Tag Archives: Science fiction

Book Review: Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson is the first novel I’ve read by this author. I read one of his short stories in an all-sci-fi issue of Wired magazine and loved it, plus I’d heard all the (positive) commotion about his novel New York 2140. So I was excited to dive in. I recently graduated college and immediately after (well honestly about a week before, I was really excited) went to the bookstore and bought a stack of science fiction to read. This is the first time in a very long time that I’m actually able to read books *I* want to read. Anyway, Robinson was at the top of my list of new authors I want to check out, and I decided to start with Aurora. I was not disappointed.

Aurora is about a group of people on a spaceship about to arrive at their new home, a planet called Aurora in the Tau Ceti system. The voyage was begun many generations ago by people who eventually died of old age without seeing the end of their adventure. It’s a bittersweet start, in part because I couldn’t help but mourn the lives of the people who were in the middle generation. They didn’t get the excitement of starting out, and they didn’t get the excitement of getting there.

Robinson has put a lot of thought into the science of his work, and it seems that while he is perfectly capable of letting his imagination run wild with possibility, he is also able to rein in that imagination with a cold hard look at the science of the thing. It’s very practical science fiction, focused on the human condition and its role in the universe we’ve created for ourselves. The drama and conflict here does not involve epic space battles or Alien-level monsters. The battles are of our own making, the monsters sometimes in the mirror.

And that is what I think makes Aurora such a chilling read: it is so plausible because it’s rooted in a deep understanding of humanity. Robinson looks at who we are and where we seem to be going, and crafts his space opera around those two quantities. Then he backs it up with science.

This book did a great job of making me see our planet in new and interesting ways, and ask important questions of myself, especially in the use of a poem at the end which I won’t relay. I don’t want to give anything away. But that’s exactly the kind of science fiction I love best. It’s moving, it has a feeing of being bigger than all of us, and it makes me reflect on big questions. Those are the kinds of stories that have shaped me since I first started reading science fiction, and what I strive for in my own writing.

So, if you’re looking for a big action adventure, this is probably not your book. But if you like well-thought-out science, deep character development, and big questions, Aurora is a winner.

Inspiration: MIT’s Silk Pavilion

 

MIT’s Mediated Matter group has constructed a silk dome using 6,500 silkworms–the first step in biological 3-D printing. The idea itself is, of course, fascinating. Here is a description of the dome from the MIT Mediated Matter webpage for the project:

 

The new MIT Media Lab building (E14)
The new MIT Media Lab building (E14) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Silk Pavilion explores the relationship between digital and biological fabrication on product and architectural scales.The primary structure was created of 26 polygonal panels made of silk threads laid down by a CNC (Computer-Numerically Controlled) machine. Inspired by the silkworm’s ability to generate a 3D cocoon out of a single multi-property silk thread (1km in length), the overall geometry of the pavilion was created using an algorithm that assigns a single continuous thread across patches providing various degrees of density. Overall density variation was informed by the silkworm itself deployed as a biological printer in the creation of a secondary structure. A swarm of 6,500 silkworms was positioned at the bottom rim of the scaffold spinning flat non-woven silk patches as they locally reinforced the gaps across CNC-deposited silk fibers. Following their pupation stage the silkworms were removed. Resulting moths can produce 1.5 million eggs with the potential of constructing up to 250 additional pavilions. Affected by spatial and environmental conditions including geometrical density as well as variation in natural light and heat, the silkworms were found to migrate to darker and denser areas. Desired light effects informed variations in material organization across the surface area of the structure. A season-specific sun path diagram mapping solar trajectories in space dictated the location, size and density of apertures within the structure in order to lock-in rays of natural light entering the pavilion from South and East elevations.  The central oculus is located against the East elevation and may be used as a sun-clock. Parallel basic research explored the use of silkworms as entities that can “compute” material organization based on external performance criteria. Specifically, we explored the formation of non-woven fiber structures generated by the silkworms as a computational schema for determining shape and material optimization of fiber-based surface structures. Research and Design by the Mediated Matter Research Group at the MIT Media Lab in collaboration with Prof. Fiorenzo Omenetto (TUFTS University) and Dr. James Weaver (WYSS Institute, Harvard University).

I first read about it on Wired.com in an article titled “A Mind-Blowing Dome Made By 6,500 Computer-Guided Silkworms” dated July 11, 2013. The article discusses the potential applications:

 

Potential applications are varied, but include fashion and architecture, and it’s possible to imagine a system like this being deployed in the aftermath of a natural disaster to build environmentally friendly shelters for refugees — if they could get over the slightly terrifying notion of living in what looks to be a giant spider web. “The project speculates about the possibility in the future to implement a biological swarm approach to 3D printing,” says Oxman. ”Imagine thousands of synthetic silkworm guided by environmental conditions such as light or heat — supporting the deposition of natural materials using techniques other than layering. This will allow us to exclude waste and achieve increased control over material location, structure and property.” Oxman sees a big future for these tiny creatures. “Google is for information what swarm manufacturing may one day become for design fabrication.”

TREE 7
Photograph courtesy Russell Watkins, U.K. Department for International Development from NationalGeographic.com.

What I love most is the idea of synthetic silkworms crafting garments, structures, and more out of raw material like these silkworms. “Swarm manufacturing” reminds me of a story I read some time ago about rogue nanobots swarming around the planet infecting people and taking over their minds and actions. Now imagine a swarm of these manufacturers who, perhaps, got loose and began building weird structures of their own design. I imagine a haunting, spider-webbed landscape much like when floodwaters forced spiders into the trees of Pakistan, where they spun out of control (pardon my pun). What sort of buildings might they create? If their primary directive is to create, and they were somehow imbued with a higher intelligence, or the swarm itself at least was, what would happen? I’m also reminded of a story called “I, Rowboat” by Cory Doctorow which I came across in the 24th annual Year’s Best Science Fiction anthology edited by Gardner Dozois, my all-time favorite science fiction anthology. In it, a row-boat with artificial intelligence worries over the coral reef which has gained sentience. That idea, of a swarm/hive/colony of creatures coming together to form an intelligence, has always stuck with me, and frankly scares me every time I see a bee hive or an ant hill.

 

As a writer, the question now becomes whether I feather this idea into an existing plot line, or craft a plot line around the idea? The former is probably smarter, and of course would be much easier, but I always end up feeling like it doesn’t do justice to such an awesome concept. A secondary concern of mine is the ever-present feeling that the future is happening right now, that it’s in fact zooming past me at dizzying speeds and I simply can’t write fast enough to keep up with all the advancements. The minute I put character to screen, any technology I write about will already be obsolete. It’s a very difficult feeling to shake, but one that I’m just going to have to live with. Perhaps my stories will be like reading Sherlock Holmes or Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea–readers one hundred years from now (if I should be so lucky) will read my quaint little stories and marvel at how we got along with such rudimentary technology.

 

But going back to the question of plot, I believe my writing teachers would say that it would be a terrible idea to form a plot around a concept. “Fiction is not about ideas, it’s about people,” they would say. And I would agree, to an extent. Of course it’s really a balance between characters and plot, and the style of the author determines how much of each is balanced into the story. Some writers have nothing but character. Other writers have nothing but plot. Hugh Ferrer said, in his Iowa University Summer Writing Festival weekend workshop said that story is a chariot pulled by the character horse and the plot horse. You have to control both in order to maintain a smooth ride. I completely agree with this, but he also said to think about the kinds of stories I like to read, and I love science fiction because of the big ideas they tackle. This is why I loved “I, Row-Boat” and why it has stuck with me for years. Those big ideas. It’s also why I’ll always be an Isaac Asimov and Phillip K. Dick girl. They tackled the big ideas too. So yes, it would be safer to feather this idea into an existing plot, perhaps as world building texture, but at the same time it would a lot of fun to write a story devoted to this idea so that atmosphere of its consequences can be fully explored.

 

I will have to let you know what I choose.

 

 

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Book Review: Among Others by Jo Walton

Among Others
Buy on Amazon.com

Among Others by Jo Walton

My Goodreads rating: 5 of 5 stars

Winner of the 2011 Nebula Award for Best Novel
Winner of the 2012 Hugo Award for Best Novel
“Among Others” is a coming-of-age story written in the style of a young girl’s journal.

It has taken me several months to decide how I ultimately feel about this book. Immediately after finishing it, I liked it more than I did while reading it. I am immensely impressed with how Jo Walton is able to make the complete book more than the sum of its parts, and how, at least for me, the thesis of it isn’t apparent until the whole thing has been read.

The inner world of the main character, Morwenna, is compelling and magical. The way she views and experiences magic is exactly how any intelligent young girl with an imagination and an interest in fantasy/sci fi would explain magic to herself. Morwenna exists in a world inhabited by adults who do crazy, irrational, and frightening things. At any moment her crazy mother or absent father could swoop in and decide to take her away, or threaten her life, or things she can’t even anticipate, and so she lives in a constant state of insecurity with regards to the people who are supposed to provide her with security. She has no control over her life. To maintain her sanity, and to give herself a sense of security, she believes that she can affect the world through the use of magic and spells. It is this belief that ultimately saves her.

What I enjoyed most about this book is that it is never made explicitly clear whether or not the magic and fairies are real or in Morwenna’s imagination. This is especially true once I finished the book, because at any given time while reading it I was always waiting for that one definitive moment where I knew for sure. On one hand, it could all be true and work exactly as Morwenna described. On the other hand, it could all just be a coping mechanism in her imagination. When I originally read the book I assumed that Morwenna, the narrator, was a reliable witness. I look forward to rereading it knowing that she may not be, and see how it might change the experience.

I also appreciate the way the author handles magic. It is both classic and unique at the same time. I enjoy the way Morwenna thinks about magic all the time, about its rules and how it would or wouldn’t work, and how casting spells work. I also enjoyed the fairies. It felt very much like the sort of spellcrafting and fairy knowledge you would get from an ancient part of Europe, from an old woman who learned it from her granny, who learned it from HER granny, who was a hedge witch. It all tickled the part of me that likes to find dusty old books about herbs in the back corner of used book stores, that hoards rusty old keys, and that always looks through holes in stones to see if fairies are around. It’s magic that is worn around the edges, a little dirty, a little sinister and unpredictable. You know, “real” magic.

While I was reading, it wasn’t exactly a perfect experience for me. It’s “another” book involving magic and a boarding school, as we have seen with (of course) Harry Potter, and Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, to name a couple. It was well done and seemed appropriate, but I’m just saying it’s been done before. In a similar vein, it seems like all of the exciting stuff happens off screen. Morwenna alludes to events that sound very dramatic and exciting, but that happened in the past. Instead we experience a pretty typical series of events for a young person at a boarding school: boys, books, holidays, the difficulty of making friends, etc. Again, it was well done and seemed appropriate, but I hadn’t really realize I was getting myself into that type of “coming of age” story prior to starting it. Finally, Morwenna spends a lot of time talking about other science fiction books, about their themes and covers and characters. I really enjoyed this about the book because I am a huge sci fi fan, but occasionally I would have liked to have seen the mentioned cover, or had a more detailed explanation of why Morwenna believed something about a character. Often times she would state an opinion but say nothing more about why. I can understand that this is how a young person would journal, but I would have enjoyed the added detail.

Walton has a way of spinning a world around her words that is evocative of both the modern day and a storied and mythic past. The characters have depth and history and complexity. This is one of the few books I’ve read that I look forward to reading again.

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