Posts for December 2003

2003-12-17: A Fire Upon the Deep

Review: A Fire Upon the Deep, by Vernor Vinge

I should say up-front that this was my second reading of this book, and sometimes reviews and opinions can be rather different between a first reading and a second reading. Sometimes the likable parts of a book are the discovery of reading it for the first time, although I didn't remember much about this book at all.

On re-reading it, I realized why I didn't remember very much about it. A Fire Upon the Deep just isn't that well-written of a story.

Don't get me wrong; it's not a bad book. In fact, it has some truly brilliant ideas, including the most interesting and well-developed concept of collective minds that I've read in science fiction. The Tines are truly fascinating aliens, and the exploration of their viewpoints and how those viewpoints affect their world are very much worth reading.

The concept of zones of the galaxy and changing possibilities in science and technology between those zones is also an intriguing one, although it gives the galaxy an oddly claustrophobic feeling at times. It's not one of my favorite universe designs, but it is unusual and thought-provoking.

The problem is that Vinge doesn't do a very good job of integrating the ideas into a story.

Part of the problem is that the story quickly sets up a situation where one of the main characters is being deceived and the reader knows it, and then maintains that for most of the book, something that tends to make me angry rather than helping me enjoy the story. Part of the problem is that two of the main characters are children, one of them young, and I don't really like reading about young children. But there are more fundamental problems.

Vinge's characters seem to be drawn in broad strokes and then change hardly at all over the course of the book. They serve primarily as chess pieces to move around the story, and while some of them are intricate and interesting chess pieces, their static character leaves me feeling like something is missing. The story has some nice touches, like the Usenet-style net postings that I really enjoyed and were quite well-done, but there isn't actually that much substance to the story in the end. And the deus ex machina ending, even though it was obvious from the beginning, still managed to be superficial and unsatisfying, not really answering any of the fundamental questions raised by the plot.

This is not a bad book, but given that it routinely makes people's lists of the best-ever science fiction novels, I think it's somewhat overrated. Recommended as an idea exploration novel, but don't expect a particularly deep or engrossing story or characters. I can attest from personal experience that it ends up being fairly forgettable.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2003-12-17: Firefly

Review: Firefly

A DVD review for a change, as a break from the book reviews.

I never saw any episodes of Firefly while it was on TV (and from what I hear about how horribly FOX botched the broadcast of it, I'm better off), but I picked up the complete boxed set at the recommendation of friends and based on my enjoyment of Buffy. I ended up staying up until 4:30am watching the last episodes.

Wow.

This is, overall, the best science fiction TV series that I've ever watched in terms of consistent quality, the dynamic of the cast, and the handling of suspension of disbelief. There are other shows that have had more exciting plotlines, have dealt with more sweeping drama, or have had better individual episodes, but this is truly the best series.

It's hard to enumerate all the things that Firefly gets right. The large cast has an excellent and believable internal dynamic, with complex and changing character relationships that don't devolve into soap opera. Several of the characters are particularly memorable and invoke a lot of sympathy and curiosity, particularly Kaylee, the tomboy mechanical prodigy, and River, the... well, that would be a spoiler. Even the more stock characters (the ethical captain, the self-obsessed mercenary) manage to have more depth by far than the norm and come alive in their interactions with the rest of the cast. The writing manages to avoid stock treatment of plots by throwing in enough twists or witty dialog to keep things fresh. But two things stand out in particular.

The first sounds simple, but is exceptionally hard in practice: none of the characters are stupid. Stupidity seems to plague action dramas, and Characters miss obvious traps until after they're sprung, trust people who obviously aren't trustworthy, miss the obvious in another character's attitude, and otherwise act oblivious so that the lot doesn't finish too soon. This is almost completely absent from Firefly. I routinely had the experience of figuring out what was going to happen, and then watching the characters reveal that they'd already figured it out before or at the same time I had and were acting appropriately. At the points where I'm used to thinking "why don't they just do X rather than angst about it?" the characters just do X and go on with their lives. It's hard to express just how refreshing and unusual this is.

The second standout aspect of Firefly is its handling of technobabble and suspension of disbelief. Finally, someone did this properly. Faster than light travel simply happens. There isn't any extended explanation of why or how that doesn't make any sense and has nothing to do with the plot; the writers just assume you can swallow that FTL travel is part of the genre and that you care about the story rather than the fake physics. The mechanic just fixes things, occasionally with short and feasible-sounding part lists, but without any extensive and inevitably stupid explanation of how everything works. It probably makes little sense to have an engine that looks vaguely like a rotary engine and spins when it's running, but no one tries to explain why it does that, failing and just making the viewer painfully aware of the problem. Instead, it's just there.

Technology is seamlessly integrated into the culture; people use guns where it makes sense and lasers where they make sense and they don't wave the technology around to make sure that you saw the special effects budget. Out of the way planets use easy-to-make technology, and central planets use high technology, without lots of in-show narration to point out the obvious reasons why. In short, the science fiction is a consistent background and gets out of the way of the really important part, the story.

I've been trying to figure out why this show didn't do very well. One of them maybe that it has quite a large cast, and particularly given FOX's idiotic broadcast schedule, it could be hard to keep track of everything. Nine regular characters is really on the high side for a series cast (and believe me, all of them are used in practically every episode -- I frequently started thinking "what happened to X" only to have that character show up as an emergency backup or suddenly change the nature of the plot). Another is that it's very much genre fiction, essentially a western in space, created by someone who's famous for creating another genre show, so it may not have crossed over into the mainstream enough. But that means people missed out on some brilliant material.

One brief comment on the western in space idea, since I was leery of that originally. I thought that sounded kind of stupid, and it was jarring for the first 30 minutes or so, but then it just started working for me. It really does work surprisingly well, and it's sort of fun to work out all of the parallels, since there are a bunch. The original Star Trek started with basically the same idea, as did Battlestar: Galactica, but neither of them implemented the idea anywhere near as well.

Anyway, it's a crying shame that this series was cancelled. The only positive is that you can get the entire series in an extremely inexpensive DVD boxed set, and if you have any love for science fiction, witty dialog, well-executed characters, or intelligent plot, I highly recommend buying a copy. The beautiful DVD packaging is just icing on the cake.

Rating: 9 out of 10

2003-12-31: The state of X

Today's ponderings and readings have, at a whim, been about the X Window System. No particular reason; there was just a Slashdot story about a mostly unimportant internal change in the XFree86 project, and then I started reading through the comments at a whim and started getting interested in the state of X development again.

I find X rather interesting, since it's an extremely old protocol with a fairly old and crufty implementation that has proven to be stable and sufficiently flexible that it's not at all obvious there's any reason to replace it (although rewriting some of the core libraries is looking like a good idea). In a lot of ways, it reminds me of Usenet and INN. I know little to nothing about graphics and don't have a lot of desire to learn more right now, but I like watching how software projects are organized and developed and I get a boost out of interesting people doing interesting things.

Anyway, I've been wandering through freedesktop.org, seeing what they've been up to, and have been quite impressed. (I also really am starting to love wiki technology.) A few other interesting things have turned up:

Last modified and spun 2017-03-25