Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Another Dimension
  Book Reviews by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
June 2017

Title: All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries)
Author: Martha Wells
Publisher: Tor.com

Four years ago I discovered the work of Martha Wells, a prolific, Nebula-nominated writer who has created several popular fantasy series, as well as contributing media tie-ins to the Stargate and Star Wars universes. I picked up her novel Emilie and the Hollow World (2013), a lively and fantastical adventure yarn for young adult readers, and decided I’d love to try some of Wells’s adult science fiction. Tor.com has obliged by publishing this memorable novella, All Systems Red, which I’m happy to see will have at least one sequel.

Wells’s first-person narrator, the titular “murderbot,” combines the crankiness of Futurama’s Bender with the poignancy of the Roy Batty replicant in the film version of Blade Runner. The opening line perfectly sets the tone: “I could have become a mass murderer after I hacked my governor module, but then I realized I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels carried on the company satellites.” The answers to the questions of what the narrator’s governor module is and how the ‘bot sabotaged it are deftly interwoven with the short book’s plot, which is as logically and artfully developed as that of a classic Asimov robot novel, but less talky. Our protagonist, SecUnit, has been rented out by a corporation to assist with a survey team’s mission on an alien planet. It takes four paragraphs for things to go wildly wrong: “I was looking at the sky and mentally poking at the feed when the bottom of the crater exploded.” The survey team soon realizes the data they’re using for their mission may have been compromised, and that a second survey group, DeltFall, on the planet’s opposite side, may be under attack as well. Figuring out the true nature of the threat makes All Systems Red a mystery of sorts, but it’s also a meditation on character and consciousness.

We quickly gather that our narrator is deadly serious about entertainment, a character trait that’s adroitly used for comic relief, and also as possible commentary on contemporary binge-watching trends. He downloads hundreds of hours of shows, his favorite being a serial called Sanctuary Moon. But Wells mines this material for more than its obvious possibilities, consistently illustrating how the murderbot’s perspective on just about everything is informed by its virtual experiences. For example: “Dr. Mensah opened the door and peered in at me. I’m not good at guessing actual humans’ ages, even with all the visual entertainment I watch. People in the shows don’t usually look much like people in real life, at least not in the good shows. She had dark brown skin and lighter brown hair, cut very short, and I’m guessing she wasn’t young or she wouldn’t be in charge.”

The murderbot is not entirely mechanical, but rather a credible hybrid of artificial and organic components. Likewise, the novella convincingly fuses enthralling action sequences with moments of emotional insight, while being consistent in its hard-boiled first-person characterization. As much as we may chuckle at the unlikely juxtaposition of killing and enjoying the equivalent of telenovelas, we can’t escape the wistfulness of the murderbot’s designed condition and the longing implied in its addictive behavior. There’s more Tin Man to the ‘bot than there is Terminator, but as the novella’s touching finale makes clear, the ‘bot is ultimately a creature of its own making.

Title: Aliens: The World's Leading Scientists on the Search for Extraterrestrial Life
Editor: Jim Al-Khalili
Publisher: Picador

Jim Al-Khalili, a physicist, prolific broadcaster of science documentaries, and popular author of non-fiction books such as Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed (2004), Paradox: The Nine Greatest Enigmas in Science (2012) and Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology (2014, with Johnjoe McFadden) here acts as editor and brings us a collection of nineteen essays, most by noted scientists, on the subject of extraterrestrial life. Contributors include Martin Rees, Louisa Preston, Ian Stewart, Nick Lane, Paul C. W. Davies, Nathalie Cabrol, Sara Seager, Giovanna Tinetti, Seth Shostak and others. Topics range from aliens’ possible motivations for visiting us, the ingredients of life and its formation on Earth, the likelihood of life on Mars and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, to overviews of current and future SETI projects.

Fermi’s paradox—if the odds favor life, then where is everybody?—is one of the book’s through-lines. Many of the contributors spend a fair amount of time detailing their skepticism about the paradox’s built-in assumptions or, alternatively, presenting optimistic visions of how it will naturally be resolved in time by the discovery of alien life. It’s refreshing to see the words “we just don’t know” or a variation thereof as often as they appear in this collection, particularly when the conversation turns to exactly what life is. As Carl Sagan once noted, “Science is a way to call the bluff of those who only pretend to knowledge,” but for it to work scientists themselves must be honest about the limitations of their knowledge, and these contributors fare well on that front. Though we can’t know much about ETs, the subjects naturally segues into fascinating reviews of that we do know about our own evolution and what the rest of the universe looks like. Speculating about past or future possibilities, such as the properties of LUCA (the Last Universal Common Ancestor of all life) or the ubiquity of generalized artificial intelligence that has rendered its biological originators obsolete, is sheer mind candy.

The overall tenor of these essays is skeptical, secular and humanistic. Stylistically, the voices tend to blend and mostly make for easy reading. Some of the book’s essays, such as Dallas Campbell’s apologetically-out-of-place “Flying Saucers: A Brief History of Sightings and Conspiracies” and Matthew Cobb’s surly “Alone in the Universe: The Improbability of Alien Civilizations”—which I disliked because it appears to rely on arguments convincingly pre-empted by earlier essays, not because of Cobb’s conclusions—don’t add much value. In their place I would have preferred to see others, such as Anil Seth’s eye-opening “Aliens on Earth: What Octopus Minds Can Tell Us about Alien Consciousness,” Nick Lane’s technically challenging but compelling “Electric Origins in Deep-Sea Vents: How Life Got Started on Earth,” or Johnjoe McFadden’s brain-stretching “Quantum Leap: Could Quantum Mechanics Hold the Secret of (Alien) Life?” made longer. Some pieces, such as Lewis Dartnell’s “(Un)welcome Visitors: Why Aliens Might Visit Us,” are meaty but strike underwhelming final notes, in his case a riff on a well-known line attributed to Arthur C. Clarke: “Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” Different readers will have different likes and dislikes; such is the nature of anthologies. It takes about a dozen essays for authors to start building on their co-contributors’ work and for the book to feel like a panel of engaged conversationalists rather than an assembly of recording-booth monologues. The pieces are generally short; this makes a few arguments seem a little undercooked, but it also prevents thematic fatigue. On the whole the approach works well.

If you enjoy pondering the big questions often raised by science fiction, you’ll find something to spark your interest in Aliens. Two essays explicitly offer surveys of aliens in science fiction literature and films. Ian Stewart’s “Monsters, Victims, Friends: Aliens in Science Fiction Writing” is perforce a lightning tour of a vast subject but doesn’t skim on depth, while Adam Rutherford’s “It Came from Beyond the Silver Screen! Aliens in the Movies” is more curmudgeonly than I would have liked but still informative and diverting. As I was making my way through the collection, I highlighted interesting facts in yellow—e.g. “In the last few years it has become abundantly clear that there are only two primary domains of life, the bacteria and the archaea,” and intriguing speculations in magenta—e.g. “The lines connecting black hole pairs are examples of possible communication corridors, as would be the lines connecting the nuclei of galaxies.” Sometimes the color changed mid-paragraph or even mid-line. This is an eloquent reminder of the cutting-edge nature of the work being done in SETI and astrobiology at large. I look forward to re-reading this book in a few decades and having to re-do my color scheme.

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