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Book Review #11, by Eric Weeks

October 25, 1998
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Before I get to the reviews, I'll report that I just received my copy of "The Perfect Host", vol. 5 of "The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon". Sturgeon's one of my favorite authors, and this series has been fun to read through -- it's supposed to be ten volumes total. I don't plan to review this book, but I did enjoy reading it very much, it contains some of my favorite Sturgeon stories. (If you're curious about Sturgeon's style of writing, see Book Babble #6 which reviewed one of Sturgeon's anthologies.)

"Idoru" by William Gibson, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1996.

Start with the world famous rock star Rez, of the group Lo/Rez, who has sustained his popularity for years. He's planning to marry a "woman" who is actually an artificial intelligence (an "Idoru"), because they're in love. Laney is hired by Rez's personal bodyguard to utilize his intuitive computer skills to determine what's really happening with Rez and his AI lover. And Chia is a 14 year old girl, sent by her fellow Lo/Rez fans to Tokyo, to find out for herself if Rez is really getting married. It's a little implausible how these people come together, but that's OK. The only part that bothered me is that the plot turns somewhat on an unlikely chance encounter Chia has, but this book is much more mood than plot.

I liked this book, although I wish the mood/plot balance had been weighted more towards plot. The book alternates between Laney's story and Chia's story. Laney spends much of the book in flashback, telling us about a previous job he had working for the entertainment industry as a computer guru snooping on the scandals of stars. This is fun to read, even if it's plot-unimportant. Chia's story spends lots of time in virtual reality; she interacts with members of the Lo/Rez fan club almost exclusively in virtual reality. Again, fun to read about, although not critical to the plot. The bottom line is that if you're a cyberpunk fan, or a William Gibson fan, this book is great, it's like drinking strong black cyberpunk coffee. I wish the plot had been stronger, though. And the dust-jacket has phrases like "It's possible the Idoru [AI] is as real as she wants or needs to be--or as real as Rez desires," but the book fails to be as intriguing as this suggests. I would have liked the book to focus more on what's happening between Rez and his AI lover and hit harder on questions of what love might mean between a human and an AI, or some sort of related question. Instead, we have lots of mood. I'd say it's about 2 1/2 stars worth of mood.

By the way, this is a sequel to Virtual Light, one of the first books I reviewed for Book Babble. However, the connection to Virtual Light is extremely minimal, other than being set in the same world. Given that much of VL took place in California and this book mostly occurs in Tokyo, this essentially is a completely separate book. I liked VL better.

"His Master's Voice" by Stanislaw Lem, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968 (English language version published in 1984); "The Hercules Text" by Jack McDevitt, Ace Science Fiction, 1986.

By coincidence, both of these books were on my to-read pile at the same time. The plots are virtually the same. The United States finds a transmission from an alien race. The transmission originates extremely far away, and travels at light speed, so the efforts focus on deciphering the message. In both books, the action centers around the work of the scientists attempting to translate the message. The government tries to maintain complete secrecy, while the scientists struggle with moral dilemmas. There is also much speculation on the nature of the alien race that has sent the message.

While the plots seem similar, and in fact most of the action focuses on the scientific work of analyzing an alien message, these two books take quite different approaches to the subject. McDevitt assumes the alien race has mental processes somewhat similar to ours, and has sent a message which is meant to be decoded. At one point the message reveals even that the aliens possess DNA, which I thought was quite a stretch. On the other hand, Lem assumes that human science may be unable to comprehend the alien message, that the aliens are in fact sufficiently alien that almost all attempts to understand them are hopeless. Lem makes an interesting analogy of an ant discovering a dead human body and thinking it has found something useful to it, but being unable to comprehend what it has really found. McDevitt's plot focuses on the possible consequences of a successful translation of the alien message; Lem focuses on the futility of attempting such a translation.

The Hercules Text is a standard sort of sf approach to the subject. It's written from a hard sf perspective, although the details of translating the message aren't a significant part of the book. McDevitt's characters have many interesting discussions on the possible military implications of the scientific facts they are learning from the message; they struggle to decide what is the ethically correct thing to do with these facts. Their lives are complicated by the government which forces them to not reveal anything to their fellow scientists not associated with the project, despite external pressures to be open with their results. The book also explores what this alien message might imply to Christianity, although the characters who discuss this question never reach any firm conclusions. The book has one main character, Harry Carmichael, who is a lone non-scientist associated with the project; there are also a large number of less important characters who I found a little hard to keep straight. It's interesting to view Harry's perspective on the ethical problems of the scientists. There are lots of references to the Manhattan Project scientists. Overall, I give this book 3 stars; it's a good story of alien contact set in the present times, told in a standard fashion.

If you've ever read anything by Stanislaw Lem, you know that his stories are never told "in a standard fashion." In His Master's Voice, the point is strongly made that aliens may be more alien than we can guess. Lem's alien message is not easy to decode, and perhaps isn't meant to be easily decoded; in fact, we really don't know why they even sent the message. Some small portions are in fact successfully decoded by the scientists, but a strong case is made that these portions may be incorrectly decoded and may have nothing to do with the real message. McDevitt's aliens are most likely Star Trek sorts of aliens, humans with pointy ears, perhaps; Lem's aliens are complete unknowns. (That's not completely fair to McDevitt; his aliens do have some alien-ness to them, far more than what you see on Star Trek.)

So, much of HMV discusses exactly how incomprehensible the alien message is and how futile and hopeless the human scientists are when it comes to understanding anything about the message. Apart from this message of despair, the book also examines the interactions between the various scientists, especially ones from differing fields. Part of the plot also focuses on the ethical dilemma of scientists who may have discovered an ultimate weapon, very similar to the problems faced by McDevitt's characters. Lem is somewhat cynical about the scientists; except for the narrator (one of the scientists), most of the people involved in the decoding project are overly optimistic about the project. This book takes an interesting look at academics.

I give Lem's book 3 1/2 stars; I liked it better than McDevitt's book. Lem makes an excellent case that aliens can truly be so alien as to be beyond our comprehension; the reason humans might send a message to the stars could be completely different from the reasons an alien has. McDevitt's aliens are making an attempt to communicate. We never learn what Lem's aliens are trying to do (and in fact, when the main character makes some speculations, I'm almost surprised that he thinks he has any basis at all to speculate). McDevitt asks the question what it could mean to the world if we received an alien message that we can decode, and in particular he focuses on relations between the US and USSR (recall his book was written in 1986). Lem asks the question what it would mean to the human race to discover that aliens exist, and in particular how our humanity could contrast with the overwhelming strangeness of the aliens. I think this is the more interesting question; this seems to be the sort of question the best science fiction addresses. However, I will point out that fans of more traditional plot-driven sf will prefer McDevitt's book, and in fact Lem's book is somewhat hard to read all at once. (Lem's book contains several chapters of philosophical questions that are almost entirely empty of plot.) I'll just call Lem's book more thought-provoking and McDevitt's book more entertaining.

"The Engines of God" by Jack McDevitt, Ace Science Fiction, 1994.

This book is written in a similar style to The Hercules Text, although it is set two centuries in the future, when the human race is zipping around the galaxy at faster-than-light speeds. The puzzle of this book is that some powerful alien race has left "monuments" scattered around the galaxy. These are works of art rather than scientific devices. Nobody knows why these monuments were made; nobody knows where the alien race has gone. Additionally, there are two other alien races that have been discovered. One of these is technologically undeveloped, and isn't of central importance to the novel. The other race is dead, of unknown causes, and in fact died sometime only a few centuries ago. The first full half of the book follows a team of archeologists who are frantically trying to extract artifacts of this dead race, before the planet is terraformed, a process which will wipe its surface clean of the ruins of the dead alien civilization. They discover some interesting things before they are forced to leave, which leads to the second half of the book, where the archeologists are on the track of unraveling the puzzle of the monument building race.

This book is a puzzle book, with the puzzle being the monument makers and their monuments. I'm not sure that enough information is presented for the reader to guess at the puzzle answers before the main characters discover them, but the story of solving this puzzle is fun. Similar to The Hercules Text, the characters themselves are less important than the plot. The main character is Hutch, a starship pilot who is ferrying the archeologists around and helping them when she can. Again similar to THT, much of the work of the scientists is seen through her non-scientist viewpoint. The only real flaw in this book, in my opinion, is that the archeologists spend half the book investigating a dead alien race which seems extremely human-like. Perhaps most of the time I wouldn't consider a human-like alien culture to be that big of a problem, but having recently read Lem's book, I'm more sensitive to human-like aliens. But this flaw isn't that bad; I'll give this book 3 stars, it's fun and the story is interesting.