Saturday, June 16, 2018

Brinkmanship

Star Trek Typhon Pact: Brinksmanship
© 2012 Una McCormack
352 pages


Who's up for the Cuban Missile Crisis....in spaaaaaaace? When an otherwise friendly nation on the borders of the Federation and two of its allies signs a treaty with a hostile power, allowing them bases for repair and refueling along the Federation border,  Starfleet is understandably concerned -- and doubly so when news arrives that a fleet is enroute to supply the bases for their new tenants, carrying chemicals that could be used in biogenic warfare attacks on the Federation. While the USS Enterprise speeds to meet with the Space Cubans to work the diplomatic angle, the USS Aventime is dispatched to do a little friendly snooping near the proposed base nearest the Federation border.   When the Cardassians -- who, along with the Ferengi are the other two threatened allies --  arrive ready for war, and the Space Cubans catch wind of possible spies inserted in their country, events begin to spiral out of control, heading towards a war that no one wants but no one seemingly can avoid.  But the drama unfolding in open view is only the smoke and mirrors for another maneuver,  one that is using parties on both sides.

I bought this book a couple of years back,  intrigued by the possible historical parallels and interested in a book which includes both Picard and Dax.   The primary appeal of the book is learning about the Tzenkethi, who along with the Breen were pretty much black holes before the Typhon Pact series began. Romulans, we know, love, and fear;  while the Gorn and Tholians can be wrapped up in primal fears about reptiles and insects, respectively.   The Tzenkethi are presented as a very stable, very hierarchical society who have a natural affinity for the Space Cubans, another stable and hierarchical society.  The Tzenkethi view the Federation as some kind of chaos monster, however, the epitome of their every social fear:  it's all argument,  class-and-racial intermixing, cats and dogs living together, mass hysteria!  Who can tell what they'll do, what new planet will sudden fall under their spell?   

Having read beyond this series, I knew that no epic war between the Federation and the Typhon Pact broke out, so the drama was largely dampened for me. I assumed the drama would keep ramping up until something happened out of left field to defuse things,  and that's more or less what happens. Still, it's nice to see Picard being the commanding diplomat again, and I'll never say no to a story with Ezri Dax and her ship,  in part because the Relaunch developed her in such a commendable way -- turning the awkward 20-something shrink of 2000 into the Captain on the Bridge, and in part because the Aventine looks much different than the other Starfleet ships and I 'm ever curious about it.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Homeland

Homeland
© 2013 Corey Doctorow
400 pages




Two years ago, an innocent teenager was swept up on the streets and thrown into a blacksite prison run by the Department of Homeland Security. Initially a suspect for being near the scene of an explosion, Marcus Yallow's refusal to unlock his phone or give DHS his access codes for his computer and email made him an object of special abuse for the people running this illicit site -- and their abuse turned him into a revolutionary, determined to  throw a light on government malfeasance and restore privacy through technological and political means.   Now Marcus is approached by an old ally under tense circumstances, and handed a drive that contains a key unlocking 4 gigs of explosive information  -- information that she wants shared if she happens to disappear.   Her paranoid proves to have been justified, and Marcus finds himself with a choice.  What dark secrets are buried in those 810,000 files -- and what will happen when &; if he lets them lose on the internet?

Since the events of Little Brother,  martial law in San Francisco is over, but the city is still deteriorating. Unemployment, foreclosures, and bankruptcy plague the city,  even affecting Marcus' own parents.  His new job  as the resident tech guru for an independent political candidate is one of the few bright areas on the horizon, but being linked to some new WikilLeaks-style dump might spell the end of that. Homeland addresses most of the same issues as Little Brother in the same way,  including the passages where Marcus explains his security precautions to the reader -- how he partitions a drive, creates virtual machines to run programs without exposing his files,  that sort of thing. The greatest difference between Little Brother and Homeland is that in in the first book, Marcus  believes the problem can be solved politically, that the wrong people are in office. In Homeland, however, Marcus has seen the "good" president since elected prove himself an ally, not an enemy, of the surveillance & police state.  Although Marcus never in as dire straights as the first book -- despite being  kidnapped by goons once, arrested once, and nearly stampeded several times as he participants in an Occupy San Francisco protest that grows ever-bigger by the day -- this is still a thriller, one with some interesting side trails like the Burning Man event and a guest appearance by Wil Wheaton. As with Little Brother, the book has a couple of essays at the back -- this time on the importance of activism, and for the same reason that Marcus continues struggling even though there's no winning. To do nothing is to cede the field to complete subjugation and defeat.

If someone were curious about this series, reading only Little Brother would be safe. Homeland does teach its readers to put not their trust in princes, a lesson anyone should take to heart.  I'm personally ten years sober from believing in any politicians. There are a few I admire -- chiefly, Rand Paul, who doesn't just criticize FISA and unlawful drone assassinations, but has actively filibustered against them -- but even if he were put into the office of president I would expect him to be immediately warped by it.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Rebel Dawn

Star Wars Han Solo Trilogy Vol III: Rebel Dawn
© 1998 A.C. Crispin
400 pages




Rebel Dawn is the final volume in the "Han Solo" trilogy, a volume that stands more as an immediate prequel to the original Star Wars movie than a novel solely about Han.    At its beginning, Solo is on top of the world;  his new ship has him ahead of the other smugglers,  he can't walk into a room without gathering female attention, and he's raking in the cash. At its end, Solo has  been betrayed and unwittingly duped, made into an outcast with a bounty on his head, desperate for anything that will pay off his enemies and keep him alive.   And in the middle...well, that's mostly someone else's story.   Rebel Dawn takes side trails in previous novels and brings them front and center here - -chiefly,   competition between two major Hutt clans that threatens to turn into civil war, and Han's old flame uniting disparate groups into one Rebellion -- one whose seed money can be had by sacking the place where she was once a slave, the place where she and Solo's love was as they fought an insidious slave racket, one that used ecstatic drugs and religion to keep captives working of their own free will.  But Brea loves the fight more than she loves Han, and that will put him into a seedy cantina looking for fares.

Rebel Dawn conlcudes a series which is mostly light-adventure, not to be taken too seriously. The writing definitely had weaknesses in the form of awkward dialogue.  I enjoyed the character of Brea -- Han's old flame and the leader of the rebellion -- the most, and Crispin's treatment of the Hutts and Boba Fett were also appealing.  Imagine Jabba the Hutt as a sympathetic character!

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The Hutt Gambit

The Han Solo Trilogy, Vol II: The Hutt Gambit
© 1997 A.C. Crispin
352 pages



At the end of The Paradise Snare, Han Solo was a heartbroken man moving on with his life, doing his best to forget  about the woman who left him with a "Dear John" letter as he entered the pilot academy and the service of the Empire.  As The Hutt Gambit opens, readers realize how short-lived both Solo's tenure in the Imperial Navy and his determination to avoid romantic entanglements were: not only has he been cashiered from the service and blacklisted from commercial piloting, but he can't move to a planet without falling in love again.  Turning again to that faithful standby, a life of crime, Solo begins working for the Hutts and acquiring the money and reputation he needs to make it as as first-rate smuggler. Too bad the Empire has decided to slag his and other smugglers' favorite retreat, Nar Shadaa.   The Hutt Gambit serves a steady course of light action-adventure that builds Solo's character, introducing him to Jabba, Lando, the Falcon, and even Boba Fett, and ends with a desperate attempt by the smugglers to stave off an Imperial attack fleet. Fortunately it's one of older ships, left by a man who is both hesitant to commit genocide and very susceptible to bribes.  I thought the ending was contrived, to say the least, but enjoyed the characterization given to both the Hutts and Boba Fett, who -- in a nod to Return to the Jedi -- does a low pass over the Sarlaac pit while visiting Tatooine, unwittingly walking over his own grave.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Little Brother

Little Brother
© 2008 Corey Doctorow
380 pages


Following the destruction of the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, a nightmare begins for a high school student who is scooped up by police in the aftermath. Not only has one of his friends been seriously wounded, but Marcus'  presence near the bridge and his suspicious computer equipment make him a person of interest to the authorities, doubly so when he refuses to unlock or decrypt his devices and information for them.  If he’s innocent, he has nothing to hide, right? But Marcus has been rebelling before this,  mostly to elude his school’s draconian security measures. and his initial stubbornness turns into revolutionary resolve when he realizes  that the authorities are not merely mistaken: they are malevolent. He seems doomed in the police state that San Francisco has become overnight, where the demonization of any dissent alienates Marcus from his family and friends,  but there are other allies waiting in the wings, and they and his own resolve will spur him on.

So begins Little Brother, a man vs state story that combines the alienation and surveillance of 1984 with modern cybersecurity tools.  At its best, Little Brother is a technologically savvy thriller,  a defiant championing of civil liberties amid the war on terror,  and a call to arms to readers to get serious about learning to defend themselves against abuse.  This continues after the novel: there are several essays included after the story on the nature of security. At its worst,  the arguments are one-sided, with only one attempt at mutual understanding.  The security apparatus of the State is so extensive, however – both in the story in real life – that I can’t seriously begrudge Doctorow just wanting to fire up righteous indignation.  Easily my favorite aspect of Little Brother was the pervasive cybersecurity information: Marcus doesn't just do things, but as a narrator he's conscious that he's speaking to an audience, and explains how encryption or whatever is he's doing at the moment works.  Winston's intelligence as cyberpunk rebel extends not only to tech, but to the nature of resistance: he realizes that certain tactics will only strengthen the government's hand against him, so the trick is to find ways to keep them off balance -- sometimes by appearing to retreat.

Little Brother is an exceptional read, a smart thriller that takes its teen readers seriously. If you are concerned about the status of civil liberties across the world, the surveillance state,  or curious about how tech can both amplify and mitigate the problem, it's one to take a look at.

The story's use of a couple of young dissidents who fall in love underground reminded me strongly of a song called "By Morning" by folk-punk songwriter Evan Greer. He wrote it in tribute to several young people who were imprisoned on charges of terrorism for  harassing an animal testing lab. The song begins at 1:15.





And if they come for us by morning, with that "knock knock" on the door --
I'll hold you a little closer as they reach the second floor
And if I have to give my name, know I won't be giving yours
I'll run my hands through your hair, say it's them that's really scared
Because they know love is stronger than their bars can ever be.


Related:
  • 1984, George Orwell. Little Brother is commonly referred to as "1984 for the 21st century", which is a gross exaggeration. Even so, Little Brother makes numerous hat-tips to Orwell's dystopia beyond the surveilliance state:  one of Marcus' online pseudonyms is pronounced "Winston", for instance. 
  • No Place to Hide, Glenn Greenwald The story  of Edward Snowden and the surveillance apparatus of the NSA. 


Friday, June 8, 2018

Replay

Replay: The History of Video Games
© 2010 Tristian Donovan
501 pages



Video games emerged in the late 20th century as a completely novel form of entertainment.  Replay recounts the history of how programming experiments and text-based adventures were transformed first into a new hobby with widespread juvenile appeal, then a serious platform for storytelling, and then ..became ubiquitous.

This Replay is comprehensive, covering consoles, arcade machines, and home computers; it is also international, examining games/platform developments in Japan, Korea, Russia, France, and England. Donovan moves chronologically through the development of early computers and game programs associated with them,  their spinoff invention of gaming consoles, and the establishment of video games as art and entertainment. By the early nineties, video games encompassed such a wide variety of genres that the author examines the development of different genres -- role-playing games, first-person shooters,  simulations, etc --  as they emerged and grew popular. He pays special attention to particular machines and games that transformed the industry --   Ultima and GTA3,  the Atari and the Wii, and also includes information on business rivalries (Nintendo v Sega) and the drama of software firms falling out with one another. It culminates with the arrival of games on smartphones, though that era -- the current one -- is only introduced, not delved into itself. Many more games and platforms are addressed in the book, of course, and it is appended with an extensive list of influential titles.

While Replay is a straightforward history of how the software and hardware developed,  it also steps back and looks at the larger picture, pointing out how the games grew with their users: successive platforms advertised themselves to teenagers and adults, trying to shed the image of videogames as merely for kids.  Gaming in general has gone back and forth on plot vs action:   while one might dismiss DOOM and Wolfstenstein 3D as primitive shoot-em-ups  that were later surpassed by shooters with more developed plots, like Half-Life,  in reality DOOM's designers  were rejecting a tendency in earlier games to take themselves too seriously by returning to sheer, unbridled action. DOOM guy  didn't have a personality: he existed to mow down demons from hell. Users also grew with their games: part of the interest for game designers was that they could rewire players brains by putting them into positions and confronting them with choices that they would never encounter in their real lives.  Will Wright, for instance, co-founded a company whose original intent was educational games -- but he did so through "software toys", games that were fun, but also taught players how intricate systems like an antbed or a city functioned.  Wright's company promoted a feature of PC games that made them especially popular: customization.   DOOM allowed players to create their own maps, but even before The Sims had shipped, Maxis had already made tools available for people to create their own clothing, wallpaper, and floors in the game. Later the game was opened to custom objects (for the homeowner who wants a decorative cannon, say), and both the original game and all of its successors have promoted user-created content through their Sims Exchanges. Customization isn't merely about expanding the game:  as a teen, I marveled at the stories of people who became interested 3D modeling because of their tinkering with The Sims mods or crafting Civilization III units.  Donovan mentions that games have also become the stuff of independent creative ventures: people use video taken from gameplay to create stories, and function as "actors" in the game to get the shots they need.

While its subject is games, Replay is fairly serious about the subject -- it's not a "fun" read like Masters of Doom, but those who have a real interest in games as an industry and hobby will appreciate its heft. I noticed minor errors sprinkled in (a reference to "Richard" Heinlein as a prominent SF author, say), but nothing too substantial.

Related:
Masters of Doom, David Kushner

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Ready Player One

Ready Player One
© 2011 Ernest Cline
354 pages
Audible presentation read by Wil Wheaton,
runtime 15 hr 46 min



Who knew that School House Rock could save the world?  When an eccentric genius dies and leaves a will laden with eighties pop culture references, the entire world is called to an epic adventure. The mission: to find an Easter Egg within his creation, the world's most popular massively multiplayer experience, the Oasis. Completing the quest -- deciphering clues to find keys that will lead to other clues and finally to the prize itself -- will earn the winner half a trillion dollars as well as control over the game itself.   The premise is intriguing; the execution is a glorious triumph of geek culture starring a poor orphan who unwittingly becomes a global hero.

We enter a future where the 'real world' is increasingly dismal, decaying under  a Great Recession that has lasted decades, largely fueled by...the lack of fuel, because the oil age is over. Poverty and overpopulation are both extreme,  forcing people to live in cobbled-together skyscrapers made of stacks of trailers. That's where our main character Wade Watts is from.  But there is an escape -- the Oasis, a kind of communal holodeck in which different planets allow people to have adventures in different kinds of worlds: there are fantasy environments for swords-and-potions questing as well as science fiction ones in which players might do their adventures from the Starship Enterprise. Wade, for instance,  goes by the Oasis name of Parzival and does his questing in either an X-Wing or Serenity. There are user-created worlds, too: imagine the Oasis not only as a mass gameworld, but one like the internet which is constantly being expanded by its users.  People lose themselves in it utterly through haptic suits that allow them to 'experience' what they're seeing in-game; one character doesn't leave his real-world apartment for over six months, because he doesn't have to. He can order real-world food delivery through the Oasis.

Although there is appeal in seeing the technological developments of this world, Ready Player One's attractive genius lays in the sheer abundance of geekery. It's incredible that so many references to various classic video games, eighties movies and music, and science fiction can be worked into to so small a book without becoming distracting, but it somehow works. One minute players are dancing to eighties music, the next they're being assaulted by a hit squad with laser weapons and then rescued by a wizard named Og the Great and Powerful. This book isn't just fun: if you're a gamer who also shares some of the creator's interests (and they are many), it's a ball.   The quest's actual demands and latent demands are both incredible:  not only does a player have spend years watching eighties movies, listening to music, and playing games like Zork , but in the actual quest they might be called on to  navigate through a TRS-180, then jump through a movie poster and play the lead role in Wargames, reciting every line perfectly.  And the author isn't just dealing with the top-heavy cream of geekery,  Star Trek geeks and LOTR readers:  his references are obscure. At one point a character searches a house for boxes of Captain Crunch to blow the toy whistle buried inside at the exact pitch used by John Draper to fool AT&T's phone system into doing his bidding. There's even a School House Rock moment, in which singing the opening bars of the song is crucial. (If you're unfamiliar with SHR, check Youtube. It's basically the series that taught me the Preamble and what a preposition is.)

Beyond this, Ready Player One is also a tightly plotted adventure novel. The main character is not alone with his friends in seeking the Egg: a powerfully evil corporation is also in the hunt, using all of its resources to bribe and threaten players into helping them, and their malicious will isn't just effected in-game. The main character spends half the novel in hiding after an attempt on his life,  at its darkest point -- when the corporation is seemingly at the threshold of winning -- he has to execute a real-world plan to stop them from taking over.  Throughout the book, Klein subtly plays with the fact that the Oasis is both attractive and insidious: it offers players unlimited experiences at the cost of their real-world lives, a fact not lost on the characters. Doubtless many readers of the novel will share that experience, in part, having spent hours in virtual environments with friends, so much so that the game map seems to be a physical place in our minds. (Andy Weir, author of The Martian, wrote a short story called "Lacero" based on RPO's Oasis, and wells more on the insidious aspect.)

Although I'm admittedly an ideal audience for this book --  the only references that went by me were the anime/manga/Transformer ones --   I've rarely been as enthralled by a novel as I have been with this one. This is definitely one to buy so I can re-read!

A note on the audiobook:  you get to hear Wil Wheaton refer to himself as "an old geezer".  Wheaton is as usual a solid voice actor, and his presence adds geek appeal to a novel already brimming over with it. The only hitch is that some things don't lend themselves well to being read, like chatlogs or a scoreboard.

Related:
Night of the Living Trekkies, Kevin Anderson.
Redshirts,  John Scalzi. Read by Wil Wheaton.
Masters of Doom, David Kushner.  Read by Wil Wheaton.