Thursday, April 19, 2012

Recent SF Books (reviews)

I eventually got around to John C. Wright's "Count to a Trillion" (2011), a space opera set in the 2240s featuring a dystopian future Earth and an antimatter star 50 light years away. The automated starship which visited found a strange, partially-decipherable monolith and potential free-energy for the entire planet for hundreds of years, if the AM could be mined.

The hero of the tale is Menelaus Illation Montrose, a gun-slinging attorney in the backwater which is future Texas after the global biowar. Montrose is a math genius who takes an experimental IQ-enhancing nanoware potion as he joins the first manned expedition, an act which scrambles his mind for the duration of the mission. Most of the tale is set after the starship returns with its antimatter cargo: devastating consequences follow.

This is a strange book to read, bringing to mind all those criticisms that SF is all head and no heart. Wright is widely read and intelligent and deploys legions of physics buzz words (Lie Groups, Grassman algebra, Hilbert spaces) to convey super-intelligence. The plot is complex and time-shifts around.

The problem, as usual, is with characterisation. The personalities of the main characters and their motivations don't really invite empathy or identification - sometimes even comprehension. All the characters are constructs, well-made and complex to be sure, but not real enough to engage and involve. In the end this is a clever intellectual exercise but still cold and people-by-numbers.


I have been looking a long time for "When We Were Real". I had faint memories of a foxy lady starship pilot, a boy growing up in a space habitat run by a suffocating Icelandic matriarchy, a series of vicious adventures. I couldn't recall the title or the author, and googling the concepts just mentioned led nowhere. In the end I brute-forced it: went through the alphabetical Wikipedia list of SF writers and luckily the author I was searching for was William Barton.

Barton has been characterised by feminist critics as misogynist in this book (I googled for that too!). Darius Murphy, his first-person protagonist, certainly thinks about sex a lot - in fact whenever he meets an attractive girl for the first time - but that's not what this book is about.

Murphy is good looking, sensitive but basically lost and homeless in an amoral extra-solar society which couldn't care less. The writing is excellent: exactly what you hope for in a novel and an object lesson in how to do it right (Mr Wright, I am still thinking of you!).

Barton continues to write and I'll definitely be looking to some of his other works.