Friday, November 12, 2010

Sci Fi Binge

I don't read a lot of Sci Fi, not because I harbor any distaste or disrespect for the genre, but because I've got a pretty full reading schedule and Sci Fi works just don't end up on that schedule very often. Every now and again though I get in the mood to just blast through a few of the genre's novels in a week or two long binge. Here's my take on the books I read on my last Sci Fi binge.

The Automatic Detective by A. Lee Martinez. Tweeking the philosophical work of Asimov on the ideas of robotic consciousness, Martinez creates a world where robots will occasionally and inexplicably be afflicted by the “free will glitch.” When this happens, the robots can apply for citizenship. It seems a perfectly rational system but it is stressed by the protagonist and hero of the novel, Mac. Mac is a robot afflicted with the “free will glitch,” which is all well and good, except that Max is a 7 ton killing machine invented by a mad scientist. Circumstances, as they so often do in fiction, embroil Mac in a mystery that progresses from a simple missing persons case to an all out alien invasion. Mutants. Mind-control. Robots. Vixens. It's got the flavor and texture of a pulp crime novel written on a different planet.

Along with the very well done, very funny entertainment of the novel, there's a current of comment on the nature of consciousness. First of all, we get a robot's take on human actions; a robot that can think and act for himself, but who still processes the data of the world as a computer would. He is a sympathetic other observing the emotional processing of the humans he interacts with. Furthermore, he begins to develop the ability to appropriate and utilize human emotional processing in his own decision making.

At it's core, The Automatic Detective is great entertainment, a kind of Asimov-light with a touch of the classic American hard-boiled detective story, but there's enough exploration of the human condition to give your brain something to do if you feel like using it.

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. Set in a post-nuclear holocaust Southwest amongst an order of Christian monks committed to preserving the knowledge of the destroyed world, this Hugo Award winning novel is a brilliant exploration and investigation into our relationship with information. After the nuclear holocaust there was a backlash against knowledge of any kind, as science itself was blamed for the destruction of human civilization. Teachers, scientists, and books were destroyed in kind of second holocaust called “The Simplification.” Individuals and organizations, like the order of Leibowitz preserved as many books as they could by “booklegging” physical books and by memorizing the books they found.

The novel spans hundreds of years, chronicling how human civilization rebuilt itself and the role the monks played in that rebuilding as a sanctuary for knowledge. Politics. Science. Art. Superstition. Faith. Religion. Through snapshots of various time periods, Miller is able to paint a fairly complete picture of human society by highlighting its different aspects as they gain prominence over time. Ultimately, this is an extremely pessimistic book (don't finish it if there's any sharp objects or poisonous liquids close at hand) but that doesn't detract from its brilliance and the pleasure I took in reading it.

A Canticle for Leibowitz demonstrates the best of speculative fiction (it really isn't Sci Fi). By imagining a vastly different world, either through inventing one or extending contemporary circumstances to one of their possible conclusions, it teaches us about our world, almost like Aesop's fables. A Canticle for Leibowitz does just that. (Major bummer though, just as a heads up.)

A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick. I finished my binge with this one because I was almost certain that I would like it and I did. This is the story, primarily, of Bob Arctor (awful close to “actor” isn't it.) who is an undercover narcotics agent, eventually assigned to monitor himself (though a grander plan is implied by the end). This plot explores some pretty obvious concepts; the definition of identity, the relationship between criminals and law enforcement officers, and the nature of surveillance, but it explores these concepts better than just about any other work of literature.

But there's more to it than just a thought experiment (though a well done thought experiment can sustain an entire novel, but that's another essay). Along with the fully realized characters one expects from literature it also has the evocative technology one (at least I) reads Sci Fi for. My favorite of these is the “blur suit.” The blur suit is a camouflage suit that Bob wears to conceal his identity when he, as “Fred,” is reporting to the police, or when he needs to conceal himself more generally. However, it doesn't work by making the wearer invisible. Instead it flashes a fast moving series of images of human features. The result is that, though people will see that a person is there, no one will be able to describe what that person looks like.

What fascinates me most about Phillip K. Dick, though, is that his work incorporates an entire range of writing quality. Because he was a genius, and because he wrote at an amphetamine fueled pulp hack writer pace, the writing in his books ranges from godawful to absolutely beautiful. Sometimes within the same paragraph he can give the reader an entire tour of writing quality. Though this makes it hard to assess Dick's place in the canon of American literature, it makes him easy to appreciate because you have permission to read him on many levels. Because much of his work is written in pulp style, you can read it as pulp entertainment. And because the writing is sometimes beautiful and the ideas are often brilliant, you can also read his work as serious literature.

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