Thursday, November 09, 2006

Review: The Android's Dream

So I finished John Scalzi's The Android's Dream last night. Here is my report.

Bottom line: it's a light, enjoyable SF romp that trades knowingly in SF tropes and conventions and flirts with cliché in places without going over the line. It's fun. I enjoyed it.

It's not as meaty or as lean (to aim my metaphors in different directions) as Scalzi's earlier novels, Old Man's War or The Ghost Brigades. It feels less "worn smooth", which has its positives (energy and exuberance) and negatives (a feeling that the book could have been pared down by 10 or so pages, mostly in the beginning).

There are some astonishingly funny bits in the book (though it's not a comedy as such), as well as some pretty serious stuff, but overall it's light and fun.

My issues with it are somewhat nebulous -- it's hard to tell how much of them are me as a reader being my particular and peculiar self, and how much are "in the book", with others seeing the same thing. For instance, the book opens (with an interstellar fart joke, no less) with an entire chapter about Dirk Moeller, who then proceeds to not be in the rest of the book (for reasons which are obvious once you read it). I spent Chapter 1 getting into the mode of "Okay, Dirk Moeller is the protagonist, here's his backstory, and here's his setup, and whooops! there he goes."

Then we have another chapter where we get another set of potential protagonists (whose goals are in opposition to Dirk Moeller's), and then I'm all, like, "ohmygod, who am I going to root for?".

And then, only in chapter 3 do we meet the person who turns out to be our real protagonist (Harry Creek).

I feel like Chapter 1 should have been labelled "Prologue", and (part of) Chapter 3 should have been Chapter 1, and Chapter 2 could stay where it is, and the rest of Chapter 3 could be Chapter 3.

Now, this whole "who is our protagonist" theme could be considered auctorially interesting, and anyone who knows me knows that while I like nice linear storytelling, I also like weird time-slicing and multiple viewpoint stories as well. But what I really like is knowing who to root for, even if it's more than one person and they're against each other. (This is one of the reasons I hate so much of the "adultery in the suburbs" genre -- everyone is loathesome, so why bother?)

The other thing that really struck me -- forcefully, which is somewhat remarkable since I'm usually a fairly inattentive reader on these sorts of things -- is that until we meet Robin Baker (the other main protagonist), on page 116, there are basically no female characters. I think someone's mother is mentioned (possibly by name), and there's a short bit with a farmer whose wife (who we don't actually see) really doesn't like to be woken up -- but that's it. We see chunks of the US State Department, and of the US Defense Department, but there's not a woman in sight until Robin shows up -- and barely any other than her, after.

This is especially bizarre given the number of strong female characters in Old Man's War and The Ghost Brigades. Now granted, a lot of the secondary characters in The Android's Dream are criminals or military, or nerds, which as subsets of humanity, tend to the testosterone-heavy. And Scalzi is on record as explicitly mentioning Elmore Leonard as an inspiration. But still. It's somewhat weird. Or maybe I'm weird.

And there are a couple of sequences which violate my cardinal rule of technological extrapolation: don't do details, because they'll almost certainly be wrong. (If you can extrapolate technology and get it right, then you might want to think about designing new gadgets and user interfaces and building the tech, not writing SF!) The positive version of this rule states that tech details should be left as vague as possible, so things don't date too badly. (Nothing dates as badly as last year's consumer user interface.[1])

The last bit of ranting I'll do is about a major (and nearly literal) deus ex machina that is threaded throughout the book. There's a long rant about how arrogant AI people are (which is true), which concludes with the "obvious" way to make an AI (copying an existing brain), which no one (in the book) has thought of. Well, it's a great deus ex machina as it's written, but it's also silly to posit a SFnal world where no one has thought of this, since in our world, lots of people have thought about how to upload their brains into computer simulations. Clearly The Android's Dream exists in a parallel universe where Ray Kurzweil, Greg Egan, and a bunch of other people (including Frederick Pohl, who "vastened" Gateway's Rob Broadhead in Heechee Rendezvous all the way back in 1984) never existed. What I really wish Scalzi had done was explain that lots of people had tried this, but no one had succeeded, and then explain how clever this particular uploaded AI's uploader was.

What can I say? I'm a science and computer geek. Things like this bug me.

Wow, I just spent ten paragraphs criticizing a book I really enjoyed reading. What's up with that? Well, if John Scalzi is interested in a nitpicking science and computer geek to help keep him out of trouble, he can consider this my audition. (Yeah, like he's going to be reading this.)

Or maybe I'm simply still annoyed at him for linking to this, which (as I mentioned a few posts ago), has eaten up way too much of my time. Damn you, Scalzi!

[1] Some notable non-consumer interfaces, like good command line interfaces, age very well indeed.


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

I think there's a decent chance Scalzi will see your post. Besides the fact that he (Scalzi) seems to find stuff all over the Net -- especially when there's a connection to him or his books -- a lot of people read his blog, and one of those readers might direct him to your post.

dimz said...

Thanks for review, it was excellent and very informative.
thank you :)

Qassim said...

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