics. Arctic Rising deals with a future where global warming has melted the polar ice caps allowing oil starved countries the ability to mine resources in the once frozen arctic. Unfortunately quality of life has plummeted across the globe. Both are plausible enough to be frightening, but fantastical enough to entertain.
Only one can win.
by Tobias S. Buckell
Hardcover, 304 pages
Published February 28th 2012 by Tor Books
It may seem strange that author Tobias S. Buckell was born in the Caribbean and grew up in the Virgin Islands yet sets his book in the arctic. But when you take into effect the rising oceans gobbling up islands, the subject strikes a little closer to home. Essentially Arctic Rising is about the conflict between countries to acquire resources in the arctic and maintain dominance, but at what cost? Rising oceans, temperatures and drought affect the world while Canada and Russia get fat on a new trading route that has opened in the Arctic Ocean.
The protagonist, Anika Duncan, is an airship pilot with the United Nations Polar Guard who monitors arctic shipping lanes for ships dumping toxic waste. She picks up radiation readings from a boat, and after hailing the ship in order to investigate, gets shot down. Luckily she captured the readings on a disc and so begins her chase to figure out what was on the vessel.
What drives this story is a MacGuffin. Because of this, the point of turning the pages isn’t the plot or even the characters for the most part, but really just to see what new tech Tobias Buckell can spit out into the narrative. That isn’t a bad thing, not in the slightest, especially since this book takes place so near our own future. It’s the plausible science fiction that grabs the reader, and while the plot is a wild goose chase, its twists keep the reader interested.
For instance, imagine a world with clubs where music is controlled and tattoos are enhanced by the lighting.
Anika pulled out a plastic card and showed it to the bouncer, a vaguely Eastern European bodybuilder with black-light tattoos of wildlife on his forearms that fluoresced with the grow lights that had been jacked into a computer running them through some Fi-Bonacci sequence.
A plastic card in the future? Why not something you can scan? The book goes on:
He looked it over. The Greenhouse didn’t use RFID tags, or social technologies, or your phone, or a pass. They actually printed up these physical membership badgers once they “adopted” you. Very retro. Very coveted if you wanted to jump the line.
This is a very plausible future, where to be “hip,” unhip as that sounds, you print out badges. It’s a small detail, but one that you can actually see happening. Later in the scene, Buckell describes the sound system:
The wall noise being delivered by locationally targeted speakers aimed right at the foyer just about knocked her off her feet, but she took a few steps to the right, into a virtual corridor of dead silence created by reverse noise-cancelling noise.
I want that in my living room. There are quite a few of these futuristic technologies that will whet most science fiction fans’ whistles. It’s pretty clear Buckell has a lot of ideas and fits as many as he can wherever he can. In a way the plot gets in the way of these neat details, and I found myself frustrated when the plot took Anika out of normal society and onto a floating raft to thrust Anika into a fish-out-of-water story.
When the story isn’t divulging plausible futuristic technologies it kicks into its spy gear. It’s definitely a little jarring, going from a detailed explanation of a sound system, to 40 pages later Anika running for her life in a spy thriller atmosphere. Anika colludes with a drug lord, a ex-M6 Caribbean sailor named Roo and dictators who control floating countries. The plus is that means a lot of bullets are involved.
One of the crew burst out of the back of the pilothouse deck with a submachine gun. He was pulling it up to aim. Roo hit the seat next to her and braced. ‘Now this is some crazy James Bond s--t,’ he shouted as they hit the churning froth behind the patrol ship, bucking and spinning, spray slapping the windshield.
It gets the blood pumping, and while the book does take a turn for more interesting ideas of our future, the characters seem to play second fiddle the entire time. Much like the MacGuffin Hitchcock used in his films, the book is an excuse to go on a fun ride. That creates very flat characters that act as stand ins for their surroundings.
Sure it’s neat to learn about how island people in the North continue to live on a glacier by using…
Massive snow machines, just like the ones usually seen at ski resorts but scaled up an extra magnitude, spat snow out from the tops of buildings and artificial hills, constantly laying down inches of new snowpack to compensate for the continuous ablation of warmer water.
…but over time the reader needs someone or something to believe in. The book also ends on a very preachy note, and who can blame Buckell considering the entire book centers around global warming, but when you’ve spent 200 pages following characters that bore you, the reader ends up feeling duped.
by Ted Kosmatka
Hardcover, 368 pages
Published March 13th 2012 by Random House Publishing Group
There are two stories in this book, one about a geneticist helping to nurture a gladiator monster from fetus to battlefield. He deals with morality of a hyper intelligent beast that seems to be more a miracle abomination than a slab of meat to be wasted in a arena. Greed and national pride trump such concerns as a third win for the USA is more important than anything else. This story is the prominent one and holds the most meaningful story.
The second story is about a manchild computer scientist who built a supercomputer that appears to be losing its mind. He was taken away from his mother by government people so it’s not his fault he’s disconnected from reality. Of course, you probably want a guy grounded when he’s building a machine that could take over the planet. Its abilities and reach are so great the entire infrastructure of the planet is in peril. Unfortunately for every human being, the supercomputer helped build the gladiator. The human race may be screwed.
When the computer scientist is asked how his computer built the gladiator he replies:
Do I look like a geneticist to you? I design virtual-reality computers, not live meats.
Yep, we’re screwed.
Geneticist Silas Williams has been put in charge of creating the U.S. Olympic gladiator for the past three years running. He’s won every time, but the world is closing in on a better gladiator to beat the U.S. His superiors have taken Silas out of the creation process this year, and replaced him with a supercomputer. There’s no chance they’ll lose, that is for sure, but in Silas’ opinion the gladiator is something to fear. It’s something the planet Earth has never seen, something that was created based on a simple statement: survive at all costs. The book follows Silas from its incubation to its eventual battle in the Olympics, but as time passes Silas discovers the the gladiator is something amazing and dangerous on many different levels.
What drives this story is the mystery of the monster as it grows, and the eventual doom that it may bring. A lot of the science takes place in labs rather than the street so the reader doesn’t accurately get a representation of how the world has changed. That’s okay though, as the focus is the monster and the morality of building life from scratch.
After describing how they genetically engineered a cow to grow a gladiator in its womb Silas, explains the process:
So you thaw one out every time you produce a gladiator?”
“No, this is an entirely new process. We’ve never gone all the way back to raw code before. Cell infusion was the most difficult part, and we decided to use the scatter approach and thawed several hundred blanks. DNA insertion killed 99.7 percent of the cells. Three survived, and of those three, only one successfully implanted in the cow’s uterus.”
It’s tantalizing stuff, mostly because writer Ted Kosmatka can describe the science clearly enough for anyone to understand, yet the complexity isn’t lost. The characters in this book are playing god, and Kosmatka reminds us that Silas knows this. Because he knows, it’s all the more horrific. This isn’t a game or a win for the USA in the Olympics, but something much more dangerous.
Kosmatka does instill a few details on the world they live in, particularly how people hunt deer that aren’t actually there. Once you kill one, you go back to the front desk and they print out a picture of where you hit the animal and the size. Plausible, and considering this book takes place in the not too distant future, a bit scary.
The monster itself is described so well you’d swear it wasn’t an experiment, but a Djinn come to claim its right. Kosmatka does an amazing job explaining how exactly the monster looks, and sets it up well too by writing:
There was nothing to compare it to, so his brain had to work from scratch, filling in all the pieces, seeing everything at once.
He goes on to describe it as:
The newborn was hairless, and most of its skin was a deep, obsidian black, slightly reflected in the warm glare of the heat lamps, as though covered with a shiny coat of gloss…Wide shoulders tapered into long, thick arms that now bunched and stretched toward the bars. Below the elbow, the skin color shifted to deep red. Its blood-colored hands clenched in the air, the needle tips of talons just beginning to erupt from the ends of the long, hooked fingers. The rear legs were raptor monstrosities, jointed in some complicated way, with splayed feet that corded with muscle and sinew just below the surface of its skin.
The thing doesn’t make any sense, not even to Silas, the best geneticist in the world. He has to pull in one of the managers of the project demanding where exactly it came from as it not only is human like, but also has wings. The problem with it having wings is that the Games are held in an arena not high enough for the wings to matter. As if it was built to live outdoors.
Kosmatka goes on:
Two enormous gray eyes shone out of the brilliant blackness of its face and raked across the two men looking down. Silas could almost feel the weight of the alien gaze. The lower jaw was enormously wide and jutting, built for power. A grossly bossed cranial vault spread wide over the pulled-out face, capped by two soft semicircular flaps of ear cartilage.
Silas said he had nothing to do with the design. He’s putting the responsibility on your shoulders.
The second part of the story goes on, and while it doesn’t get as much attention, is just as curious and interesting. You might tell yourself you don’t need another supercomputer gone mad story, but it sucks you in.
I don’t think the Brannin should really be called a computer. There’s very little to it that you can reach out and touch with your hand. Most of it exists in dep VR, and because of that, it’s not limited by physical size. Inside itself, it can be infinitely large or small. Instead of bytes made of zeros and ones, the Brannin uses light, on or off, and that’s the speed at which it computes. Something like six trillion floating-point operations per second, give or take.
If the computer-gone-crazy plot sounds familiar to Portal and Half Life fans, it might be because writer Ted Kosmatka is also a writer at Valve. While talking about The Games with Amazon he also discusses working at Valve which is a delightful read.
Amongst all of these juicy science fiction bits, doomsday lingers and Silas has to process it all. Silas isn’t the most robust character, but he’s human and time is spent understanding the guilt he carries at not being a father. It makes sense for the plot as well, considering his job is to create life, and it poses an interesting conundrum of a creator of life regretting not creating life.
The book never gets too deep into his character, but it gives just enough to care about him and worry when danger looms.
So Who Wins?
After explaining the purpose of science fiction Ray Bradbury continued, “Better yet, build it.” Which science fiction novel built a scenario that’s at once entertaining and something we can learn from? The Games wins, mainly because the science is more sound and is more complicated. Arctic Rising seems to end out of nowhere, as if the author realized he was finished filling the book with neat ideas and wanted to get to the next one. Arctic Rising is a much more plausible future, but politicians and pundits warn us of global warming every year. While those ideas were great, they were just a cut under how interesting Kosmatka describes the science in The Games.
By coincidence The Games doesn’t take the reader into the common world very much, allowing Arctic Rising to be just as fresh in scope. This got me thinking these books could take place in the same universe. The idea actually excited me, mainly because I want to know more about each world and pretending they were the same one made that single world feel more fleshed out. That might be telling then, that I wished these books were deeper in scope and character development. Ultimately though, they are both page turners that beg to be read at 1am rather than ruminate over for hours.
Arctic Rising, genetic mutant Salacious B. Crumb, after he does a little coper-tattoonie action…
…will see you out.