Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Review - The Circle - Dave Eggers

The CircleThe Circle by Dave Eggers
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a pretty chilling extrapolation of what might happen if the geek inherited the Earth: the overpowering tyranny of a single mindset with the grunt of a global tech company (a lot like Google) behind it, that decides privacy and secrets are bad and full access to everyone's data is good. The descent into dystopia is presented through a series of reasoned arguments - who wouldn't want to protect children from child molesters - nicely balanced with the real-world implications of the suggested 'solutions' to such problems for the rest of us.

As a polemic against the potential excesses of digital entrepreneurs, it's a powerful piece of writing. The narrative strand with new employee Mae Holland being sucked into The Circle and coming to embody its insidious philosophy is less compelling, but still handled well.

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Sunday, July 10, 2016

The internet is not your friend

Frederik Pohl and CM Kornbluth’s classic novel The Space Merchants posited a future where it was impossible to escape advertising, with marketing messages beamed directly onto our retinas. But they didn’t foresee how big data could be used, or misused, in the real world. Or how lethal the whole system could become.

Your mobile phone carries a great deal of information about you, including your browsing and internet purchasing history which, if accessed by marketers, can be used to build up a profile of the type of person you are: male, female, new parent, teenager, Ford driver, etc.

Each phone has a unique ID that marketers can use to gather this information. As well as this ID, if you’ve ever permitted an app to know your location then the marketers can also see where you are at any particular time and send ads that will show up while you browse Facebook, for example when you’re enjoying a drink at a cafĂ© or bar, to tell you a shop is nearby that sells stuff you are interested in. This is called geo-fencing, where your phone’s location triggers an ad to be sent your way. It all sounds slightly creepy.

But it became even creepier when an anti-abortion group in America contracted a marketer to geo-fence abortion clinics. As a result, phone owners who had been profiled as female and young, based on their browsing history, and who were present (with their phone) at the clinics were sent anti-abortion/ pro-choice adverts. This is not an invasion of privacy because the marketer didn’t know who they were, but browsing histories create uncannily accurate virtual profiles.

Of course this is a fairly unsubtle use of what could be an infinitely more delicate and insidious tool. In Horizon, governments waged ‘information wars’ to sway public opinion and leave countries ripe for takeover without a shot being fired. Misinformation is already becoming a problem on the internet and it is only going to get worse.

This article originally appeared in the 'Launch Pad' section of Beyond, my free newsletter for lovers of science and science fiction. Sign up here -

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Review - Into Everywhere - Paul McAuley

Into EverywhereInto Everywhere by Paul McAuley
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Paul McAuley is a British speculative fiction author, best known for his Arthur C Clarke award-winning science fiction novel Fairyland, which has just been re-released twenty years after its initial publication under the Gollancz ‘SF Masterworks’ imprint. His Quiet War series of books chart a Solar System-spanning war between Earth-born humans and the ‘differently evolved’ descendents of early settlers on the asteroids and moons of the outer planets. It’s a richly detailed work that combines big science with fantastic descriptions of desolate and surprising alien environments.

His latest ‘Jackaroo’ series begins a few years in our future when Earth, facing all the problems we can see today, is ‘rescued’ by the alien Jackaroo who gift humanity fifteen wormholes linked to fifteen habitable worlds. The Jackaroo say they want to help, but what are their motivations and what happened to the Elder Cultures – previous recipients of aid from the Jackaroo – who seem to all have died out?

In the first book, Something Coming Through, which I reviewed last July in the Newtown Review of Books [], researcher Chloe helps a young boy infected by an alien ‘information virus’ – or eidolon – to travel to one of the gift worlds where he discovers Elder Culture spaceships that humanity can fly without the help of the Jackaroo.

If you’ve read my review, you’d know I had some reservations about the book and it ended with a lot of the questions it raised unanswered. Unfortunately Into Everywhere shares a few of the issues of its predecessor as well as some problems of its own, which means that I really didn’t enjoy it.

Into Everywhere has two story strands. The first is set some years after the first book, with Lisa, a retired Elder Culture artefact hunter, being drawn into an investigation mounted by Chloe’s nemesis, Adam Nevers who is now investigating a series of fatalities linked to an alien dig run by Lisa’s estranged husband Willie.
After Lisa is visited by Nevers and one of the Jackaroo’s avatars, she contacts Chloe to find out what is going on.

‘Was it Bob Smith?’ Chloe said.
‘Excuse me?’
‘That’s what the avatar Nevers was working with back then called itself.’
‘We weren’t introduced,’ Lisa said. ‘It was mostly tagging along as an observer.’
‘Nevers was carrying a kind of wire that generated a copy of that avatar,’ Chloe said. ‘It got into a fight with a Ghajar eidolon that called down the ships, and it lost. One of the !Cha once told me the Jackaroo made a thing of preventing us finding and using certain kinds of Elder Culture technology, because they know it will make it seem all the more desirable to us. Forbidden fruit, the apple in the Garden of Eden and so on. I don’t think Nevers understands that. That he may be helping the Jackaroo to manipulate us.’
‘You make him sound like some kind of fantatic,’ Lisa said.
‘He’s deadly serious about the dangers of Elder Culture technology. And he more or less lacks a sense of humour. Goes with his vanity, the way he presents himself.’

The second strand is set a hundred years further in the future in the rim worlds, settled by humans who utilised the alien spaceships discovered in book one.

Tony Okoye is the wayward son of one of the original founding families and he’s engaged in a piece of illicit research on alien artefacts to try to discover a cure for ‘sleepy sickness’, an alien plague that is infecting children in alarming numbers. His hope is that by finding the cure he will return the honour of his family to its former glory. When his research dig is attacked, he returns to his home in disgrace, where he is placed under house arrest.

Although Tony is described as a daring ‘freebooter’ he’s fairly passive as a character, straining against his familial bonds but still trapped by them until he’s offered a chance to escape and work for the shadowy Captain X. Lisa is also very passive. She wants to find out what happened to her husband but increasingly she is under the compulsion of an eidolon that infected her and Willie years ago to go on a journey. It’s a compulsion that is facilitated by Captain X’s enemies. The other problem with Lisa is that her story is basically the same as the story in book one: a person infected by an eidolon is compelled to go somewhere to discover something.

Neither Tony or Lisa are in control of their fates. In Lisa’s case her goals and desires are subservient to the eidolon and Tony seems to discard his espoused goals to suit the plot. After the initial chapters he isn’t actively trying to find the cure for sleepy sickness and the entire sub-plot with his family is discarded as easily as the new lover he also leaves behind. He’s firmly under the thumb of Captain X and – later – his own eidolon compulsion. Also Tony and Lisa are probably the two characters in the story that know least about what is going on and they have nothing of value to bargain with in order to find that information out. Instead they have to be told what’s happening when the time is right, and one of the final scenes in the book has them basically watching from the sidelines as the story’s real movers and shakers have an argument.

It’s also true that not a lot seems to happen, or not a lot that is particularly engaging. Whenever the Jackaroo turn up they spout the same unhelpfully enigmatic epithets, which become grating after a while. Much of the action has to do with travel through a variety of wormholes towards a ‘destination’, but as we have no access to the reason for the journey or the forces at play on the way there it feels drawn out.

There are some flashes of interest along the way, for example when Tony escapes into a series of tunnels cared for by a strange underground society, but these highlights are few and far between. Lisa’s home planet has – as with the gift worlds in book one – been McDonaldised, so it’s not a good source of wonder either and her encounter with a bikie gang echoes the kind of stereotypic treatment the detective story in book one contained.

And now men were standing up, big and muscled in leather and denim. Shaved heads, beards, tats. Wolfman Dave. Little Mike. Mouse. And Sonny Singer, unfolding from the shelf of stone where he’d been sitting, strutting over to Lisa as she swung off Bear’s bike.
Sonny addressed Bear first, punching him hard on the shoulder, asking him if he remembered what he’d been told.
‘Come on,’ Bear said uneasily. ‘When I phoned you said I should bring her in.’
‘I also said you shouldn’t have let yourself get compromised.’
‘This is Willie’s old lady, dude. I don’t see how she compromises anything.’
Sonny ignored that. A black and white doo-rag was knotted around his shaded skull; his eyes were masked in mirrorshades. ‘I trusted you to do the right thing, Bear.’

But the thing I found most unforgivable in Into Everywhere was the lack of answers. There’s a contract entered into between writer and reader at the beginning of any book. The author introduces questions or mysteries to the reader to draw them into the story and keep them reading. The reader trusts the author will provide entertaining answers to those questions after they have invested a sufficient amount of effort in reading the narrative. But after a combined 700 pages across two books, we are no clearer at the end about who the Jackaroo are, what their game plan is and what happened to the extinct Elder Cultures they ‘helped’ previously. It’s deeply disappointing.

There will be a third volume, but I’m no longer sufficiently invested in the story to look forward to its release.

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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

How far will we see?

From the Pantropy stories of James Blish to novels like Frederik Pohl’s Man Plus, speculative fiction writers have often dreamed about changing the basic human design. Science fiction is quickly becoming science fact.

For the first time ever a blind woman has been injected with a virus containing DNA from a light-sensitive algae. The hope is that the DNA will bind to the ganglion nerve cells in her eye to replace damaged photoreceptors that would otherwise send optical signals to the brain.

But why stop with visible light? Now scientists in the US are implanting sensors that detect infra-red directly into the brains of mice. By using a series of switches that reward the mice with food when an IR emitter is pressed, the mice have been trained to recognise and interpret infra-red impulses. In effect they ‘see’ infra-red. Further experiments will increase the sensory bandwidth to include ultra-violet, microwaves and beyond, culminating in animals that can see all wavelengths.

Meanwhile another group is trying to isolate the genetic or chemical element that enables animals like pigeons and lobsters to sense the Earth’s magnetic field to guide navigation with a hope that the ability can be replicated in humans. So one day you may be able to ‘see’ exactly where you are with your eyes shut.

Hacking humanity has only just begun.

This article originally appeared in the 'Launch Pad' section of Beyond, my free newsletter for lovers of science and science fiction. Sign up here -

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Review - Leviathan's Blood - Ben Peek

Leviathan's Blood (Children Trilogy #2)Leviathan's Blood by Ben Peek
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This review originally appeared on the Newtown Review of Books
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I’m not overstating things when I say that Ben Peek is one of the most accomplished writers of richly detailed and intricately plotted epic fantasy working in Australia today. When I reviewed The Godless, the first book in his Children trilogy, I said Peek gave George RR Martin a run for his money. Book Two, Leviathan’s Blood,keeps him well and truly at that high-water mark.

The world of the Children trilogy is suitably epic in scope, wrecked as it has been by the aftermath of a battle between the gods that took place thousands of years ago. The sun is shattered, making its way across the sky in a series of broken shards. The sea is dark and toxic, flooded with the blood of the titular Leviathan. The mountains have grown on the back of god-corpses. And the people live in fear of the god-touched, receptacles of the remnants of godly power that spilled across the land in the final terrible conflict.

The god-touched are immortal. Five of the earliest raised empires, fought terrible battles, destroyed whole nations and wrought awful suffering across the face of the globe. In The Godless one of these, Zaifyr – who can harness the power of the dead – was trapped in the siege of the mountain city of Mireea by the army of a new child goddess coming out of the nearby land of Leera. A goddess who threatened to start a new cycle of wars that would kill countless millions. But Zaifyr discovered her power had an even darker side, preventing the dead from leaving this plane so that not even death was a release from suffering.

In Leviathan’s Blood, Zaifyr travels with the Mirreeans, fleeing the Leeran army of the child goddess to the rocky land of Yeflam, perched above the deadly ocean. There he is to stand trial for the murder of two Keepers – god-touched members of the Yeflam Enclave – who have tried to infect the Mireeans with a deadly disease. But what he really wants is to rally the Yeflam people to fight against the new goddess and free the living and the dead.

But not all the people of Yeflam are happy to see so many Mireeans on their borders:

The afternoon’s sun had sunk beneath the black ocean when the pieces of paper began to settle on the dirt and sand. For a while, they went unnoticed: Lieutenant Mills, white and gray-haired, had finished recording who would share with whom when a piece of paper came snaking along the narrow lanes. It stuck on the cloth of a freshly staked tent, where it was picked up by a guard. Ayae was one of the next to pick up a piece. It was a single sheet of Yeflam’s dirt-coloured recycled paper, with the words GO BACK HOME written in big, block letters on it. When she showed it to Caeli, who stood next to her, the guard swapped her for one with a picture of the Mireean people standing on the edge of Yeflam. They were tipping the great stone city as if it were a boat, tipping it into the waiting Leeran forces, which held swords and catapults and stood on the bones of their enemies. Ayae balled up the picture in her hand and turned to the stone platform of Neela behind her, where the city’s lamp revealed children throwing the papers over the edge gleefully.

‘Lovely,’ Caeli said beside her. ‘Just lovely. Nothing makes me happier than adults using kids to say what they’re afraid to say.’

With the people of Mireea in a precarious situation, Buerlan Le, the mercenary who was sent with his band to spy on the goddess, is now on a personal mission to the homeland he was exiled from, carrying a bottle containing the soul of his dead comrade. And Heast, the Captain of the Spine, is released from his role as protector of the Mireeans when he learns that Refuge – the mercenary group he used to command – still has need of him.

Actions have consequences that are rooted not just in the socio-political truth of the times – a truth that could be ripped from the front page of today’s real-world newspapers – but also in the characters, the cities, the alliances and rivalries, the personal and shared histories and myths of Leviathan’s Blood. Such richly detailed storytelling makes for a strong degree of verisimilitude despite the more fantastic elements it contains. This is a world and a group of characters you can believe in.

It’s true to say that as a result the plot is not particularly fast-paced. This isn’t ‘shot-glass fantasy’, delivering a sudden jolt and a euphoria that fades all too quickly without leaving much of an aftertaste. This is a story to be decanted slowly into a brandy snifter and warmed in your hands as you savour its complexity.

It’s equally impressive to realise that after what has gone before in The Godless, everything we thought we knew and understood changes in Leviathan’s Blood as we learn more about the characters as they move out into a wider and far more dangerous world. This is not a ‘placeholder’ book, marking time for the trilogy’s final volume.

If I were allowed one quibble, it’s the shortness of the chapters, particularly in the first half of the book. At times I felt I’d only really got into the swing of a particular narrative thread before the focus of the novel jumped elsewhere.

While there is much to ponder in the story, there’s also some impressive action amongst the revelations and worldbuilding. Peek writes fight scenes very well and when his characters exercise their god-like powers it plays out across the inner eye like some dark and gritty superhero movie mashed together with the best Ang Lee-inspired martial arts film. This is a vicious world and it forces those blessed or cursed with power to make equally vicious choices:

She blocked a second cut, made a wild slash with her sword and almost – the road leading to the carriage beckoned emptily as she landed – made her way through, but the mounted soldiers came charging and she felt a blade cut into her shoulders.

Her blade swept round impossibly fast and cut the following soldier from his horse. The animal rose on its legs and she dodged back. More riders came and Ayae felt her control slip as she met the thrust of another woman. She twisted the weapon out of the woman’s grasp and grabbed her arm to pull her from the horse. She could feel the warmth in her own body, close, so very close to overwhelming her, and saw the woman recoil from the heat in Ayae’s hand. The mail sleeve began to melt, burning it into the skin of the soldier as the horse, feeling its coat smoulder, recoiled in fear and reared, throwing the woman across the stone road. Ayae took the woman’s fallen blade, longer than her first, and watched as flame immediately ran along the steel.

It’s impossible to provide an overview of the scope of the story here. Leviathan’s Blood covers a lot of ground, deepening our understanding and introducing new threats, new and terrifying characters, new lands and new wonders all vividly and indelibly portrayed.

If you’re a lover of epic fantasy and you’re not reading the Children books, you’re missing out.

View all my reviews

Saturday, May 14, 2016

The (Un)Productivity Commission

The Australian Productivity Commission's latest draft report contains a section called Copy(not)right, which demonstrates how Government-funded economists really don't 'get' the creative industry in Australia. Or maybe they just hate writers, film-makers and musos. 

See end of post for an update from the Australian Government.

One of their draft recommendations proposes (yet again) the abandonment of Australian territorial copyright. This ‘zombie idea’ refuses to die even though it was roundly dismissed as ludicrous last time we had this debate (in 2009).

For a very good summary of why the recommendation would destroy Australian creative output as well as a local multi-million-dollar industry, read this article in The Guardian

The other thought bubble that came out from the Commission was to limit the length of copyright protection for authors to 15 to 25 years after publication. Yes, you read that right. But let's put aside the obvious reaction that it's not fair to say you no longer own something you created  just because 15 years have elapsed and look at the Productivity Commission's 'reasoning', which goes like this:
  1. Excessive periods of copyright mean the price of material is kept artificially high. Presumably they haven’t noticed the introduction of ebooks where material is often available for $3 or less, particularly material that is a few years old (unless we’re talking about international bestsellers). 
  2.  Older material still under copyright is removed from sale and no longer available to the public. Again, anyone who’s looked at the ebook market would see that material VERY RARELY becomes unavailable, and in fact a lot of out of print books are now available again as ebooks. 
  3. Australia’s copyright term is excessive i.e. life plus 70 years. The term was increased from life plus 50 years NOT at the urging of Australian authors, but because Australia signed a Free Trade Agreement with the US, which required it. 
  4.  Literary works only provide a financial return between 1 and 5 years on average. The ’on average’ is important here, and this point also fails to consider trilogies and other multi-book series developed over a number of years. 
  5.  Three-quarters of original titles are retired after a year, and by 2 years 90% of titles are out of print. This is actually rubbish (see point 2). 
  6.  A study (from 2002!) argues that a term of around 25 years allows rights holders to earn revenue comparable to what they would receive in perpetuity. I’d suggest this assertion is a little old! The royalty landscape has changed significantly since then (to the detriment of authors). 
  7.  The paper goes on to note that the study’s estimate of 25 years was based on a low discount rate and that a higher rate would mean the term should be longer. Given the prevailing heavy discounting on books (especially ebooks) and lower royalties for authors, it’s clear that 25 years would NOT allow the owner to earn sufficient revenue. 
  8.  Another study (from 2007) states more creative works would be produced if the copyright period was lowered to 15 years. There’s no rationale given for this argument, but it clearly doesn’t make sense. That kind of copyright period would be a complete disincentive to creators.

And that’s the whole rationale. An argument that does not consider the real-world environment that now includes ebooks, and uses two studies from 14 and 9 years ago. Not exactly a convincing, comprehensively researched proposal from what is meant to be our peak productivity agency. 

If you’d like to express your rage at how frakked up this whole report is, please add your name to the Australian Society of Authors’ petition


Communications and Arts Minister Mitch Fifield has released a statement clarifying that the federal government does not intend to reduce the life of copyright to 15 to 25 years after creation, following claims to this effect made by a number of prominent authors over the past week.

The Books Create campaign said Fifield’s clarification was an ‘outright rejection’ of the ‘recommendation to reduce the term of an author’s copyright to 15-25 years from creation’, and ‘calls into question why the Draft Report strayed so far beyond Australian law and international trade agreements’. ‘It also calls into question other recommendations in the report about US-style fair use and territorial copyright–which together underpin the economic model of the Australian book publishing industry,’ they said.
 Source: Bookseller and Publisher
I have to say if that is the government's intention, the whole release of the report has been a complete fiasco, added to the fact that it's just not very well researched or written.

It's still important that the other recommendations on territorial copyright and 'fair use' get buried. Sign the ASA petition (link above) if you haven't already done so.

This article originally appeared in Beyond, my free newsletter for lovers of science and science fiction. Sign up here -