books: sex and science-fiction

Three S.F. books, all going way beyond impersonal characterless scientists in lab coats.

Sprawling, very good!

cover of 'River of Gods'

★★★★☆ This does a fantastic job of presenting the foreign culture of Indian nation-states on the brink of cataclysmic changes, while marrying it to big science fiction ideas. It’s got the Gibson approach of jumping between various characters that slowly converge, but with 12 or so plot-lines going instead of three or four. A few of the plot lines are packed with explicit sex, others with violence, one with trans-post-sexual body surgery, another with the weary detective. It’s so genre-inclusive as to be tiring. It covers the discovery of limitless energy but that’s a sideshow to the tale of a bizarre alien artifact predicting a new form of humanity that combines Arthur Clarke Rendezvous with Rama and Gibson’s idea of A.I.s taking the future into their own hands. It’s all good stuff, nearly great. Its main flaw is that considered together, the many cinematic action sequences are implausible: gigantic mechanized bots can appear out of nowhere and destroy cars, but when it suits the plot a plucky heroine gets to repeatedly escape bad guys in the nick of time on a hydrogen-powered putt-putt scooter. Make up your mind!

Hippie freakout

cover of 'The Ware Tetralogy'

★★★☆☆I finally got around to reading the series, the price is right in combining his four novels Software (1982), Wetware (1988), Freeware (1997), and Realware (2000). It’s downright freaky. Way too many aging hippies with greasy hair having sex, then he introduces the ridiculously implausible idea of “merge”, wherein two people become undifferentiated goo during the sex act, yet given a few minutes can separate and reform. For a time in book two it trots along well with one lone robot survivor on earth. And there’s a nice appeal how the characters from interlocking family trees recur over decades. But the first book’s innovation of a stored program of human (portrayed without any of the sly class of Dixie Flatline the ROM construct in Gibson’s Neuromancer) make death inconsequential, and the technological progress beyond that in the series leads to inventions so wondrous (a “moldie” biological robot can morph to form a shell around a person and fly them to and from the moon) that there’s almost no dramatic tension. Any one of the books ought to be a technological singularity, yet humanity continues on through them with the drugs and bad hair, and outside the big ideas the dull unchanging normality of humanity (drugs, motels, flip-flops, cars) is strangely unimaginative. Rucker’s just reciting one way a future pans out and the only advances that happen are the ones he focuses on.

Sweet but unambitious

Cover of 'Zero History'

★★★☆☆ The former master of hard-edged intricate plotting and mind-bendingly clever future projection continues to idle with another present-day travel novel with mildly interesting observations on current trends (no-label fashion, base jumping, biomorphic remote control zeppelins, whatever). The whole book climaxes in a park intercept that’s the rough equivalent of the Maas Biolabs extraction in the almighty Count Zero; but that book gets the build-up and operation done in just 50 pages and follows with buckets more action and ideas. It’s faintly embarrassing that Gibson parlays his moderately high lifestyle (a private London hotel, fashion week in Paris) into pages and pages of detailed description of the same. Bring back nihilist misfits and underdogs chafing against this self-satisfied society! Several characters from Spook Country (2007) reappear, including the usual plucky solo heroine making sense of things. Finally someone gets to have sex, and Gibson is oddly decorous and romantic in his flat narrative voice. It’s sweet and well-written, but it attempts so little.

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