Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Finally knocked off 2 books that had been on my list. First, Peter Watts' Blindsight. A very tight story filled with an interesting technical approach towards first contact. The trick in all of these sorts of stories is that the effort to find out more about the aliens reveals more about humanity... and this one is no different. Some good ideas - some better explored than others - but the pacing of this one keeps the tangential opportunities tied to advancing the characters or the plot. There's a 'Pitch Black' feel to it... like a story out of someone's nightmares... and it never loses the creepy looking over your shoulder feel. It didnt really hold me hostage like so many books do - but then i'm a little distracted these days, so that's probably not the book.

"As long as you pull your hand away from an open flame, who cares whether you do it because it hurts or because some feedback algorithm says Withdraw if heat flux exceeds critical T? Natural selection doesnt care about motives. If impersonating something increases fitness, then nature will select good impersonators over bad ones. Keep it up long enough and no conscious being would be able to pick your zombie out of a crowd." Another silence; I could hear him chewing through it. "It'll even be able to participate in a conversation like this one. It could write letters home, impersonate real human feelings, without having the slightest awareness of its own existence."
"I dunno, Rob. It just seems --"
"Oh, it might not be perfect. It might be a bit redundant, or resort to the occasional expository infodump. But even real people do that, dont they?"
"And eventually, there arent any real people left. Just robots pretending to give a shit."
(note... maybe that passage stood out for a reason for me... you think? I know all about Chinese Rooms too Watts, in most ways I married one...)

Second was The Android's Dream by John Scalzi. Now I liked Scalzi's Old Man's War stuff but this one had me a little worried. I shouldn't have been. It's funny, filled with anecdotes that have very little to do with the plot but everything to do with setting the tone. For some reason I misunderstood the premise when I bought the book - and thus imagine a Dirk Gently as Slammer's non-com space opera scenario set in a comedic version of Brin's Uplift universe... It never goes for the easiest jokes either. This was one of the best reads of the year.
The next hour was the most fun Moeller could remember having just about ever. He taunted Lars-win-Getag mercilessly, safe in his own appearance of bland disinterest in the minutae of the negotiations, the visible absence of a scent-emitting object anywhere in the room, and the Nidu assumption that humans, with their primitive sense of smell, could not possibly be intentionally goading them. Except for Lars-win-Getag, the Nidu were of the wrong caste to know anything more than the basics of the scent language and so could not share their boss's outrage. Except for Moeller, the human delegation was utterly ignorant of the cause of Lars-win-Getag's behavior. They could tell something was making the Nidu twitchy, but had no idea what it could be. The only person who noticed anything unusual was Alan, who by sheer proximity could tell his boss was gassy. But Moeller knew that the ambitious little squirt wouldn't dream of saying anything about it.
In this garden of ignorance, Moeller savaged Lars-win-Getag with intolerable insults about his sexual performance, his personal grooming, and his family, often in combination of all three. Fixer's apparatus was filled with enough of the trace chemical compounds needed to combine with Moeller's own tract eminations that he could theoretically emit coherent gaseous statements for days. Moeller experimented to discover which statements enraged Lars-win-Getag the most; as expecte, insults about job competence barely caused a rise in respiratory rates, but suggestions of sexual inadequacy really seemed to get him hot. Moeller thought Lars-win-Getag was going to pop when Your mates laugh at your lack of seed wafted over to him, but he managed to hold it in, primarily by gripping the table hard enough that Moeller thought he might break part of it off.
Moeller had just released You feast on shit and just punched in Your mother fucks algae for processing, when Lars-win-Getag finally lost it, and gave himself to the negotiation-halting rage that Moeller was hoping for. "That is enough!" he bellowed, and lunged across the table at Alan, who, for his part, was shocked into immobility at a large, sentient lizardlike creature launching itself at him.

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