July is my month of relaxation. Theoretically, I’m supposed to be putting down the pen and taking some time off for myself.
In practice, yeah, some of that is happening. But in reality, I’m studying science fiction, revisiting stories I’ve always loved with an eye to picking apart how they work. The results of that are mixed, but here’s some of the works I believe deserve to be recognized as some of the most epic sci-fi ever.
- A Fire upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge
- The Bobiverse by Dennis Taylor
- The Bioshock series by 2K/Irrational Games/Ken Levine
AFUTD | Vernor Vinge
It bothers me that Vernor Vinge sometimes needs an introduction. He’s been writing since the ’80’s (well, technically, the 60’s) and has a history of introducing and fleshing out computer concepts that turn out to be prophetic. True Names, for example, fleshed out cyberspace – the concept that cyberpunks like Gibson and Stephenson would base their major works on. His 1993 essay The Coming Technological Singularity spoke of the repercussions of artificial superintelligence – AI that could continue to upgrade themselves until they left humankind far behind in the dust – the same fears that Elon Musk and Co are talking about in Silicon Valley now.
Why Fire Upon the Deep, out of all his works?
It’s two stories woven into one.
One story is a ground-level exploration of a completely alien society built of minute clusters of hive minds. By itself it could be a fantasy story, and it explores many parallels – the disruptive advantages of long distance communication; information asymmetry; the kind of social structures you’d get if every living creature were a composite of duller, but separate parts.
The other story is a cosmic-level exploration of a web of many civilizations. This part I found interesting because of the constraints Vernor dreamed up to keep things in check: instead of utterly advanced civilizations shitting on everything below them, he builds a three-tiered structure where the properties of the galactic space itself function with restraints.
For example, in the Slow Zone, you can’t travel faster than light; technologies that function in higher zones break as they go further down. There’s also a narrative about one particular alien species with genetics that kept reminding me of APIs, but I can’t say too much without spoiling things.
TL;DR: I’m fantastically impressed by Vernor’s worldbuilding (should I say universe-building?) and his ability to zoom in and out from this small, almost fantasy environment with its petty conflicts to the grand chaos unfolding everywhere else in the universe.
The Bobiverse | Dennis Taylor
Life as a Von Neumann probe sounds like the most boring thing ever. Unless, apparently, you’re Dennis Taylor, in which case you dream up a sentient Von Neumann probe, a human mind trying to deal with the prospect of being in space all by its lonesome, and how things get very complicated after that.
We Are Legion is everything good scifi should be. It’s human. It’s funny. It’s got science and the Martian-esque ‘we’re going to science the shit out of this’ moments on a galactic scale at every possible opportunity. It’s witty, hard scifi, and it makes Dennis sound like Douglas Adams crossed with Andy Weir, dealing with very complex themes – identity; the loneliness of the human mind; loss; space combat; spacecraft engineering and even religion without batting an eye.
TL;DR: I’m definitely not the first to say this, but this is an indie hit like Hugh Howe’s Wool and Andy Weir’s The Martian – straight out of the ballpark and into legend with this one. Its Goodreads score is at 4.33 with over 11,000 reviews. Dennis has all my respect!
The Bioshock series
Ah, Bioshock. The game that made it clear that videogames were art.
Fresh out of school, I wanted to be a game designer. I taught myself programming, read every copy of GDmag and Develop! I could get my hands on, and then someone let me play Bioshock on their computer.
To say I was hooked is an understatement. “NO GODS OR KINGS, ONLY MAN” read the screen, before plunging me into an underwater Art Deco city that had once lived and breathed Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy. Which was now a broken carcass, a 1960’s steampunk Atlantis where the Little Sisters harvested the dead and things in freakish diver suits stood guard over them.
Ever since then, Bioshock and Ken Levine (who was responsible for much of the writing and design) have been my personal picks for the greatest storytelling in a video game. I’ve played every Bioshock, but I’m slowly replaying them all again, including the DLC that ties Bioshock Infinite back to the first Bioshock and Rapture.
There’s always a man. Always a city. Always a lighthouse.
Until next time,