Tag Archives: science fiction

Book Review: Architects of Emortality (Brian Stableford 1999)

Note: in this review, I mostly limit comments to the intro and  first chapter (65 pages in this case).

Rating: 1.5/5 stars

Architects of Emortality by Brian Stableford is the fourth book of the Emortality series and my first Stableford book. I am still unclear on the significance of “emortal” versus “immortal”, but otherwise, the book stood alone without reading the first three books. Architects of Emortality is set in the late 2400s. Life can be extended via technology, but for most, 200 years is roughly the limit. Due to a recent technological advancements, the next generation may be immortal, but only those treated before birth can partake. The book opens with a murder and the subsequent investigation of that murder.

Architects of Emortality had interesting world-building and intriguing ideas, but it had three big flaws: 1) the characters were flat and uninteresting, 2) the language was distracting, and 3) the female roles flat-out sucked. Not every sci-fi reader cares as much about character development as I do; if you enjoy big worlds with far-reaching ideas, this may very well be a book you will enjoy. For me, it felt out-of-date though it’s only from 1999.

The book opens with investigator Charlotte Holmes at the scene of Gabriel King’s murder. His murder is unusual; murders are uncommon in this future, and King has been consumed by flowers clean down to the bone. Video shows that a beautiful young woman visited just before the murder, bearing unusual flowers. Holmes, the protagonist, is a young sergeant and assistant to Hal Watson, who investigates from afar using the resources of the web. A minor spoiler: Holmes does nothing but fret about her limits as an investigator; she travels and observes but never acts. Her uselessness fuels complaints #1 and #3, above. Stableford draws attention to the fact that she is Charlotte Holmes by having a Watson. A famously clever investigator’s name suggests that Holmes will be at the center of solving the murder mystery, and that she will be clever. Neither is true. Most of the insights come from Oscar Wilde, a flamboyant flower designer with ties to the murder who travels with Holmes during the investigation. Holmes is an appendage to whom Wilde muses.

Other than Holmes, the only significant woman in the book is the murderess. We learn little about her; she is beautiful and young and acting on the behalf of someone else. All other significant characters are men; they are mostly experts of various kinds. Where Holmes is insecure and a hard-nosed investigator and little else, Oscar Wilde enjoys 19th century literature, designs flowers, and is beautiful, vain, and eccentric. He has opinions about everything, and he likes to make people uncomfortable with those opinions. He is better characterized than Holmes, but still a bit flat. If I imagined a future botanist version based on my thin knowledge of 19th century Oscar Wilde, this Oscar Wilde is about what I’d imagine. But he is still infinitely more rich than Holmes.

That pretty well covers my first and third complaints about the book. Finally, I found the language in this book excessively self-aware, and at times plain obnoxious. Instead of engaging in the story, I was rolling my eyes at word choice. I dog-eared the worst example from about halfway through the book (not a spoiler):

 “I saw it,” Charlotte said wearily. “Was there something significant I should have taken note of?” She knew that she ought not to end sentences with prepositions, but thought that the stress of the situation made the infelicity forgivable.

This occurs immediately after the characters have had a brush with death. Not only is the preposition rule a garbage grammar rule cribbed from Latinwho cares at such a time? The quote above is just the most egregious example of pompous language undercutting the impact of events in the book. Only one line of dialogue earlier she is described as “profoundly shaken.” Also, to describe near-death as “infelicity”… I had to put the book down for a bit.

On a final positive note, the ideas in the book are rich and passionate, which is why I gave it 1.5 instead of 1 stars. These ideas include longevity technology, artistic expression, bio-engineering, what a far-reaching future might look like, and how people might find identity in a far future. It also explored how people handle death, how the media might look in a distant future, what our current tendencies toward oligarchy might lead to, what a crime might be in the future, and what nature might be in the future. Truly, it covers a lot of bases conceptually. But for me, it was on the back of lackluster characters with distracting language. I felt that the author cared far more about the concepts than his vehicles for breathing life into them. The useless female characters also damaged the sense of futurism; an avid fan of classic scifi learns to forgive empty doe-eyed ladies in 60s novels, but in a novel written in 1999 that’s just too much. I won’t be looking for Stableford in my reading future.

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Writing prompt: Designer babies

Back in Virginia, our writing group had what we called a Pint and Prompt. A group of friends hit the bar, have a pint, and write for a few minutes on a writing prompt. Then you read your responses to one another. It’s really great to see the variety of responses, and it’s a good time with friends. Recently, they got together and did a Pint and Prompt, and my friend  Keith at Strange Things Done posted his response.  So I added mine, though it’s a bit too early for the pint yet.


Time: 10 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

“designer babies”

“Designer babies!?” the headline shimmered in her mind’s eye. She engaged the article and read further. She shouldn’t, she knew. Nothing good ever came from reading media coverage about your own research. The journalists would never understand the science, and accuracy came second to eyeballs. The strategy worked, she mused, as even she was looking at the article.

“The FDA recently approved the so-called Designer Baby program at Johns Hopkins,” the article began innocently enough. Anitra scrolled down through the background, seeking what she knew would be there inevitably. “The program has drawn a number of ethical concerns. It’s hard not to share those concerns. Say you splice in elephant DNA to have a child that will never forget, but then that child will be terrified of mice and always gain weight. Or a child with the DNA of a cat will be lithe and clever, but doomed to be a jerk.

“In seriousness, though, the program raises the question of what it means to be human. If humans and oragutangs share 99.9% of their DNA, how much fiddling will fundamentally rob a child of it’s humanity? The program guarantees fertility and a variety of other qualities in its embryos, but there is no known measure of a soul.”

Anitra mused to herself that it always came down to souls with these people. People who politically wanted to go to war and wanted to punish bad eating habits in children were worried about the godliness of the embryos. It was always just an excuse to muck around past their intellectual depth.

But… well the concern mongering, as ill-informed as it was, she kept reading it because there was something at the edge of her own mind. A concern she couldn’t quite articulate after interacting with dozens of designed children from age 1 to 6. She kept reading these articles because each time she hoped this one would cast the light into the shadow of her mind that she could not see. Alas, not this time.

The delightful illustrations of George Barbier

I am two years into a project of science fiction illustration inspired by Hiroshige’s 100 View of Edo. I’m working on 100 views of Vironevaeh. I’ve completed 75 line art drawings, and am satisfied with 44 of them. It’s a project that ebbs and flows, and I constantly seek new sources of inspiration. The floor of my office is littered with books tabbed with post-it notes—a photo essay of the Koreas, French war illustrations from World War I, a Western photo essay, amongst others. This weekend I found art deco master George Barbier.

I’ve written about my interest in art deco and art nouveau before. (see: Victor Horta’s architecture, Alphonse Mucha’s posters and Walter Crane’s childrens books.) When I found a book of George Barbier illustrations on my shelf, purchased over a year ago, but forgotten in a cross-country move, I found inspiration.

The book is the top Barbier hit on Amazon, though it is mostly in Japanese with some original French. Barbier was one of the top artists in France after World War I, but disappeared largely after his death in 1932, a fate that seems to happen to many of the commercial artists of this period. Blissfully, he is in ascendance, even if the most accessible manifestation at the moment is an unreadable rendition in metallic blue. The illustrations are good enough that that doesn’t matter.

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The book has hundreds of illustrations from what seem like a variety of sources. The impenetrable Japanese let my imagination run wild. Below are just three.

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One inspired me rather directly. Can you tell? Time to take my scattered brain back into the world of inspiration.

 

Writing prompt: A pint and prompt!

Back in Virginia, our writing group had what we called a Pint and Prompt. A group of friends hit the bar, have a pint, and write for a few minutes on a writing prompt. Then you read your responses to one another. It’s really great to see the variety of responses, and it’s a good time with friends. Recently, they got together and did a Pint and Prompt, and my friend  Keith at Strange Things Done posted his response. And once I had a pint, I joined in the fun.


Time: 7 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

“She appraised me, canted her head and shrugged apparently disappointed.”


There was something synthetic about the motion, but maybe I was just looking for it, looking for a reason to discount her reaction.

“I know what you’re thinking,” she said. She straightened. She was waiting for a response.

“Oh?” I said, trying to sound coy, but feeling more self-concious than I liked.

“I see it all the time. My kind makes you nervous. Without the veneer of plastic pores and synthetic hair, you can’t dehumanize me.”

“You aren’t human,” I said.

“Which is why you wanted me. I can do things women can’t do.”

I coughed and looked away.

“You want to feel better than your partners. I can give you that feeling.”

“Well, why don’t you? Why haven’t you?”

“Maybe in addition to my hair and my cuticles and my lips, my feelings are less synthetic than the last model too. Maybe it’s shit doing business all day with people that want to take you down a peg.”

I felt bad. It is what I had wanted. “Maybe this isn’t the line of work for you.”

“I got debt. I was made with it. And this pays the bills.” She looked away and undulated her shoulders. She stretched. When she turned to look back at me, her eyes held a different look. It was like a different woman. I could see the hunger in her, calling to me.

Vironevaeh: 19 years of love

Like so many of us sci-fi-ers, I grew up on science fiction television. I remember watching Star Trek Next Generation in a high chair, and later I watched Babylon 5 and Voyager. I feared the space under the bed because my brother told me it contained a black hole. I drew aliens, made up planets, and wrote in codes. Once a friend cut the bridge of my nose with a hardcover book during horseplay, and I was delighted to declare myself Bajoran.

In 5th grade, we had the city project; we had to invent a city, describe its economy, design a model of it, and write a small essay. It was my catalyst. I created a city called Vironevaeh, set on a distant planet, colonized by humans from Earth in the distant future. My languages, my maps, my characters, my aliens now had a focal point.

That was 19 years ago. Once a year, I like to look back and celebrate all the fun I’ve had since. Dreaming about world building made me look at our own world in odd ways.

For now, Vironevaeh is just my little place. Maybe someday it will be something different, but more than anything, I love the journey.

Trips down memory lane

Below are a pair of landscapes, one from years ago and one from last year. My longing to depict Vironevaeh forced me to draw for a purpose. The pencil drawings was one of my first landscapes ever. The poster was an homage, and and another experiment in new territory: art nouveau and posters.

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Maps

Maps are a simple staple of scifi and fantasy, but drawing maps made me ask a lot of questions. What kinds of geology could happen on a planet that could still sustain humanoid life? Or non-humanoid? Where should lakes, mountains, deserts, and oceans be in a realistic environment? What kinds of names would places have? What names would be linguistically compatible? What kind of linguistic range could I expect on a planet–how much would it vary in a place with a global culture versus one with regional cultures? What kind of stories would I tell about the people on such planets based on the map, and for the people whose stories I had already imagined, what kinds of maps would that require? Maps seem dry and factual on the surface, but I found myself asking a million such second-level questions. I love maps.

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Storytelling

Vironevaeh filled me with stories, but I struggled to express them as I felt them. I have written my stories so many ways. Nowhere is that more rapidly evident than in my portraits. Below are four portraits of a character over six or so years. I had to learn to get the details right and be honest with myself where it wasn’t right. As ever, it’s a work in progress.

Places for the people

Maps and people weren’t the end, I wanted to know how the streets looked. That’s really hard! There’s architecture and materials, and then there’s imagining the landscape and how such things would fit in. I studied pictures of streets from around the world. I find this aspect the most challenging, but maybe also the most rewarding.

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Stories of a new world

As I told stories about a new world, I wondered about their stories. And when I told them, I found that they fit everywhere. How many references to the garden of Gethsemane exist in western literature? A new place would have new Gethsemanes. Below are two images from mythology about a mouse, and new people finding that mouse in new constellations.

It’s never the end. Next year I’ll have new thoughts to share. Every year I am a new person, and Vironevaeh is a new place.

Writing prompt: Submarine day

Time: 7 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

“Submarine day” (Inspired by this list of silly holidays.  Because St. Pat’s would be too obvious!)


The sub was beginning to stink. It reeked of sweat and mildew. Jansen had been short-circuiting the timer on the air-lock. It was his fault, I knew it. We wouldn’t get fresh air for another month, and the filtration system was already going at max.

Something long and tentacled swam past my window. I knew why Jansen rushed the air-lock—there was something wrong about this planet. The little submarine felt like an oasis in a wet desert, a safe space in a world of monsters. The survey had revealed some large native lifeforms, but our sub, which apparently resembled a good meal, brought them out in numbers we couldn’t anticipate.

But the company said it was alright, and we had signed contracts, so we would stay until the next crew arrived.

Construction was behind schedule. The initial design specs were insufficient in light of the lifeforms in the ocean. If one of the large ones rammed the base, the original design wouldn’t take that.

Another creature, head like a folded umbrella, long like an eel, swam by. Several of its eyes blinked. I wondered if it could see me.

More Awesome NASA Space Travel Posters

Thinking about a trip to Mars or Ceres? Book today! Don’t forget to ask about your Pi Day discount.

NASA is in the travel agent business again! JPL released travel posters for Mars, Venus, Jupiter, and several moons. They explore some different styles from the first set, and are cool as hell. Below are some of the preview sizes. They are available to download free at high res, suitable for printing up to 20″ x 30″.

And if you’re a vintage poster enthusiast like me, also check out the Library of Congress site. Tons of WPA posters are available free at high res, among other historical documents. (Beware, though, their site requires patience. It’s not organized for quick browsing, but there are some real gems in their collection. I linked to some of my favorites in this old post. I decorated my bathroom with them. Yes, I have a poster about syphilis in my bathroom.)  And finally, the National Parks posters are amazing vintage posters, though they aren’t free. I just made a few of my own last week.

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Proof! I did indeed print and hang the travel posters. Also in this room: a tea towel with a graphic of the Very Large Array (VLA). Nerd factor infinity!