May 21st, 2011
|05:36 pm - The WWW Trilogy by Robert J. Sawyer – Optimistic, Old School Fun|
Optimistic: Optimistic SF (and even SF devoid of doom and gritty misery) has been in short supply of late. Especially since September 11, the watchword for much SF, and almost all near future SF has been grimness . I have however, at last seen some signs of change. In addition to Jetse DeVrie's excellent 2010 anthology Shine, there have been a few novels like Charles Stross' excellent Halting State , which depicts a world around 8-9 years in our future that is much like today, and thus devoid of the sorts of ubiquitous jackbooted oppression (common among modern progressive authors), endless terrorism and evil teeming people of color (horrifyingly common among modern conservative writers of SF), or ludicrously massive technological collapses (which is simply far too common).
Sawyer's WWW Trilogy – Wake, Watch, and Wonder is none of these. It's SF set in a 2012 that looks much like 2009 (when the first book was written) or for that matter, 2011, and the overall tone of the book is quite optimistic.
Old School: When I think of or call a modern SF novel or series "old school" or "old fashioned", generally this is a bad thing, and I mean that it's either written by someone who remains clueless about modern technology and modern life or (more commonly) that it's filled with the racial tokenism and (mostly) covert misogyny that was the hallmark of most SF written before the 1970s, and far too much written since then.
However, in this case, I mean something very different and I mean it in several ways. It's first and foremost about a "marvelous invention" (an emergent AI) that changes the world, of the sort that used to be very common in SF. I've read examples ranging from Poul Anderson's Shield to James Blish's They Shall Have the Stars, and many, many others. However, I haven't seen a modern version of this trope in quite a while, until this series.
Also, it's contains the sorts of tidbits of science that used to be fairly common, with once crucial exception. The works of Arthur Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Ben Bova, and many others (all the way back to E.E. Doc Smith) who contained significant information about and explanations of various sorts of science & technology always focused on physics and chemistry, with occasional sidelines into electrical engineering. In this book, the focus of the science is math, with sidelines into computer programming and game theory – in short it's an interesting and fairly well done modern update of an older style of novel that I haven't seen in a while.
It's also (to a somewhat lesser extent) a book about an "amazing family" who changes the world, which is another older trope that I haven't seen in a while. However, once again it's a modern take on this trope - the teen math genius is female, the father has asperger's, and there are several minor queer characters in the book.
In short, it's the sort of book that I used to see a fair amount of when I was a child and young teen, and haven’t seen much of since. It's also been nicely update to the modern day, both with the various changes I mentioned above, and the fact that the author is writing for an audience who are mostly assumed to be (at least by US standards) people with fairly strong progressive values. In short, it's a series that I enjoyed quite a bit. I didn't find it particularly memorable, but it punched the right emotional buttons, kept me eagerly turning the pages, and would be awesome airplane reading, as well as definitely being an excellent YA series – it's not marketed as YA, but it works well in this genre. I've read several more impressive and memorable books so far this year (with Hannu Rajaniemi's The Quantum Thief, leading this list, followed shortly behind by Elizabeth Bear's Grail), and this is even a bit lighter than Daniel Keys Moran's The A.I. War, Book One: The Big Boost (which I also really liked), but the WWW series was a whole lot of fun, as well as being well written.
As a side note, I found it interesting that (for the first time in quite a while) I found this series at a bookstore. I was down at Powells books with my parents (which has become a rarity for me of late, since Amazon is so much cheaper, and has everything, in a way no physical bookstore ever can), and the cover caught my eye. I'd previously tried to read a novel by Robert J. Sawyer (Starplex) and never managed to get more than 20 pages into it – it just didn't hold my attention, so I largely wrote him off as an author. Now I'm reconsidering a bit, and also considering the fact that flipping through books at bookstores clearly has more value than I'd considered, even in a world of ubiquitous on-line reviews and recommendations.
Current Mood: pleased
I do think writing an optimistic story is one of the harder challenges for any genre, simply because the balance between "dramatically serious problems that seem important to the characters" and "pessimistic handling of problems" is going to be very fine, and seeing one's way through the challenge probably depends somewhat on one's own habitual type of handle on life itself. So it's unsurprising to me to hear that SF writers balk at the challenge. Any genre would have trouble with that challenge. Of course it can be done, but it's not at all the easiest thing to ask of writers, unlike "give me a good elf story".
Re AI that focuses on math and programming and such more than physics and chemistry: have you read Astro Teller's Exegesis? It gave me this satisfying feeling of, "Oooh, old-school type AI scenario done by modern person who knows how computers are really going to work."
No I have not, I'd never heard of it. My local library has it, and it is now on hold. Wrt AI, I also highly recommend Melissa Scott's Dreamships & Dreaming Metal (and also has lots of excellent writing about race, class, and political tensions. Scott Westerfeld's Evolution's Darling is also well done, but I was not expecting nearly as much human-robot sex as was in that book.
Off the topic of AI - do you know if you or any of your household will be coming to the Feywood gather in July - I'd love to meet you and yours.
At this point we're pretty much sure we're going to Feywood, yes. In some combination of bus trip and caravan of friends-- I am terrible with remembering details, but tangyabominy
and I are probably going to meet up with niyafox
in some kind of sequence that will presumably transport us all northward, and then, one hopes, southward again afterward. Of course my other partner isn't going, but there was never any real question of that because she's private about her spirituality, and also probably has to work anyway.Edited at 2011-05-22 05:28 am (UTC)
There are currently 11 people registered, and so the four of you would make 15. Also, if you two want to stay a few days with Becca, Alice, and I (and our feline horde) coming or going, we'd love to have you (and we have a guestroom).
I think we're already registered, so we are just part of the 11. Well, thank you! That sounds really nice, as I'm not particularly enthused about the camping aspect, myself. I'll ask what tangyabominy thinks when he's awake. ^___^
The camping won't be like actual camping, since the bunkhouse has walls, running water, electric lights, a kitchen, and a distinct lack of sharing living quarters with various arthropods. I dearly love going to Walking the Thresholds out east, but I'd love it even more if it didn't involve camping - I blame the elves :)