Posts for October 2005

2005-10-02: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Review: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, by Robert A. Heinlein

Publisher: Berkley
Copyright: 1966
ISBN: 0-425-03436-4
Pages: 302

Depending on how one wants to divide his career, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress comes in the center of Heinlein's strongest period or near the end of the good "early" Heinlein (contrasted with the inconsistent at best "late" Heinlein). It was his last major critical and influential success (although some of his later novels were still popular successes).

The most famous part of this book, its portrayal of a libertarian utopia that gave the SF community the term TANSTAAFL ("There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch"), is only a small part of it. Like most utopias, it doesn't hold up to serious scrutiny and is based primarily on cheating: setting up artificial, ideal conditions for a utopia and then showing how well the utopia would deal with those conditions. But the plot and the action deals primarily with the process of revolution rather than the results, and the utopian aspects can be shuffled under the carpet of suspension of disbelief.

The plot, sadly, could be summarized as follows: a hyperintelligent computer learns the techniques of revolution and arranges a rebellion of the Moon penal colony, while the humans mill about, wax poetic on the merits of complex polygamous family structures, and generally act silly. It says a lot about Heinlein's competence as a writer that he manages to salvage an entertaining page-turner from this. By all rights, the book should have been either stultifyingly dull from the politics or pointless given that the computer ends up solving nearly all of the problems in the book. Heinlein mostly avoids both traps and manages a decent story, although I had to laugh when the computer started impersonating the main characters to get things done when they weren't in the right places at the right time.

The beginning of the novel is its weakest part. The first-person narrator has an enjoyably cynical voice, but it stretches credibility right from the start that the computer running everything in the Moon colony has magically become self-aware yet he's the only one who has noticed. Quickly he picks up a female companion whose role (matching the role of nearly every other female in the book) is to be emotional, look pretty, and have sex. They, the computer, and a professor with political experience (the most likable character in the book) decide to start a revolution, which never manages to be more than a laughable farce. It's painfully impossible for the good guys to fail no matter how badly they bungle. The computer silently and untracably controls everything electronic in the colony and is absolutely loyal, and the evil rulers of the colony are so stupid and incompetent that they don't suspect the computer even when they start getting phone calls from each other that neither party placed. (The characters even notice this and remark on how stupid they are. It's usually a bad sign when your characters are complaining about your plot.)

Decent characterization, at least of the men, and good pacing carry one through, though, into the far more interesting second half of the book. The local revolution is successful. Now the colonists have to deal with Earth. This is not by any stretch realistic political intrigue, but with the good guys and bad guys clearly defined, I found myself emotionally involved in the success of the good guys. Mostly this was due to blantant emotional string-pulling, but it did work. There are struggles, losses, and daring adventure along the way, and the novel reaches a satisfying climax featuring unusual weapons and the victory of the plucky, loyal comrades in arms. And, since this is Heinlein, the guy gets all of the girls and everyone marries everyone.

This is a mostly well-written book at the technical level, although I have a couple of complaints. In contrast to his usually clear prose, Heinlein wrote this book in an oddly clipped style that I think was intended to convey the feeling of a Russian accent by omitting articles. This is probably where David R. Palmer got his inspiration for the narrative voice of Emergence, but he handled it much better and provided far stronger justification. Heinlein also betrays a tin ear for slang, peppering the dialogue with phrases that clang horribly. Thankfully, one gets used to both flaws and the irritation subsides considerably past the first hundred pages.

I won't spend too much time discussing the politics. If you've read Heinlein, you pretty much know what to expect: every man for himself libertarianism, dislike of governments, dislike of mobs of people, and an emphasis on personal loyalty above all else. This story can say nothing meaningful about politics since it contains no grey areas. In real life, politics is largely concerned with trying to referee between diametrically opposed parties who are not conveniently right or wrong. In the book, everyone opposed to our heroes is evil, corrupt, stupid, and incompetent, whereas mysteriously nearly all of the inhabitants of what was a penal colony are polite, courteous, respectful, loyal, and brave. Heinlein confidently states that the latter is the natural result of a harsh environment where anyone without these traits is killed, and illustrates this with a story of an exiled mob boss who's too stupid to learn how to put on a space suit. Convenient how evil and abject stupidity invariably go hand-in-hand in this world. And of course, within the carefully constructed parameters of the story, all of the beliefs of the heroes turn out to be the only reasonable solutions.

Since this is Heinlein, the story is also painfully sexist. Obsession with women as hypersexual brood mares disguised as male gallantry abounds. While Heinlein allows them to fight hand-to-hand in a few places when threatened directly, the primary contribution of women to the war effort is to sleep with the men to keep morale up. There's a lot of that sort of nonsense to tune out.

One reads this book mostly because it's important in the history of SF, particularly as an early example of the sub-genre of libertarian military SF. TANSTAAFL has shown up somewhat regularly since, in Niven and Pournelle's writing if nowhere else, and the polygamous line marriages lovingly described here are at least a regular feature of the rest of Heinlein's writing. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is one of those books that nearly everyone has read, and that's worth reading just so that you understand the references when they come up in conversation. Just remember to avoid giggling when thinking too deeply about the world background.

On its own merits as a story, this book is okay but not great. It's a satisfying if obvious good versus evil adventure with generally likable characters, a background full of holes and authorial manipulation, a bit too much preaching (but entertaining preaching), the standard Heinlein sexism problems, and a few too many pretensions of political relevance. It's not a bad read, but there are a lot of better books out there.

Rating: 6 out of 10

2005-10-02: Library size

Out of curiosity, yesterday morning I counted all of my books (other than the technical books that I have at work and some things that I have packed away in boxes, that are going to the used bookstore, or that are on loan from someone else). The result, not counting graphic novels but counting course readers from college, is 1,179 volumes.

Not horribly impressive compared to a lot of people I know, but pretty good for a one-bedroom apartment. And I have plenty of room to add shelves still.

I did some rearranging yesterday, pulled out of shelves some old game magazines that I think I'm going to get rid of, and have now shelved all of the recent book arrivals. I'm back to having another shelf and a half of paperback space again, which is good since I'm likely to buy a bunch more in Oregon. (There are also some paperbacks that I expect I'll get rid of eventually, like all the Jordan and Goodkind.)

2005-10-04: svnlog 1.7

One of the reasons why I wrote svnlog was so that it would automatically tag bugs as pending in Debian when I was working on Debian packages. This worked great, but when importing a new package into Subversion using svn-inject (such as when working on an orphaned package or adopting a new package), it would get too aggressive and happily try to tag as pending every bug mentioned in the changelog file.

Now fixed by skipping the debbugs integration if the log message looks like it was generated by an svn-inject import.

You can get the latest version from the svnlog distribution page.

2005-10-04: S/Ident 3.5

I've been meaning to do this all summer, but I finally got around to releasing a new version of S/Ident with warnings about the protocol flaw that we found. Turns out that the S/Ident protocol is inherently (unfixably) vulnerable to an active man-in-the-middle attack, although the vulnerability only allows an attacker to hijack a session, not initiate a new one.

This means that S/Ident is still usable for certain applications in certain network environments, but it's not useful as a general authentication mechanism and a lot more caution should be exercised before relying on it.

I've also fixed the way logging is configured; previously, -d, -l, and -v were a mess and all enabled various different things in odd ways. Now -d controls only the stderr spewage that breaks the protocol, and everything else is available via -l and -v. There are also fewer debugging messages that have never actually been useful.

You can get the latest version from the S/Ident distribution page.

2005-10-04: WebAuth 3.3.0

After turning off S/Ident support in Stanford's weblogin server a while back, I finally got around to releasing a new version of WebAuth with all the S/Ident support removed. Since that's a change that breaks backward compatibility, even if likely no one cares outside of Stanford, I bumped the minor version number.

While I was in there, I also implemented the requested support for combining multi-valued attribute values into a single environment variable with a user-defined separator. We'll see if anyone uses that. The mod_webauthldap manual is also in much better shape, and libwebauth now uses symbol versioning on Linux.

You can get the latest version from the main WebAuth site. I haven't yet gotten around to creating a personal software page for WebAuth similar to the ones I have for other packages I maintain.

2005-10-05: Serenity

Went and saw Serenity in the theaters today, which is, I think, the first movie that I've seen in a movie theater in a year and a half. Yes, Firefly was that good as a series. If you haven't watched the DVD set yet, I highly recommend it.

Conclusion after watching the movie: Yes, Firefly was that good as a series. If you haven't watched the DVD set yet, I highly recommend it.

Less flippantly, it's not that I didn't like it. I did. I loved River as a character, and loved seeing more of her. The overall plot was a little hokey, but the characters were back and (mostly) doing their thing, and it was great to see them again. The special effects didn't always work, but when they did, they were amazing. It was a great SF action movie, and it brought back great memories of the series.

However, I'm with jwz on this one (warning: spoilers halfway down the page on that link). It felt like Joss compressed a season's worth of plot into a movie, and did so by hitting all the action climaxes that would have been paced through the season. The result was to squeeze the depth out of what we knew and loved in Firefly, with less banter, less setup, less impact, less humanity, and less of a reason to care. It also made all the stock bits stand out and look cheap and superficial, whereas in Firefly he could get away with using unoriginal ideas since there was time for the plot to set the idea up and the actors to sell it.

You can sort of mentally construct the episodes that could have been while watching the movie, and they're very good. I did that throughout the movie. But I have to admit to being disappointed for what could have been. The movie is certainly better than nothing, and I'll buy it when it comes out on DVD and watch it again, but it's not the series. The series was much, much better.

Was it worth the hassle of going to the movie theater for the first time in a year and a half? I'm not sorry that I did it, but if I had to be completely honest, the answer is probably no. And that means that I doubt it will earn enough that we'll be seeing more movies, which is really a shame. It's still better than almost everything being done in SF film these days, and I'd watch more of it. It's just not quite as special.

FOX sucks.

2005-10-09: Altered Carbon

Review: Altered Carbon, by Richard K. Morgan

Publisher: Gollancz
Copyright: 2002
ISBN: 0-57507-390-X
Pages: 534

Schwarzenegger meets film noir detective crossed with Blade Runner. Add a hefty helping of Neuromancer and you have Altered Carbon, a very visual first novel with a cinematic feel and a high body count. This is the novel equivalent of a high-tech action movie: the final confrontation features cutting-edge weapons, dramatic explosions, and lots of shooting.

Surprisingly, it's also a well-written book.

It's not an original book. Morgan wears his influences openly. But he also understands how to use the stock scenery of SF. The point of not inventing your own furniture is that you don't have to spend a lot of time explaining it. The reader is already familiar and comfortable, so you can leave the background in the background and focus on your characters and your few defining ideas. When handled well, the result is tight pacing and few infodumps, and despite the 534 pages, Altered Carbon never bogged down.

The defining idea here is the concept of sleeving, combining personality capture implants (reminiscent somewhat of the implants in Iain M. Banks's Look to Windward but with more retrieval options), a touch of uploaded personalities (the holodeck Matrix version, not the Singularity version), and the possibility of putting someone into someone else's body. That body probably belongs to someone convicted for a crime who is sitting out their sentence in electronic storage, during which they lose any rights to their original body. It's a disturbing and cynical idea that Morgan explores in detail, focusing on how the rich use it to achieve immortality and the less fortunate beggar themselves to try to get some of the benefits, or at least avoid ending up in hoc to the powerful. (As with most stories in this genre, there are the haves and the have-nots and not much inbetween.)

The hero, Takeshi Kovacs, is an ex-Envoy, a type of military special forces with special training in being beamed through space into random bodies on whatever world he's supposed to operate on. It's a good justification for why he's a bad-ass, since all sorts of military training can be called upon as a plot device to justify his fighting abilities, but it also adds to the dark cynicism of his first-person viewpoint. This is not a pretty or optimistic world, nor does it become more so over the course of the story. Kovacs gets a chance to help a few people who are down and out, but he's mostly looking out for his own interests and trying to get through the mystery he's forced to investigate.

Perhaps the best symbol of this story is the Hendrix, an AI hotel in downtown San Francisco that Kovacs gets a room at early in the story and uses as his base of operations throughout. It's one of the best characters in the story, delighting the reader in an early scene and hinting throughout at a complex and nuanced relationship between AIs and the government and elites. It's also an obvious plot device at multiple points, having just the right facilities or just the right access that Kovacs needs for some scheme. This mix of fun characters, beautiful visual set pieces, and occasionally heavy-handed plotting typifies the book and makes it feel very much like an expanded, well-written, big-budget action movie (if such a thing actually existed). If one inspects the plot too closely under the pile of bodies, splashes of blood, and flying fortresses, it's a bit too obvious and a bit too forced, but moves so quickly that one usually doesn't notice.

I liked the visceral action sequences a bit more than the convolutions of plot towards the end of the book, but mostly that's because Morgan starts expecting the reader to recognize characters by name that hadn't been seen for many chapters. A dramatis personae, or simply more narrative help, would have been nice towards the end. That and the occasionally too-graphic brutality and too-seedy sex scenes are the only parts of the book that turned me off. It's an action movie in book form, but it's a good one, and while this is the first of a series of books featuring Takeshi Kovacs, don't worry about cliffhanger endings or unresolved plots. This is a complete story with an end, and it won't leave you desperate for the next book.

Recommended, and given that this is a first novel, I'm guessing that I'll be able to recommend Morgan's later work even more strongly.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2005-10-13: The Forever Machine

Review: The Forever Machine, by Mark Clifton & Frank Riley

Publisher: Carroll & Graf
Copyright: 1956
ISBN: 0-88184-842-5
Pages: 351

Originally published under the title They'd Rather Be Right, The Forever Machine was the winner of the second Hugo award for best novel. It's probably the most obscure and difficult-to-locate Hugo winner. There are good reasons for that.

I'm not sure that it's the worst book to ever win a Hugo. There are other Hugo winners that I found more offensive failures, like the nihilism of A Case of Conscience or the arrogant stupidity of To Your Scattered Bodies Go. The Forever Machine doesn't try hard enough to reach that level of failure. It is, instead, an example of the sort of preachy, cliched story that was once a mainstay of science fiction and would now be difficult to find a publisher for.

The Forever Machine is the story of a telepath living in a future United States that has become locked in a straightjacket of scientific orthodoxy, a country in which any new theory that contradicts accepted knowledge is rejected and ignored. He uses his abilities to coordinate a team of scientists who normally would never work together, showing them that they had the necessary ingredients to build a better-than-human AI if they could coordinate their efforts. The rest of the story documents the public and government reactions to this AI, the strange powers that a thoroughly logical intelligence apparently gains, and the resulting shake-up in culture.

Not a bad idea. Hide-bound scientific thinking isn't a common threat to warn against, but this book was written in a much different era and perhaps it was a more relevant criticism then. AI development is a long-standing SF theme, as is telepathy. Unfortunately, they're put together into a story that, when it isn't ridden with cliches and preaching, goes out on scientific limbs that are simply bizarre.

The cliches are the worst, and this book is a litany of them. Early in the story, the poor misunderstood telepath (abusive father, loving but blind mother) is saved from suicide by the unconditional love of a cute little puppy. That sets the tone for the rest of the book. There is a hooker with a heart of gold, a likeable street-wise con man, an aging professor, a practical engineer, and even a principled, industrious, trustworthy corporate leader straight out of the pages of Atlas Shrugged. Even the telepath, who's the most fully-fleshed character in the book, serves primarily as a philosophical mouthpiece and never achieves any depth of character.

The plot is adequate, if you can tolerate the cliches, but it's presented in a style that thankfully has almost disappeared from published science fiction. Clifton and Riley relentlessly tell the reader what's happening and why rather than letting the story tell itself, interrupting it for philosophical asides and essays on the (over-simplified) nature of humanity. It reminded me of reading early Stan Lee comic books, the ones that in one's memory have transformed into the great stories of one's childhood but that, on re-reading, are surprisingly painful at a mechanical level. We've since been spoiled by much superior storytelling technique and older works feel forced, blatant, and far more distant from the reader; the narrator is too visible, too obviously telling a story rather than letting the reader watch it, but also not taking a place in the story as a character.

The science of The Forever Machine also suffers, not only from the standard and forgivable failures of extrapolation, but also from one particularly bizarre extrapolation of psychosomatic reactions. The perfectly logical AI can become the perfect psychiatrist, and apparently the perfect psychiatrist has to treat mental illnesses of one's entire body. Every individual cell is a mess of neuroses and hangups, you see, not to mention being worn down by the relentless pressure of gravity, and all of that trauma has to be exposed and resolved. Once it has been, the result is not only a perfectly balanced human but an immortal body, with a reversal of aging thrown in free. I kept wondering when Clifton and Riley were going to start mentioning thetans.

There aren't specific glaring flaws in this book so much as a general lack of merit. I'm sure that it was an early exploration of various themes that have since been done better by others; most work of that era that isn't "spaceman defeats pirates and rescues girl" was. However, it's simply not very good. Completism on Hugo winners is the only reason to bother; it is an eminently forgettable novel published in a time when the standards for SF are far lower than they are today. That it was even considered for a Hugo shows how much stronger the genre has become.

Rating: 3 out of 10

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