Tuesday, July 17, 2012

#59: The Diamond Age, #62: Startide Rising

The Diamond Age:

“Nell," the Constable continued, indicating through his tone of voice that the lesson was concluding, "the difference between ignorant and educated people is that the latter know more facts. But that has nothing to do with whether they are stupid or intelligent. The difference between stupid and intelligent people—and this is true whether or not they are well-educated—is that intelligent people can handle subtlety. They are not baffled by ambiguous or even contradictory situations—in fact, they expect them and are apt to become suspicious when things seem overly straightforward.” 
“That we occasionally violate our own stated moral code does not imply that we are insincere in espousing that code.” 
“...he liked his transcendence out in plain sight where he could keep an eye on it -- say, in a nice stained-glass window -- not woven through the fabric of life like gold threads through a brocade.” 
“Yong is the outer manifestation of something. Ti is the underlying essence. Technology is a yong associated with a particular ti that is ... Western, and completely alien to us [the Chinese]. For centuries, since the time of the Opium Wars, we have struggled to absorb the yong of technology without importing the Western ti. But it has been impossible. Just as our ancestors could not open our ports to the West without accepting the poison of opium, we could not open our lives to Western technology without taking in the Western ideas, which have been as a plague on our society. The result has been centuries of chaos.” 
Neal Stephenson had a tough act to follow after his break-through cyberpunk epic, Snow Crash, won a considerable amount of well-deserved praise following its release. Snow Crash has often been cited as one of the best two cyberpunk novels ever written, as well as the best science fiction novel of the 1990s. The Diamond Age, Stephenson's next foray into science fiction, is quite different from Snow Crash, and I won't make this review an exhaustive comparison between the two beyond commenting that The Diamond Age is a more restrained, literary narrative in comparison to the fast and furious Snow Crash.
The Diamond Age shows off Stephenson's versatility from its inception. In essence, it is half fast-paced, violent, post-cyberpunk novel, half fairy-tale fantasy (in the world of the Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, a crucial part of the book). It is set in and around Shanghai for the most part, around the late 21st or early 22nd century. In this future world, Stephenson presciently shows us how human society has become quite dependent on the use of nanotechnology --and Stephenson's descriptions of the many nanotechnological devices that are present in the world of The Diamond Age, particularly the airborne mites, are incredibly original and a joy to behold. In this future, society is split into "claves" or "phyles", which are essentially tribes of people that share cultural and sometimes racial characteristics with one another (Ashantis, Israelis, Hindustanis, Heartlanders, Zulus, and neo-Victorians are only a few examples). The somewhat convoluted, winding, and often digressive plot concerns a "neo-Victorian" gentleman named John Percival Hackworth who invents an astonishingly complex interactive, digital book called The Young Lady's Illustrated Primer for the daughter of a wealthy neo-Victorian lord, a book that will teach the girl to think for herself, learn about the underlying structure of human behavior, learn calculated subversiveness and essentially grow up.
Things start to spin out of control when Hackworth attempts to produce a copy of this powerful book for his daughter, only to have it stolen by a gang of teenagers. The Primer soon falls into the hands of a young, lower-class girl named Nell (probably the story's most sympathetic character) who is educated by it, and takes an odyssey of her own up the rungs of society. Meanwhile, Hackworth finds himself caught up with a mysterious criminal named Dr. X who is very interested in him, or more accurately, the great skill in engineering nanotechnology that he possesses. Dr. X quickly realizes that if Hackworth's skill could produce an extremely comprehensive and ingenious device like the Primer, that he could also be called upon for other, more ambitious projects. These projects remain a mystery to the reader, as well as Hackworth, as he spends ten years in a strange subterranean cult that he is directed to by Dr. X. In addition, some of Hackworth's neo-Victorian superiors find out about his involvement with Dr. X and tap him to be a double agent.
This book does get quite complicated and mystifying at times; there were moments when I had to put the book down and say to myself "Why are they doing this?". But Stephenson strings the reader along well --although these scenes can be as confusing as the movie theater scene in Philip K. Dick's VALIS-- they are eventually, and at least partially, explained (particularly the Dramatis Personae boat scene, the initial foray into the strange land of the Drummers, and the final scene are all shining examples).
Overall, The Diamond Age is a particularly complex, but rewarding read that poses deep questions about Eastern vs. Western philosophies and the nature of human society. Stephenson shows excellent versatility in transitioning from sweet, pastoral scenes from the pages of Nell's Primer, to the bizarre sex-laced scenes involving the Drummers, to the violent, fast battle scenes at the novel's conclusion. Stephenson has created a sort of Dickensian, class-driven tale  of nanotechnology, mystery, and growing up --a tale that also succeeds in creating a vividly realized vision of the future. It's certainly not a book I'll soon forget.

Startide Rising:

"Sometimes the key to an answer is found in the way you formulate the question."
"Blatant idiocies had been tried by early men and women --foolishness that would never have been considered by species aware of the laws of nature. Desperate superstitions had bred during the savage centuries. Styles of government, intrigues, philosophies were tested with abandon. It was almost as if Orphan Earth had been a planetary laboratory, upon which a series of senseless and bizarre experiments were tried. Illogical and shameful as they seemed in retrospect, those experiences enriched modern Man. Few races had made so many mistakes in so short a time, or tried so many tentative solutions to hopeless problems."
"Creideiki could imagine how the vice-captain felt. There were times when even he felt oppressed by the towering invasiveness of uplift, when he almost wanted to squawk in Primal, 'Who gave you the right?' And the sweet hypnosis of the Whale Dream would call to him to return to the embrace of the Old Gods." 
"Every epoch has its turning point. Sometimes it occurs on the battlefield. Sometimes it takes the form of a technological advance. On occasion, the pivotal event is philosophical and so obscure that the species in existence at the time are hardly aware that anything has changed before their world-view is turned topsy-turvy around them."
David Brin's Startide Rising is so much more than your run-of-the-mill, Star-Wars type space-opera. Yes, galactic battleships and malicious alien species' abound, but Brin throws so much more into the mix in this second novel of the Uplift series. Before I begin reviewing this novel in detail, I must note that the Uplift series does not, by my estimation, have to be read in any type of sequence to be enjoyed. The Uplift novels are all "stand-alones" which happen to take place in the same universe. I did not read Sundiver, the first book in the series, or any other Uplift novel before I read Startide Rising, and I never found myself lacking an explanation of plot or concept. In this future universe, we have your standard space-opera ingredients: humans have gained the technology for interstellar travel, and interact with many alien races, some hostile and some benign, in the Five Galaxies --many of these alien races have been sentient and able to travel through space for far longer than humanity. But the real "concept of the series" is Brin's excellent, original concept of Uplift: when an already sentient species genetically enhances and educates another species into sentiency. Humanity has uplifted dolphins and chimpanzees at the time of the action of this novel.
The plot concerns a crew of dozens of dolphins, several humans, and a chimpanzee who have apparently discovered an abandoned "derelict fleet" of giant spaceships that belonged to the ancient Progenitors --the first sentient species in the universe, who subsequently uplifted several races, who themselves continued the pattern to "create" all sentient life in the universe. Their knowledge is both dangerous and extremely valuable, and the crew of the exploratory vehicle Streaker flee to an uninhabited water world called Kithrup, pursued by religious fanatics of all sorts of nasty alien races. Brin really shows off his Stapledonian creativity in his descriptions of some of these fanatic races --some have psychic powers, others are physically grotesque beasts. They all battle each other above Kithrup for the right to capture Streaker and her crew.
The plot starts out fast-paced and with great scientific detail: Brin is clearly versed in science and Startide Rising certainly qualifies as Hard Sci-Fi (intelligent science fiction that strives to be fundamentally sound and in accordance to the laws of science). However, the novel loses this fast pace as the it becomes clear that the crew of the Streaker won't escape any time soon, and they settle down to study the metal-rich world of Kithrup. We are introduced to many characters, including Captain Creideiki, a dolphin, Takkata-Jim, his scheming lieutenant, and Gillian Baskin and Tom Orley, the two main human protagonists. Gillian and Tom are quite likable, as is Toshio, a midshipman who gets into life-threatening trouble quite a bit during the course of the novel.
In addition, an abundance of weird-named dolphin characters spring up, and they can get hard to keep track of. My personal favorite characters were Tom (whose telepathic prowess reminded me of Philip K. Dick's Ubik), your standard male hero who kicks a lot of alien ass throughout the novel, and Charles Dart, a sarcastic, self-absorbed chimp scientist whom everyone aboard loves to hate. Once a rebellion aboard ship starts to heat up, the pace of the novel comes back up to a decent speed. The action is really turned up in the last 150 or 200 pages, leading up to a climactic space battle that will have you tearing through the pages and burning the midnight oil to see what happens. In essence, Startide Rising is everything an intelligent space-opera should be --and it's original enough to shed any overbearing influence of Star Wars or Star Trek to a very competent degree.
All things considered, Startide Rising is a solid science fiction story, but not quite on the top tier of SF with works like Dune, Nineteen Eighty-Four and A Canticle For Leibowitz. Check it out if you're into lively, original tales of space and exploration. It really got me thinking about how humanity will deal with the technology to potentially do some uplifting of our own, sometime in the future.

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