Friday, August 12, 2011

The moon is a harsh mistress

Robert A. Heinlein
G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1966 (my copy is from Orb, 2007)
Size: Medium (my copy has 382 pages)
Theme: Futuristic space adventure
Narrative: first-person
Main character: Manuel Garcia O’Kelley
Recommended minimum age: Teenager
Would purchase as a gift to any sci-fi reader: YES

This is one of Heinlein’s most acclaimed works. It won both the Nebula and Hugo awards. It is a tale of revolution and the will to stand against all odds for your beliefs. Not surprisingly, the novel calls upon some well-established references, such as the 4th of July in the United States, as well as earlier revolutions. Although it delivers as much sci-fi as any aficionado will desire, the story spends considerable time describing the sociological and practical implications of a lunar colony. Written in 1966, it explored some very novel concepts for its time. The lunar society, despite being largely comprised of criminals and “volunteers” exported there by Earth’s nations, evolved out of necessity to become organized and extremely self-controlled. Crime is dealt with swiftly and ignorance of common-sense rules is not acceptable.

The story follows Manuel, aka Mannie, a peaceful and generally unknown handyman, with a particular knack for electronics and programming, as he becomes involved with a small group of cohorts who despise the way the lunar colony is seen by Earth and how its inhabitants are treated. After an anti-authority meeting one wrong, right at the start of the novel, Mannie is forced to take action against the tyranny of the Federated Nations. Through his unique link to a sentient computer, who only recently had become self-aware, and who features a peculiar sense of humor, he and his fellow revolutionaries manage to put together a plan to turn the Lunar colony into a self-sustaining, independent, nation.

The novel switches very nicely from family scenes over dinner, through revolutionary planning meetings, to action-packed scenes. Heinlein is able to create a reasonably credible story of a very small nation fighting a tremendously larger opposing force, and patches some interesting means of using science and technology towards those goals; there is an obvious parallelism to the war efforts by the US at the time the novel was written. The main character is a lovable person, and is very well explored, even though a little too smart and competent. The secondary cast is equally interesting, although we always see them through Mannie’s eyes. What is most interesting is the depiction of how the Lunar society operates, and its core motto “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch, TANSTAAFL). I found the pace to be enjoyable and I could not put the book down until I was through with it.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Snow crash

Neal Stephenson
Bantam Spectra, 1992 (my copy is from 2003)
Size: Medium (my copy has 468 pages)
Theme: Cyberpunk
Narrative: third-person
Main character: Hiro Protagonist
Recommended minimum age: Teenager
Would purchase as a gift to any sci-fi reader: YES

Snow crash is a fast-paced cyber adventure which explores some interesting concepts of the digital world, while delivering a very traditional spy/detective plot. The book has introduced a series of words and basic notions which have become commonplace along the years in computer lingo, such as “avatar”. Despite the fact that several people have said this should not be called science-fiction, but a purely cyberpunk novel, I found that there was a sufficient number of gadgets, weapons, and user consumer products to make me confortable in labeling it as sci-fi.

In a (not very) futuristic scenario, people from all over the world connect to a virtual reality called the Metaverse using special goggles and a computer able to project images on it, and control their avatars in what would be called nowadays a typical digital environment. Stephenson was able to imagine how people would act and interact in the Metaverse in a very similar way to how real 3D virtual worlds have evolved. In fact, I found uncanny similarities between the Metaverse and recent applications such as Second Life. 

The story follows Hiro Protagonist and Y.T. through a series of adventures both in the real world and the Metaverse. Y.T.’s story is almost exclusively one of the real world, where she is a Kourier and becomes involved with the Mafia when she helps Hiro with a delivery. Further on, she will interact with some of the major characters of the story, in a parallel but divergent line to that of Hiro, who is one of the best hackers of the Metaverse and an excellent swordsman in the real world. Hiro stumbles upon a plot by one of the planet’s most powerful individuals to gain even more power, destroying the hacker community in the process. As he unfolds the mystery, and he dives head on to the center of the conspiracy, he will have to push his abilities to the limit, both in reality and the Metaverse.

The plot is quite solid and very well delivered. I found the narrative engrossing and detailed. Hiro is an interesting character and is very well developed along the plot, as is Y.T. Some of the other characters are only superficially handled, but it is not difficult to identify their key motivations. The author does not abuse in the use of computer lingo, nor did he exaggerate in creating too many cybernetic concepts; just enough to remind the reader of what he’s reading. I found this to be a very interesting and worthwhile novel