Tag Archives: vernor vinge

Book Review: Player of Games (Iain M. Banks 1988)

In this review, I avoid spoilers, but since nothing really happens in this book for about 100 pages, that means some of the things I mention do happen a good percentage into the book.

Rating: 2.5/5 stars

Iain M. Banks Culture series is renowned for its great far future space operas and artificial intelligences. I like space operas and I like artificial intelligences, so I picked Player of Games as one of Iain Banks well-rated books on amazon.

I almost didn’t make it through this book. The main character, Gurgeh, is a professional game player who lives in a wonderful castle on a wonderful world with other people who like games and parties. They live in the Culture, the future civilization of humans (and presumably others) that is mostly controlled by artificial intelligences.

We don’t start the book with the Culture, we start it with Gurgeh. Gurgeh (whose name kept reminding me of Gurgi from The Black Cauldron) is famous across the Culture for the fact he can play basically any game and almost always win. The entire first 75 pages are consumed by Gurgeh’s ennui and partying. I hated these 75 pages.

Then the book picks up. We get to see more of the Culture, and eventually a different civilization called the Azad. The Azad are a barbaric people whose society rotates around a game called Azad. The Culture sends Gurgeh to go play Azad against the Azad.

This isn’t a book for character development or sparkling prose, it’s a book with neat ideas. Azad is neat, the Culture is neat, and the interactions between the two lifestyles was neat. The drones are interesting. I liked the Azad planet Echronedal, which is always on fire.

I really enjoyed the last 200 pages of the book; it was full of fun and interesting things. I want to read more Culture books in the future. But I don’t want to read this one again and I would recommend it only with the caveats above. I didn’t find the posturing and sparring in games that I didn’t know and didn’t mean anything to the protagonist either. But obviously a lot of people loved this book and probably enjoyed the early game play.

The people who recommended Banks to me compared him to Vernor Vinge, whom I love. I can see why people would compare the two, but Player of Games didn’t stack against my favorite Vinge books. We’ll see what I think about future Culture books.

Book Review: Marooned in Realtime (Vernor Vinge 1986)

There are no spoilers in this review beyond what you’d find in the first few chapters or the cover blurb.

Rating: 4/5

Marooned in Realtime by Vernor Vinge is the far future sequel to The Peace War, set on Earth 50 million years in the future. The Peace War introduced the concept of “bobbling”, a scientific discovery where a spherical bobble, impervious to the laws of physics, can be created. Anything inside the bobble doesn’t experience what happens outside of it; a year can pass outside the bobble, but no time passes inside it. The time length for which a bobble exists can be tuned. This was used to great effect in The Peace War as a mechanism for sequestering weapons. In Marooned in Realtime, the people who were bobbled through various circumstances come together and try to reestablish humanity after it was somehow lost.

If you like other Vinge stuff, you’ll probably like this, and it’s a lot shorter than some of his things. I recommend reading The Peace War first, although I think I like this book slightly better. There are some references back to the characters in the first book and a novella written between the two, which got a little annoying eventually. Also, I am not sure if the ubiquitous bobbles and their governing rules would be totally obvious reading this as a stand alone. It has been several years since I read The Peace War, and though I remembered the basics, I found myself wishing I could remember more clearly.

Overall it was  a solid Vinge book, with good hard scifi and far-flung and fun extrapolations. Vinge is a computer scientist, and he makes the most of this background. Don’t expect to read Vinge for the emotions. His forte is playful futurism and making everything go wrong at once. I read Marooned in Realtime easily in three days, and I’m not the fastest reader. It was easy to get into, and the first book I’ve read off my holiday reading list.

Which is the fictional critter?

Because nature is weird, and I like science fiction, which is the real creature, and which is the fictional critter?

Critter #1 is 1 mm long critter that:

  • Can survive in space and at the bottom of the Mariana Trench
  • Contains a set number of cells in its body
  • Can be rehydrated after over a century
  • Can survive thousands of times more radiation than a cockroach

Critter #2 is a bird that:

  • The males deliberately sets fires as a mating ritual
  • The males perform this ritual in pairs, in case one catches fire
  • After the fire spreads, the fires leave masses of cooked meat. The birds scrape off their meals with their distinctive, blade-like beaks

So… which critter is real, and which is not? For bonus points, in what book did the fictional critter appear?

Read the Answer

Book Review: The Witling (Vernor Vinge 1976)

There are no spoilers in this review beyond what you’d find in the first few chapters or the cover blurb.

Rating: 3/5

As far as I can tell, “The Witling” is Vernor Vinge’s second novel, and to some extent, it shows. I enjoyed reading it, but it doesn’t have the depths of Vinge’s later works like “A Fire Upon the Deep” or less-known but also good “The Peace War”. The book is only about 175 pages long; I’m not the fastest reader and I finished in two pretty short sessions, also unlike Vinge’s other novels.

The story opens with two humans who have become marooned on an alien world with human-like inhabitants. Only after being captured do the humans realize that the natives have what we would call supernatural abilities: transporting themselves or objects by will of the mind. The magnitude of this ability varies from person to person; those with the least ability are called witlings. The two humans, with no ability, fall into this category. The prince of the realm also happens to be a witling, which is a great source of shame for him. He is intrigued by the humans, especially the woman. The humans must get off the surface, as all the alien foods naturally contain heavy metals, and continued exposure will be fatal.

Although he provides no supporting science for the abilities of the aliens, Vinge does what I like best in sci-fi–he takes a simple premise and runs far with it. With these abilities, how would you imprison someone? How would you travel the world? Would you even need doors? How would you conduct warfare? These issues come up again and again through the book, and each time they are a delight.

Another interesting point touched upon is body image. The book starts with the human male describing the woman, Yoninne, as ugly and unpleasant, too stocky and temperamental. The aliens, who it’s hinted have a slightly stronger gravity, are stockier, and to them, Yoninne is close enough in build, but different enough to be exotic and tantalizing. I haven’t read much sci-fi of this era that deals with such issues of perception; unfortunately, this thread is not continued throughout the book.

The primary reason I rate “The Witling” as a 3/5 and not higher is because I found the ending unsatisfying. I won’t go into specifics in this review. The action was quite good and fun, but it conceptually bothered me.

With that caveat, I would recommend this book, especially to those who have read a lot of other works by Vernor Vinge. It’s interesting to see the form of his early, less perfect work, plus it’s a super quick read.

My Top 20 Best Science Fiction Novels

Following my post last week about my top 5 science fiction novels, I’ve been getting a lot of hits on search engines. I too scour the web for good scifi lists, so I thought I’d add my top 20 science fiction novels to the mix. I weighed a little towards including some less-common mentions, so while I enjoyed both “Hitchhiker’s Guide” and “Hothouse”, two incredibly different books, nobody needs help in hearing about “Hitchhiker’s Guide”. So without further ado, my top 20 science fiction novels in no particular order.

Top Five (see last  week for longer descriptions of each)

The Rest

  • The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (Robert Heinlein 1966)- The inhabitants of the moon attempt to revolt from the oppressive Earth with the help of a supercomputer named Mycroft. Mycroft is an awesome central character. The best of the grown-up Heinlein novels. 1967 Hugo Award winner.
  • The Demolished Man (Alfred Bester 1953)- How does one get away with murder when telepathy is common place? Fast moving and surprisingly modern, the winner of the first Hugo award.
  • The Absolute at Large (Karel Čapek 1922)- See a longer review I did here. The author hypothesizes that when the atom is split (a new concept at the time) that energy is released, as well as a pervasive religious fervor. As the atom-splitter spreads due to its phenomenal energy production, so too does the side effect of religiosity.
  • The Lathe of Heaven (Ursula LeGuin 1971)- When one man dreams, his dreams can become reality. He fears this awesome power; when he enters therapy, his therapist begins to use his gift, imagining he will fix the world.
  • Mathematicians in Love (Rudy Rucker 2006)- Totally awesome and wacky. Mathematics grads students compete to find the equation of everything, and win the affections of a cute girl. And there are enormous sentient venomous conch shells, intergalactic mathematicians, and parallel universes.
  • Worlds (Joe Haldeman 1981)- A woman from a communist orbiting asteroid visits New York City on a scholarship. I love everything by Haldeman, but this is my favorite after “Forever War”. Very heartfelt and emotionally gripping. The rare female protagonist, and done phenomenally. This is the first of a trilogy, but I think it’s the best and stands alone just fine.
  • The Door into Summer (Robert Heinlein 1957)- My favorite of Heinlein’s “children’s” books, which are all very intelligent, but have less of some of Heinlein’s more alarming interests like incest. A man is duped by his business partner, who steals the company and puts him into cold sleep. He awakens after 30 years, and tries to figure out how to get his life back. One of the main characters is the protagonist’s cat, always a plus.
  • Snow Crash (Neal Stephenson 1992)- cyberpunk done properly with a sense of humor. A pizza delivery man, Hiro Protagonist, and a 15-year-old girl start investigate the propagation of a mysterious internet drug, snow crash. The plot line of this one gripped me less than the excellent fun had with a future world.
  • Tau Zero (Poul Anderson 1970)- A crew on a near light speed ship is on a five-year journey to another planet. During the voyage, the deceleration mechanism is damaged. As they continue to go faster and faster, the time dilation grows and they travel farther. The best hard scifi book I’ve read.
  • A Fire Upon the Deep (Vernor Vinge 1992)- The best and most intelligent space opera I’ve read. Different laws of physics exist in different parts of the galaxy. People create a malevolent higher intelligence near the rim of the galaxy and must flee into the galaxy where the laws of physics preclude such an entity. They get stuck on a planet of sentient creatures composed of several animals in constant communication with one another. They are called the Tines, and they are hands-down the best alien I’ve read in scifi. Also read anything by Vernor Vinge. 1993 Hugo Award winner.
  • Stand on Zanzibar (John Brunner 1968)- At first I found this book a bit confusing; the chapters jump around to relatively random people doing random things as part of the world building. But after 50 pages or so you get your bearings. The world is over-populated, and child-limits have been instituted. The plot is complex and rich. The style is grimly funny. Hard to describe, and requires some effort to read, but one of the greats. 1969 Hugo Award winner.
  • Hothouse (Brian W. Aldiss 1962)- Also called “The Long Afternoon of Earth”. In the distant future, the sun is bigger and hotter, and one side of the earth always faces the sun. Plant life, with so much energy available, has evolved in many ways, and all but overruns this half of the earth. There are plant birds, plant predators, and plant just about everything. A small group of humans tries to survive in this near-apocalypse Earth. Chock full of great imaginings. Aldiss doesn’t have the most sparkling characters, but he has engaging concepts, somewhat like Asimov. “Helliconia Spring” is another worthy read by Aldiss, but it is somewhat longer.
  • The Caves of Steel (Isaac Asimov 1954)- My favorite Asimov book, partially because it is self-contained and relatively succinct. People of an overcrowded Earth live under steel domes, and never go outside. The story is set around the investigation of a murder.
  • The Windup Girl (Paolo Bacigalupi 2009)- The 2010 Hugo Award winner. A biopunk story set in Bangkok. After the world has been devastated by engineered illnesses and crop-plagues, society is finally mostly recovered. Carbon emissions are strictly limited, so energy-efficient methods are desirable. The main character is an employee working at a start-up energy company as a front, but for one of the bio-engineering firms that creates genetically modified species actually. A rich world that incorporates biology well.
  • Red Mars (Kim Stanley Robinson 1993)- A group of 100 brilliant hand-picked scientists is selected and sent to Mars to live there and begin terraforming it. These scientists are strong-minded, and don’t always agree how to go about things; political fractures form. The first book follows the political developments of the first 100 martians. “Red Mars” is followed by “Green Mars” and “Blue Mars” which occur over the course of a couple of centuries. Mars itself is the main character of the whole trilogy, and is described in the best scientific detail available at the time. Sometimes a bit long-winded, but very realistic, and an interesting exploration of terraforming.

Happy reading!!