The Player of Games – Iain M. Banks

Culture2ThePlayerofGamesJernau Gurgeh is the best game player the Culture has ever seen. (For clarity, these games are analogous to the board games of today. He writes scholarly papers on them. He takes parts in tournaments. He lives and breathes games. However, he is somewhat bored. The Culture is a post-scarcity society, with no want, death, suffering or exploitation. Winning at games is a purely intellectual pleasure. However there are civilizations outside the Culture. Gurgeh is contacted by Special Circumstances, a branch of “Contact”, the Culture’s organizations for dealing with newly contacted civilizations. It seems that in the barbaric Empire of Azad, a monumentally complex game is used to control appointments to government offices, even so far as to decide who becomes emperor.

Writing about a post-scarcity utopia is difficult. There is no real struggle. The interesting stories come about when there are encounters with the world outside the utopia’s borders. In fact the novel is slow and ponderous until the action reaches the Empire of Azad. The protagonist suffers from ennui but the reader is not left with a strong impression of him. He comes alive once the stakes are real, going through a transformation from happy but docile citizen of the culture to vibrant player, both literally and figuratively, with the means to affect society in very significant ways. The metaphor may be in-your-face but it is still well written.

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Manhattan in Reverse – Peter F. Hamilton

This short story collection contains mostly previously published material, among others the stellar “Watching Trees Grow“, which it was a pleasure to re-read. There are three more standalones, one of which is a very short vignette. The last three stories are set in the Confederation Universe, with the two longer ones featuring investigator extraordinaire Paula Myo. (The third is Blessed by an Angel.) Myo is a very interesting character and could easily be the protagonist of a novel two of her own. Hamilton’s treatment of clinical immortality and crimes committed in an environment with such is stellar as always.

I was left wanting more.

There Will Be Dragons (Council Wars I) – John Ringo

This is the first volume in Ringo’s vision of a fallen utopia. Mankind is free of want and ill-timed death. People can do what they wish with their long lives. But there is trouble in paradise. The council that rules the “Net”, the information system that provides for mankind, has fallen out in factional disputes that lead to war. Mother, a watchdog AI, does not interfere very much after the fall, but certain restrictions apply. For example, the amount of explosive force that can be applied is limited, making firearms well nigh impossible, as well as high energy industry. Society is back at a very early industrial level. The struggle in the beginning is just survival. but the war is far from over…

Great fun and entertainment in Ringo’s trademark style.

Consider Phlebas – Iain M. Banks

Banks is a best selling author of both Science Fiction and regular fiction. His Sci-Fi universe is known as “The Culture”, referring to the main civilization. Being systematic, I started at the beginning with the very first book of this celebrated series. I was sorely disappointed. Although there are space pirates, BDOs (Big Dumb Objects), interstellar intrigue, great characters and some solid action scenes, I failed to grasp the point of the story. For me, it was just plain dull. Your results may vary. The cover is gorgeous though.

Gridlinked – Neal Asher

In many cases, when an author tries to tackle an utopian future, in which large parts of humanity are without want (if there is such a thing) and live a very good life, the effort falls flat. During the first fifty pages or so, I was indeed worried. Things soon looked up, however. First of all, there is trouble in paradise, both internal and external. Secondly, there are cool people, such as our hero, superagent Ian Cormac. Thirdly, there are cool gadgets, like self-aware shuriken. Interestingly, most of human society is controlled by AIs, probably since they seem to be doing a better job than humans ever did.

In an unforgettable exchange, it is explained that AIs have the power of self-determination since it is programmed into them.  On the other hand “biologicals” do not, because they have biological imperatives to breed and so on. I thoroughly enjoyed this one, even though the ending left me a bit puzzled. What the heck was going on there?

Steel Beach – John Varley

This novel is set in Varley’s “Eight Worlds” Universe. It is the story, almost the chronicle, of Hildy Johnson, who also made an appearance in “The Golden Globe”. Steel Beach is the story of how Hildy Johnson didn’t commit suicide. That’s putting it crudely since the actual story is full of wonderful detail and nuance.

Hildy Johnson lives on Luna (the moon), a utopia with very long (perhaps even infinite) life, no real need to work and unprecedented personal freedom. Ironically, this personal freedom comes from having a very advanced Central Computer (the “CC”) run basically everything. Every citizen has a personal interface with he CC and can ask for any information at any time. Sex changes and other surgerical procedures are effortless and painless. Subcultures of all sorts thrive as people pursue what they really want to do. For example, large “Disney’s”, basically theme parks where you can even live, provide their inhabitants with life as it was in, say, an idealized Texas in the late 1800s. So life is pretty good. There’s just one problem: Hildy (who starts the novel as a man and ends it as a woman) keeps trying to commit suicide. The CC has noticed a rash of suicides and is trying to do something about them. He dragoons Hildy into helping him. Little does either know where this will land them or the rest of Luna.

The novel is about this, and much more. It is an exploration into what makes us human. Why do we live, exactly? What do we live for? Hildy is faced with the issue of having more or less infinite life ahead of him but no understanding of what he/she must do with it. The unbridled consumerism of Luna is not enough to give him/her purpose. And so he is endlessly seeking. Steel Beach is a wonderful exploration into the nature of humanity. But it is neither lecturing nor boring. The first person exposition is witty, whimsical, at times laugh out loud funny, while remaining insightful and interesting. I loved this book.

The Commonwealth Saga – Peter F. Hamilton

These two books are simply two volumes of the same novel, dubbed the Commonwealth Saga. With the invention of wormhole technology by straight arrow Nigel Sheldon and eccentric Ozzie Isaacs, traditional space exploration (vacuum, spaceships, all that kind of thing) is all but abandoned. Rail lines running between worlds through wormholes are the only means of interstellar transport, and humanity is rapidly expanding to many planets.

Hamilton seems to have been inspired by Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon when it comes to rejuvenation technology, although there are differences. Practical immortality is available to all but the very poor. Most people pay money into a sort of pension fund which pays for rejuvenation. The more well to do rejuvenate more often, staying forever young. This has brought about a maturing of humanity, where planning is much more long-term. Careers span decades and centuries. The rich can take entire “sabbatical lives”.

These two massive upheavals, longevity and cheap transportation over interstellar distances, have led to an unprecedented period of growth and prosperity for human society. A commonwealth unites the worlds. The Commonwealth is nominally a democracy, but the reins of power are firmly in the hands of dynasties rich enough to own entire planets. A utopia of sorts, but not really a democracy despite outward appearances.

A mysterious stellar event far outside the human sphere of influences forces the construction of a starship. It is the first one ever built. Former astronaut (immortality remember?) Wilson Kime captains the mission, which leads to the escape of the greatest threat humanity has ever faced from its ancient prison. And it soon becomes clear that the escape was not entirely an accident. There are mysterious forces at work inside the Commonwealth.

In the tradition of that other (even more) massive Hamilton opus, Night’s Dawn, this story is a somewhat daunting cornucopia of characters and interweaving subplots. This author can get away with it, since even his explanatory filler is eminently enjoyable. An immensely rich societal backdrop forms the stage for a drama with some very unexpected twists and turns. The most insignificant details come back to haunt the characters in what is obviously a very finely and meticulously crafted story. The end of Pandora’s Star is a massive cliffhanger and the story picks right back up in Judas Unchained, so I would recommend reading the two volumes back to back.

The story is peppered with wondrous things such as the Silfen, an enigmatic race of aliens, and their even more enigmatic forest paths, which lead seamlessly from world to world. Even the enemy is fascinating and an example of a true non-human intellect. There are bizarre, enigmatic and just generally cool characters such as super investigator Paula Myo, slut turned reporter Mellanie Rescorai, the orphan Orion, cult leaders, resistance warriors, criminals and politicians. A tangled web held together elegantly by Hamilton.

The story moves from utopia through gathering storm through all-out chaos and war to a spectacular conclusion, and is finally neatly put to bed in the epilogue. The true genius of Hamilton is that his universe is not populated by 20th Century humans living long lives and using wormholes. Society and its inhabitants are quite different, reflecting the changes in society and culture brought about by technological advances. Motivations, reactions and behaviors are believably described for these “future humans” (and aliens), just as a 17th Century human would behave differently from us.

It should be clear by now that this novel is among the very best I have ever read. Sure, one could criticize the perhaps unnecessarily long road chase in the second volume, or the seeming abandonment of a few supporting characters at the end. But the truth is that it is very very difficult to write something this long, with so many character relationships, and not run into the occasional pacing problem.

So stop reading this and order the books. You will not be disappointed. And if you want more, Hamilton returns to the Commonwealth Universe and many of the characters in the Void Trilogy, set over a thousand years later.