Wednesday, 4 January 2012

B&B does it the hard way

It's Wednesday again...

Last month, I re-read "Heart of the Comet", written by David Brin and Gregory Benford. Very often such collaborations are really the work of the junior writer, one less popular and perhaps less skilled, with the senior writer contributing nothing to the project except some celebrity veneer and geek cred, and perhaps a few basic ideas for the actual writer to chew on, such as frequently happened late in Arthur C. Clarke's career.

I don't think this is the case here, however. Brin is only 9 years younger than Benford, and had already clearly surpassed Benford with the brilliant space opera novel Startide Rising. Style-wise the novel reads like a Brin, with many brief scenes written from the point of view of different characters, but I have no reason to speculate about this not being a true collaboration between equals.

For some reason, I like this kind of near future with gritty technology. I don't think cryogenic hibenation is a fetish of mine; rather, the widespread use of such technology tends to be an indicator that the author and world builder has thought about the problems of space travel, such as the question of life support, and decided not to come up with advanced and unproblematic super-solutions such as one sees in Iain M. Banks (who, in spite of this, is one of my favourite writers).

Of course, cryogenic hibernation is also used in a lot of audiovisual sci-fi (and the occasional audiovisual science fiction), but there it is far more likely to be the case that the script writer just included it as a "traditonal element", as standard "genre furniture". To cater to the expectations of the target audience that he envisions he is writing the movie for. It is dangerously likely that there has been no thought behind the inclusion; that there is no awareness of what real and realistic reasons there might be for utilizing some kind of hibernation system for various kinds of space travel.

Why does the crew of the Nostromo ore freighter hibernate, for instance, in the first Alien movie? The Nostromo obviously can fly faster-than-light, since otherwise the character Ellen Ripley would have been well prepared to outlive her daughter, which instead comes as a painful surprise to her in the sequel, the much better (much less horror-like) Aliens (sorry for the minor spoiler!). It also seems as if the crew has made many such trips between planets in their careers, and if such trips routinely involve decade-long periods of hibernation, it should be trivially easy for their employers to pay them very handsome salaries indeed: Just put a few thousand dollars into a very conservative investment fund, in the name of each employee, and then when he comes home after one out-and-back trip, give him the money and he's a millionaire, never having to work again. Plus there's the very reasonable expectation of coming home to a drastically changed culture, which is very likely to occur after just one out-and-back trip, and almost certainly will occur after two.

No, the usage of hibernation technology in Alien is obviously a case of what the Turkey City Lexicon calls Used Furniture. Setting elements are there because the script writer assumes they have to be there, rather than because they make sense in the context of the world.

Also, why is the entire crew hibernating? That makes no sense. There aren't even any mobile robots aboard the Nostromo, so if somthing goes wrong, all the crew will die. With such primitive technology as in Alien, you'd have to have one or preferably two crew members awake for the entire trip, in case somethnig goes wrong. Unless it is extremely non-trivial to quickly bring back several crew members from hibernation, in which case we're no longer in gritty low-tech land but in a shiny magi-tech far future setting. A small fraction of the crew ought to be awake and on watch, and even more so since we know for a fact that interstellar travel does not take years but at the most months, and more likely weeks for shorter trips.

Use of hibernation makes much more sense in the movie Outland, space western that it is. It's a many-months long trip from Jupiter to Earth, probably not via a Hohmann transfer orbit but something a bit similar. Then it makes sense to save on life support.

I like shiny magi-tech when the author (or - if miracles can happen - the script writer) has thought about how it fits into the world, as Banks does, but there's something appealing about the grittiness of near-future science fiction.

B&B delivers this, in a tale of adaptation and heroic struggle, and scientific heroism. Often such gritty near-future science fiction features low-lives (as in Neuromancer and much other cyberpunk) or blue-collar workers (as in Alien and Outland), and one of the three point-of-view characters does fit this type, the "spacer" Carl Osborn, but while the other two, Virginia Herbert and Saul Lintz, do get their hands dirty (in Herbert's case primarily via tele-operated "mechs"), they are scientists, and they accomplish great things. Alone.

Or well, nearly alone. Virginia does help Saul a bit with his biology and genetics work, and both are helped by Virginia's sentient computer Jonvon (whom Saul refers to at least once as her "familiar"). Saul also has help from various expert systems robots, and as they both are clearly geniuses, there's some plausibility to their accomplishments.

There's a lot of biology in the novel, which I tend to think of as Brin's trademark (especially in Startide Rising), although what little I have so far read of Benford's does not suggest to me that he is at all biology-iliterate (the disease lupus is referenced both here and in one of Benford's own novels, which also contains other evidence of bio-knowledge). Actually the only Benford I've read is the first two-and-a-half novels of his Galactic Center Saga (lupus appearing in the first novel), and thematically "Heart of the Comet" feels more like a Brin, little themes showing up that are familiar from Startide Rising, his other (less good) Uplift series novels, and sometimes his novel "Earth" (e.g. matching the resonance frequency of certain molecules), but if I had read more Benford, I'd probably find similar thematic links to his works.

The element of struggle that permeates the middle 2/3 of this novel also reminds me somewhat of Ludek Pesek's novel "The Earth is near", although I like "Heart of the Comet" much, much more. Just not to the point where I'll agree with the back blurb that it's better than Dune. I don't think it is (I got some kind of hard on for those Bene Gesserit ninja witch chicks). I like the optimism of "Comet", though - which strikes me as typical, cheerfull Brin.

Most if not all of the science seems plausible. Starting out near-future and getting a bit more advanced (over the course of half a century), but except for a few tentative excursions staying well away from superscience. Herbert and even more so Lintz achieving so much almost on their own is deeply politically incorrect, but as we all know, political correctness is in most cases a desperat attempt to cover up very uncomfortable facts, so as to avoid having to think about them. Also, Brin does make it clear that originally Lintz was part of a team of brilliant scientists, creating the first - and in this setting the only - human-genetic upgrade, the so-called "Percells", and that academic politics were holding both of them back, while they still lived on Earth.

I quite wanted to like the idea of heroic struggle in Benford's Galactic Center Saga series, about humanity's fight with sentient robots hostile to biological life and obsessively intent upon eradicating or confining it everywhere it appears in the entire galaxy, but I was quite unimpressed with the first novel, somewhat unimpressed with the second, and basically stopped reading about 1/3 of the way into the third. Part of the problem was the disinclined-to-think POV character.

Carl Osborn, the 3rd POV character used in "Heart of the Comet" has some of the same annoying tendency, but at least I only have to spend 1/3 of the time, or maybe a little more, seeing the world through his eyes. Not that he's a bad leader, he does a good job, and there's a lot of character growth, fairly plausible even, but I don't like Osborn much as a POV character.

JonVon is kinda cute, but we never get to see much of him, and there's not much on-page conversation between him and Virginia, and even less (if any) between JonVon and any other character. Iain M. Banks often gets praise for his portrayal of sentient machines (the great AI "Minds" and the more talkative and more on-page "Drones"), and I don't quite see what the fuss is about, but at least they are more at the forefront of many of his novels, letting me form an opinion of their plausibility (which I deem to be high).

Lintz has some angsty wankery about being an exiled Jew. Sure, the Holocaust was very, very wrong, and if he dwelled on that, it would make more sense, but the nonsense that seems to imply that Jews are genetically preprogrammed to inhabit Israel? Fortunately, there's not a lot of that; otherwise the novel would have been unbearable. Another thing I'd have liked to see reduced is the "love triangle" thing with Osborn, Herbert and Lintz. It's plausible enough that Osborn becomes fixated on Herbert, when he's in a very small and very isolated society with few eligible potential partners, but she's clearly not interested.

That said, there's a lot to like. The genius of Herbert and the more obvious genius of Lintz (he accomplishes so much more) tends to make up for Osborn's low-brow and occasional downright stupid attitude, and Osborn is a hard-working badass blue-collar spacer, and he grows to become a good leader (as good a leader as you can be anyway, in the sectarian and tribal (like-herding-cats!) society that the Halley Mission crew devolves in to). There's a lot of very plausible-sounding science, and space is dirty and gritty and full of machinery that breaks down if not maintained (and if heavily used, it requires disproportionately more maintenance). The bad guys, the "ortho" fanatics (and the one really fanatical "percell"), are plausible and seem like humans, being fearful or very realistically (and quite reasonably) vengeful, unlike the villains of poorly crafted stories, such as Kim Jong-il or Adolph Hitler.

In the end, my verdict is that this novel is very but not highly recommended.

Peter Knutsen typed these letters

note Hard science fiction writers referred to in the dedication includes Poul Anderson, Robert Heinlein, Larry Nivel and Jerry Pournelle, and also Greg Bear (who has no relation to Elizabeth Bear, as far as I know, except they presumably beong to the same species, although Greg is related to Anderson. Some years ago Bear and Benford and Brin were sometimes referred to as the "Three Killer B's" ). The four others, mentoned only by first name, I cannot figure out.

note 2 Another Halley's Comet-themed novel, published at around that time, was "2061: Odyssey Three" by Clarke.

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