Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows Part Two

Chapter Ten conveniently ends at page 200. Deaths in this installment: 1 (unconfirmed). Weddings: 1 Births: 0 (not that anyone has ever been pregnant in the Harry Potter books, but it seems like part of a triumverate of announcements.) Unlikely conversions of enemies to allies: 1 (maybe)

Onward! I hope to get to page 300 before neck-snapping in Splinter Cell: Double Agent. The ficton shift will no doubt be confusing.

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If you outlaw falling gnomes, then only outlaws will have gnomes

I meant to blog about this last week, and by now it's hit a lot of major sites, so you may have seen this already. But last week a gold farming site came up with an ingenious way of advertising - they wrote their URL on World of Warcraft using gnome corpses. (See a YouTube video.)Apparently there is some client-side bug in WoW that lets you teleport up into the air. Where you fall. And this site exploited that to create dozens (probably hundreds) of gnomes and flung them to their deaths, using each individual gnome corpse as a pixel in a letter. As the video notes, the M uses 24 gnomes.

While I think gold-farmers are a bad influence on the games, and the last time I played WoW the constant whispers, ads, and shouting were very annoying, I have to give credit where credit is due - this was brilliant. I laughed when I first read about it.

But that's not what I really want to link tonight, that's just backstory. What I really want to link is this: an essay by Charlie Stross about how you can't even explain this to somebody living in 1977. He works through what you would have to explain, and then asks:

Your question: at which step in this narrative would my 1977-era audience first say "you've got to be shitting me!" ... and when would they start moaning and holding their head in their hands?

There are thirty years' worth of future shock condensed into this one news item. And the reason I'm writing about it is that I don't think I could get away with putting such an conceptually overloaded incident into one of my novels; it would take too much set-up and require so much infodumping that many readers would lose interest. This Russian doll of a news item contains some rather scary pointers to where we're going, and a harsh warning about the difficulty of accurately portraying plausible futures in literature.

It's a fantastic point. If you invert the example, imagine a Science Fiction author in 1977 (mind you - the year of Star Wars' original theatrical release) and try to picture him or her writing about this. It's bad enough to assume they foresaw the internet and online gaming. But foreseeing the upgrowth of virtual economies, foreseeing eBay, and predicting the inter-relationship meaning you can establish a reasonable dollar to WoW gold piece exchange rate? That's insane.

So if you're writing sci-fi, can you reasonably claim to be predicting the future? That's thirty year example, so can you even guess at the recreational activities of 2037? Probably not. Interesting stuff to think about.

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Rainbow's End

I'm getting close to the end of the stack of books to review. I've been catching up on magazines lately, and over the weekend I reread Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (the sixth book), but my deal is that I only review first-time reads in this space. Otherwise I'd have to review Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy or the Discworld books every six months or so. That's no good to anybody. But what's on tonight's plate is Vernor Vinge's Rainbow's End.

I have to admit, Vinge is one of my sci-fi gaps. I've read A Fire Upon the Deep, and a few titles of his who escape me now (in my teenaged library-rat years, as opposed my current "buy all the books you want and write 'em off on taxes state), but I've never read Marooned in Realtime, and the true horror for a cyberpunk fan - I've never read True Names. I've also never read his original essay about the Singularity, even though it has conceptually dominated so much of recent science fiction. But I recently did read his latest book - Rainbow's End.

Rainbow's End isn't actually set in (or post) the Singularity. Rather it's a near-Singularity universe. It tells the story of Robert Gu, who was once a famous poet and then later succumbed to Alzheimer's. Years later new treatments can cure his particular set of symptoms and he pretty much Rip Van Winkles into a world where he's missed ten to fifteen (I don't think it's every made clear) years. This lets Vinge play around with the trend lines leading up to the Singularity without quite crossing it.

I don't think I've ever written about the Singularity here. In brief the idea is that if technological curves continue to accelerate that a point occurs in history that is a Singularity. Whatever is on the other side isn't recognizably human, and it's impossible to comprehend what motivates them. In many books this is caused by creating a smarter-than-human AI or by the ability to back up (and restore) a human personality/mind/spirit and memory set. (Whether that includes a soul or not is a frequent point of contention in such fiction.) But it's a key tenet that humans just cannot understand what is on the other side. For a while this meant the fiction was gloomy, but recently there's been a surge of work around the Singularity. In Stross's Accelerando the humans continue to co-exist with the post-Singularity superhuman intelligences, even though the humans cannot possibly understand what motivates what they call the "Vile Offspring".

Anyways, back to Rainbow's End. With Robert Gu we have a viewpoint character who can follow the technological changes, but just barely. There's a fairly big deal made about him picking a Microsoft UI that he knows (Windows ME), and getting a dumbed down terminal running that UI for him. Modern users have "wearables" - contact lenses that project net information in reality and clothes that can sense gestures. Robert starts off with a flexible portable viewscreen, but eventually ends up going back to school to learn basic skills for the new tech. There's a "vocational" track that has some loser kids scraping by and a collection of back-from-the-dead old-timers like Gu.

Gu's story of vocational training is not the main plot either. He gets tangled up in a major plot hinging on the creation of effective mind control technology and there's also a major plotline about secure computing - the net of the future runs on some sort of trusted hardware base, but cracks are showing in the "trusted" nature of the platform.

The technology in all of this seems pretty solid. While I wouldn't bet money that this will be the user interface of 2025, it's not implausible right now either. The subplots around Gui's restoration, his family relations, and whether he's even the same person he used to be are all interesting but I think it gets a bit too much for the book to handle right at the end. I like the book but the ending gets a bit jumbled up. It becomes difficult to track who is concealing what from who, and the fact that our main viewpoint character is really just stumbling around in the bigger plot elements doesn't help.

If you're interested in reasonably hard SF about where the internet is going and how the virtual worlds will continue to intersect with ours I'd easily recommend reading this. Just be aware the ending gets a little mushy. Most everything important resolves, but the climax of the book just seems slightly out of focus.

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The Hidden Family

Even more books! I'll admit I started reading The Jennifer Morgue today at lunch so I figured I'd better stay on track. I'm seriously contemplating modifying my book review policy. The problem is that later volumes in a series seem difficult to me. Today I'm here to talk about The Hidden Family which is book two of The Merchant Princes and nobody is going to care about The Hidden Family unless they've read The Family Trade. But if they have read the first book then they already have an opinion of the series and it's unclear that I'm providing any value. There's a very serious argument that I should just go ahead and note "Yep, it's more of the same." and then move on reviewing Vernor Vinge's Rainbow's End. On the other hand, maybe a comment thread tagged as "Spoiler", means that we could discuss the book without worrying about giving away the big secrets? There's a topic of open discussion. Is anybody actually reading these? If you are, do you find the reviews of volumes two and three worthwhile?

As usual, I won't spoil The Hidden Family, but I will assume that spoiling The Family Trade is fair game. If that bugs you then read no further.

The Hidden Family continues piling it higher and deeper on poor Miriam. One thing I will call out and praise Stross for is that it doesn't feel like an Act II. This book is a good story on it's own merits, in part because the series doesn't have a traditional trilogy structure. In some ways The Hidden Family and The Family Trade work more as a duology than I expected. While it's clear that Miriam's story has further chapters many of the story arcs are concluded at the end of this book. Miriam's relationship with the Clan is solidified and all of the not-so-subtle hints in the first book about the sixth family resolve. The seeds of new story lines are sown throughout the novel, but it closes at least as many plot lines as it opens (I'd say it closes more than it opens, but perhaps that's a debateable point.)

Overall I liked The Hidden Family more than The Family Trade, but I'm not going to claim it will change your mind wherever you fell on the first book. In the bulk this is more of the same. If you liked book one then I can easily recommend book two. I noted in my review of the first book that it seems almost rushed, like too much is crammed into the start. I think The Hidden Family benefits in comparison, and this is a large part of why I like it better. All of that frantic sketching in of the modern world can be taken as given and we know quite about about the world of the Clan and Gruinmarkt already. Miriam is still in way over her head and learning a lot but at the same time she knows a lot more than she did in book one and things unfold at a more normal pace.

I'd be curious to know how The Merchant Princes books are selling comparing to Accelerando or Glasshouse. The general wisdom is that fantasy outsells science fiction these days, but of course Accelerando got a lot of attention due to being nominated for the Hugo and winning the Locus Best SF Novel. The reason why I wonder is that while I like The Merchant Princes just fine there's nothing really compelling or unique there. It's well executed fantasy, and it is a pleasure to read but I don't really feel like it especially required Charlie Stross to write them. As opposed to Accelerando which is simply mind-blowing and I can't imagine coming from any other writer I know of. I'd be sad if the Stross' SF output is impacted by his fantasy works. I don't mean that as a strong criticism - I'll be happy to read the next book in the series, just that I don't see it as Stross' best work.

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The Anthology at the End of the Universe

More book reviews! When I started reviewing every book I read I had a big backlog of magazines (I was running at about three months behind on almost everything I read) and magazines represented the majority of my reading time. So it seemed manageable to review all my new reads. Well over time I've closed up that gap down to less than a month's backlog and thus I'm reading more books these days. After reviewing this one I have a stack of three books sitting in my "read but not reviewed pile". But onwards!

The Anthology at the End of the Universe is one of the Benbella "Smart Pop" series although I don't think I knew that when I bought it. I'm not sure though because I don't really remember buying it and it's been sitting in my book slush pile forever, along with a biography of Douglas Adams. I have a sneaking suspicion I may have bought both back when the new radio series aired on BBC. I've been curious about the Smart Pop books for a while, I've looked at the Buffy one several times as a possible present for Karin (which I've now spoiled - sorry honey!), and the Star Wars on Trial one caused a tempest in a teapot flap in SF circles with the debate about whether Star Wars is a good or bad influence on novel-form SF. So when I realized this was in the Smart Pop series I was doubly excited to read it.

OK, mister Smarty-Pants, but what is the book? It's a collection of essays about The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - well known to my audience as a series that JP should totally read some day. Cory Doctorow writes about how Wikipedia is turning into a real life Guide, several writers obsess on the meaning of 42, Don DeBrandt makes a hilarious essay that he describes as "I intend to prove that God not only exists in Adam's universe, but identify who he is, explain what his plans are and reveal once and for all why he seems to be obsessed with fish." There are essays reflecting on what HHTTG has meant to the authors, and scholarly essays about the dramatic structure of the books. (Well. As scholarly as you can be while talking about Marvin and Arthur anyway.)

It is probably not a surprise to readers of this blog that I liked this book a lot. Much as I once told Bwana that he gives free passes to games involving zombies, I give free passes to anything Douglas Adams. In theory anyway, even I have trouble justifying Mostly Harmless (although I strongly disagree with the orthodox stance that So Long and Thanks for All the Fish is bad). But I don't think that really comes into play here. Obviously you have to like HHTTG or you'd have no business reading a book of essays about it. But what you have here is akin to the bull sessions you'd have in college where you sit around and talk about incredibly geeky stuff at length with your friends until the wee hours of the morning. Hitchhikers might very well be the most read book on my bookshelf, and since it's a universe that will sadly be no more even a backhand way of revisiting it and seeing something new is an awesome gift.

And you really do have to read the essay explaining who God really is in Adams' universe. Revelatory!

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