Anathem – Neal Stephenson

On the world of Arbre, which is very much like our own, Fraa Erasmas is an Avout, a young member of the Edharian order at the Concent of Saunt Edhar. Avout like him retreat for years, decades and longer into Concents, which are somewhat similar to medieval convents, but instead of being focused on religion they are focused on science. The Avout stay in the Concents in order to study and understand the physical world, unaffected by what happens in the Saecular world outside, and also because of historical events that make the Saecular world uncomfortable with giving the Avout too much power. The story begins at Apert, a regular opening of the gates. In Erasmas’s case Apert occurs every ten years since he is in the Decenarian part of the Concent. Soon after apert, Erasmas and his colleagues discover a mysterious object in orbit, and the efforts by the power that be to hide this knowledge from the Avout. What follows is a meandering quest to find the truth.

Anathem is a difficult book to describe because there is so much going on. While the story itself is not very complex, it takes us on myriad tangents and discussions. The nature of the Concents, places where Avout can concentrate on finding the truth in a rational scientific manner, means that the Avout are encouraged to engage in Dialog, structured debates. These are recounted at length in the book and the reader must pay attention to what are in essence intellectual discussions on the nature of truth, while at the same time absorbing the extensive fictional mythology and history of the world of Arbre, not to mention dozens of words in a made up vocabulary. The first third of the story is fairly narrow in its scope, but then suddenly events instigate major changes in the lives of Erasmas and his colleagues. The conclusion involves some very strange happenings indeed.

Anathem is an exploration of many themes and concepts, most notably deep time and the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. It is also the story of a young man who wants to do the right thing by his mentor, a motivation that leads him down many unexpected roads. Erasmas’s fate is further complicated by the fact that, perhaps inevitably for a young man of his age, he is hopelessly in love with a girl. This last facet in particular helps the reader connect to the protagonist, even as the young Fraa has to explore things which will strain even his strong grasp on analysis of the natural world.

The Accidental Time Machine – Joe Haldeman

TheAccidentalTimeMachineIn the not-too-distant future, MIT graduate student Matt Fuller has just completed a graviton generator for his professor. He tests it and it disappears, only to reappear a second later. Further experimentation shows that the generator has, quite by accident and unexplainably, acquired the ability to jump forward in time. Matt figures out a way to go with it. There’s a catch, though. Every jump is longer than the previous one in a geometric progression, and Matt calculates that the jumps will very soon be hundreds of thousands of years long, then millions, and ever growing. Wanting to escape his personal circumstances at the time, Matt starts jumping forward.

As usual with Mr. Haldeman, the tale takes an unexpected turn somewhere down the line, in a good way. Matt travels to future societies both regressed and far progressed from our current one. This is not uniquely a touristic exploration of possible futures, however. At the core there lies a logically carved out path, interestingly ambiguous in its treatment of predestination and free will. The personal story and growth of Matt, a down-on-his-luck and rather lazy graduate student, adds a charming and personal dimension to the tale, and ensures that despite the subject matter, the novel is softer than the rock-hard science fiction of classics like The
Time Machine
or A World Out of Time.



The Quantum Connection (Warp Speed II) – Travis S. Taylor

Computer geek Steven Montana was left alone in the world after the secret war in Warp Speed. Life is looking up as he gets a job for the government working on top secret stuff. Then it all goes to hell as he is abducted by aliens (again, as it turns out). At that point, the story changes scope significantly, as Steven hooks up with the protagonists of Warp Speed and they fight a war for the survival of humanity in a hostile galaxy.

This format of this novel is Heinleinian romp straight out of the Golden Age of Science Fiction. But there are differences. All the science is cutting edge, with quantum entanglement, computer agents and nanomachines to name but a few things. The generally positive outlook on humanity and charming naif tone from the prequel remain. Steven is an archetypal good guy who gets the intelligent and pretty girl (how the latter happens is a bit unusual, but still). It is also a novel of how opportunity for personal growth and turning yourself around can lurk behind the most unlikely corner.

Just like it’s predecessor, this one was immensely enjoyable. It is pure, shameless fun. The characters are perhaps a bit over the top but it feels as if the author does this very much on purpose, with a glint of mischief in his eye. All the Golden Age clichés are treated with respect and irreverence both, as this book harkens back to a simpler time, reminding us that goold old fashioned heroes can help us navigate today’s more complex moral landscape.

Claws That Catch (Looking Glass IV) – John Ringo & Travis S. Taylor

The third mission of the Vorpal Blade, now actually Vorpal Blade Two, has the crew looking for an ancient artifact. Far from stagnating, the plot thickens as a new commanding officer and various crew members enter the mix. The just don’t “get” the Blade and its odd denizens. The ensuing conflicts and madcap hijinks are central to character development.

After finishing this one, I find myself wanting more. As mentioned in the Manxome Foe review, these books are just plain fun. The characters are likeable, the humor is dry and the pages just want to be turned.

Manxome Foe (Looking Glass III) – John Ringo & Travis S. Taylor

During the second mission of the A.S.S. Vorpal Blade, the crew is tasked with a long duration journey in order to investigate what happened to a far-flung research outpost with which contact has been lost. Big space battles with the Dreen ensue, as well as an encounter with an ally.

Just as in Vorpal Blade, the tone is light hearted, with a lot of dry humor pervading the text. No plot development is too hyperbolic for the authors, and therein, in my opinion, lies the charm of the series. It is almost a guilty pleasure. While the physics and logic are unassailable, the attitude is pure sass.

Into the Looking Glass (Looking Glass I) – John Ringo

An experiment gone wrong opens a gate to another dimension. Pretty soon more gates start to open. Mayhem ensues as evil demonspawn aliens pour through some of the gates and try to colonize by exterminating those pesky humans. Hot shot physicist, renaissance man and generally cool guy Bill Weaver teams up with some Navy Seals to figure things out and contain the threat.

As can be expected with Ringo, there’s a lot of action, all of it good and exciting. However, the books does get bogged down in the physics of it all. The writer has painted himself into a corner here. The gates and their function are pretty pivotal to the story, but the explanations required for that angle are yawn inducing, getting in the way of the action. Note that quantum physics actually interests me but that is not why I read the book. Still, if you enjoy Ringo, don’t let that stand in your way. Plenty of kick-ass action as well as a not so veiled ringing endorsement of Bush and his administration.

The Light of Other Days – Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter

This novel explores a really fascinating concept. What if technology could be developed that let us see any place in space and time, including past, present and future? Society would be transformed. Lying would be impossible.

But Clarke and Baxter take it much much further than that, and the ending is just plain incredible as, without spoiling it too much, humans can finally seek redeption for the crimes of ages past. Read this book.