RobopocalypseI recently read the novel Robopocalypse, a science fiction-y thriller about the, er, robot apocalypse—the uprising of robots and technology and the attempt to wipe out humanity, and overall I quite enjoyed it: a good “popcorn” book that entertaining and mostly plausible if you don’t think about it too hard. Definitely movie fodder, and I see that Steven Spielberg is indeed attached to direct the movie that’s coming out next year.

From a storytelling standpoint, it’s structured in much the same way as World War Z: a history of the robot apocalypse, from various records and recollections, from the initial incidents through the finale of the war. This is a good, logical and easy-reading structure to adopt and as a result reads pretty quickly. And, it’s good at building suspense: even though the conceit is you’re reading a history—something that’s already happened and resolved otherwise you wouldn’t be reading it—you’ll keep turning the page to see what will happen next and how it all comes together.

The main quibble I have is the presence of a couple of “deus ex machina” (heh) plot threads that become key elements in the climax and resolution (one of which has a bit of a Matrix quality to it). Yes, I know it’s set in the (near) future and it’s sci-fi, but really that makes this type of thing even more jarring if you think too hard about it.

Otherwise it’s a good read, and of course there’s enough wiggle room to allow for a sequel. Because really, you can’t get enough robot apocalypse!

Further reading in case you’re interested.


So the new season of “V” premiered tonight; you might recall it’s the TV remake (reimagining?) of the the original nearly-30-year-old alien invasion TV series. I watched it from the beginning last season, with the presumption that I’d bail if it looked like it was going to go off the rails.

It must have been good enough, because here we are at the start of the second season and I’m still watching it; I’m still operating under the same ready-to-bail presumption though. Overall the show is better than I’d thought it would be, though it could very easily swerve into extremely cheesy territory. It’s this tenuousness, I think, along with occasional plot/character moments that seem a little too “What the–?” or convenient that have me wavering still.

Plus, for an advanced alien race with seemingly godlike omniscient technology—and rampant lizard paranoia—it sure seems awfully easy to manage and get away with all sorts of conspiracy literally right under their leader’s nose.

The Ringworld Engineers

Blogging has been light lately because I’ve been reading The Ringworld Engineers by Larry Niven, and just finished it up last night. It was a decent enough novel, and a decent sequel to the original Ringworld, though I think I liked the original better.

Niven does a great job of building a complex, consistent universe and then coming up with logical, consistent solutions to the puzzles he throws at his characters. And the Ringworld—and his Known Space universe—is a compelling one to play in. This story is no different. He brings back most of the characters from the first book, 23 years later, and drops them on the Ringworld with a seemingly impossible task: save it before it crashes into the sun. (The first book merely had them explore and ultimately escape when things went wrong.) He pulls this off in a satisfying way.

One of things I thought was weak to the point of distracting was the overuse of interspecies sex. Niven contrived this practice among the Ringworld natives as a bargaining tool, to seal deals, to avoid mating within a species, and just as a general titillating contrivance. Yeah, odd, and unconvincing. It smacks of “dirty old man” syndrome, or a cheap male fantasy (a world with free no-strings-attached sex!). There’s nothing explicit or pornographic—it’s just annoying. There’s no real point to it, it just seems gratuitous, and that makes weak writing.

In general, I like the stuff Niven and Jerry Pournelle produce together better than just Niven’s work alone—although granted, I’ve only read these first two Ringworld novels, and he has quite a body of work that I haven’t touched, so it may not be a fair comparison.

Overall, Engineers is a good summer read. Watch out for sequel-itis, though: you defintely need to read the original Ringworld to follow what’s going on. (And speaking of sequel-itis, I observe that there are two more sequels in this series… good grief…)

A Fire Upon The Deep

The latest book I’m immersed in (one of them, anyway) is A Fire Upon The Deep by Vernor Vinge. So far I’m hooked (I’m about a quarter of the way into it), it’s totally compelling science fiction. And it’s a refreshing reminder that there’s really no limit to what you can do, story-wise, with well-done sci-fi.

Ah, it’s always nice to have the “summer vacation” from TV and have time to catch up on my reading :).

The Years of Rice and Salt

Over the weekend I finished reading The Years of Rice and Salt, by Kim Stanley Robinson. Fantastic book, albeit one that defied my expectations, and I thought I’d write a short review.

I picked this book up because I loved the concept: an alternate history novel that explores the question, what if the Black Death of the 14th century wiped out 99% of Europe? The world becomes dominated by Islam and Buddhism, the Chinese discover America, Christianity is a footnote in history.

It’s divided into ten Books (basically chapters), each of which covers a later time and place as the alternate history unfolds. The breadth and scope of this project is surprising and mind-boggling; Robinson has gone to an obsessive level of thought and detail in constructing this history, and it’s entirely believable. The amount of research must have been enormous.

It surprised me on several levels; the main one was the storytelling technique Robinson used in tying each story in the ten Books together to provide a sense of continuity while keeping each distinct. I won’t go into detail here—the Amazon reviews do, and I think that spoils it a bit—and while I had my doubts, it ultimately works.

This isn’t science fiction in the die-hard sense, though (insomuch as alternate history tends to get classified as science fiction because nobody really knows how else to classify it). It’s much more a meditation on sociology, religion, history, politics, etc., on a world-wide scale. Very different than what I thought it would be. Yet very good. I totally recommend it.

Followup to the Time Traveler Convention

Wired News has a followup article about the time traveler convention that I blogged about the other day. Apparently no one from the future showed up.

But when attendees gathered outside for a raucous countdown at 10 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, nothing appeared on the makeshift landing pad at the coordinates Dorai set for the time travelers….

It’s actually a blessing that no one from the future showed up on Saturday night, said David Batchelor, the NASA physicist who wrote “The Science of Star Trek.”

Speaking on his own behalf and not for NASA in a phone interview, Batchelor noted the same potential risks mentioned by speakers at the convention, such as the displacement of matter in a finite universe caused by the introduction of someone from another time. He also touched on the paradoxes arising from such acts as going back in time and killing one’s own ancestors.

“We should breathe a sigh of relief,” said Batchelor, who considered his decision not to go to the convention a safe bet. “It means we were protected from the chaos that would result if someone came back and changed something.”

The thought that struck me as I read this was, if time travelers came from the future to attend the convention “after the fact”—wouldn’t our memories change to match the altered timeline? In other words, we wouldn’t know that no one from the future appeared, because they in fact did and time was changed.

Alternatively, travelers from the future did attend the convention, only that spun off into an alternate timeline and our own timeline is undisturbed.

The Time Traveler Convention

I don’t know whether to file this under “weird” or “science” or “brilliant”: MIT is hosting a time traveler convention on May 7.

What is it?

Technically, you would only need one time traveler convention. Time travelers from all eras could meet at a specific place at a specific time, and they could make as many repeat visits as they wanted. We are hosting the first and only Time Traveler Convention at MIT in one week, and WE NEED YOUR HELP!

Why do you need my help?

We need you to help PUBLICIZE the event so that future time travelers will know about the convention and attend. This web page is insufficient; in less than a year it will be taken down when I graduate, and futhermore, the World Wide Web is unlikely to remain in its present form permanently. We need volunteers to publish the details of the convention in enduring forms, so that the time travelers of future millennia will be aware of the convention. This convention can never be forgotten! We need publicity in MAJOR outlets, not just Internet news. Think New York Times, Washington Post, books, that sort of thing. If you have any strings, please pull them.

Great idea, I’d love to help! What should I do?

Write the details down on a piece of acid-free paper, and slip them into obscure books in academic libraries! Carve them into a clay tablet! If you write for a newspaper, insert a few details about the convention! Tell your friends, so that word of the convention will be preserved in our oral history! A note: Time travel is a hard problem, and it may not be invented until long after MIT has faded into oblivion. Thus, we ask that you include the latitude/longitude information when you publicize the convention.

You can also make an absolute commitment to publicize the convention afterwards. In that case, bring a time capsule or whatever it may be to the party, and then bury it afterwards.

I wish I’d thought of that. :)