book reviews by Althea

Insistence of Vision – David Brin ***

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Insistence of Vision
Insistence of Vision by David Brin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Introduction by Vernor Vinge
In which Vinge sort-of apologizes for not immediately reading that manuscript Brin gave him once.

The Heresy of Science Fiction
An essay on the nature of science fiction. It starts out with some interesting, thoughtful ideas, but falls into a bit of a trap with: “science fiction is – and ought to be – exactly what *I* write.”

**** Insistence of Vision
Through a personal story, Brin explores the possible ramifications of a future alternative to the prison system.
As the piece opens, we meet a man who’s strangely unable to perceive the majority of the people around him… he perceives them only as blurs. We can tell he’s desperately lonely, as he takes the opportunity to speak to one of the only people he can ‘see’ – a young woman.
Nicely structured.

*** Transition Generation
Plays around with readers’ expectations. In a near-future, new technologies have radically changed some daily norms – but office workers are still disgruntled, interpersonal politics can still be nasty. and there’s still a generation gap between those who’ve grown up with new devices, and older people who feel like they’re constantly playing catch-up just to keep up.

*** Chrysalis
A couple of researchers have made major progress in decoding what was once called “junk DNA” – resulting in impressive techniques to regenerate limbs, heal from injuries, etc. A Nobel prize is all but guaranteed. But then the research leads us a step further…

** Stones of Significance
A post-singularity Zen Master/researcher type who specializes in creating detailed AI simulations receives a delegation from a group who believes that simulations should be entitled to all the basic ‘human’ rights of other citizens (or recognized beings.)
Successful science fiction, I feel, wraps groundbreaking and interesting ideas into a compelling story. This piece had the ideas (and I’ll take the ‘author’s notes’ claim that they felt much more groundbreaking in 2000, when this was first published, in stride – it did come out a year before The Matrix, after all). However, the plot elements felt like no more than a flimsy skeleton to hang an essay on.

** News from 2035: A Glitch in Medicine Cabinet 3.5
A faux-news report on a controversy regarding new technology. The tech here is sf-nal – DIY biotech – but it’s a satire on our current attitudes toward new tech. The more things change, the more they stay the same…
I’m sure Bruce Sterling and Greg Bear got a laugh out of their shout-outs.
Not too memorable, though.

*** The Logs
“Siberia” here, is a remote asteroid, and the Russians have been sent to work camps by our new alien overlords, The Coss. A cultural history of oppression may have made a family tough enough to endure and survive. Nice imaginative details enhance a good story.

*** The Tumbledowns of Cleopatra Abyss
Already read, in ‘Old Venus.’
“An entry into the “they’ve been isolated for so long that they forgot to check the weather outside” subgenre. The isolation here takes the form of colonies established in naturally-occurring bubbles, far beneath the surface of the Venusian sea. But now, the bubbles are reaching the end of their natural ‘lifespan,’ beginning to shake loose or ‘pop’ – with devastating results. Will one young couple find a solution to the impending disaster?
The story is entertaining and very accessibly written, but suffers from a repeated use of: “Well, the plot calls for some kind of new gadget here. Good thing my character happens to just have invented that gadget!” I also didn’t feel that the characters’ behaviors necessarily matched the social system that’s described, and their attitude at the very end of the story is inexplicable, given the circumstances.”

*** Eloquent Elepents Pine Away for the Moon’s Crystal Forests
This one felt like the opening chapter to a novel (and not one with this title). Doni is a young man, a military cadet at a school dedicated to the brave human heroes who laid down their lives defending their people from alien domination. Now, ironically, the school is run by the victorious alien overlords. However, there’s an intriguing glimpse into internal politics and dissent among those overlords…
I almost forgot I was reading a short story, and was disconcerted when it abruptly ended.

*** Mars Opposition
Amusing story of first contact. The aliens arrive on Earth with a list (a long list) of people they want to find – and they immediately demonstrate that they’re willing to pay well for help. However, the abrupt demise of Bill Nye the Science Guy shows that these Martians do not come in peace. But what are their true motivations and goals? Will it even be possible for us to understand a truly alien culture?

*** A Professor at Harvard
The titular professor writes a letter describing his recent research and discoveries regarding a seemingly-obscure historical figure and his role in Colonial America. Gradually, we realize that the near-future world that the researcher is writing from is not quite our own – indeed, it’s quite a bit better. The theme: small actions can add up to big differences.

*** I Could’ve Done Better, written with Gregory Benford
How did an average beer-swilling, sports-loving, philandering Joe from the 21st century become Pharaoh of Egypt? And why isn’t he all that thrilled with the situation?

** Paris Conquers All, written with Gregory Benford
H.G. Wells’ ‘War of the Worlds,’ as experienced by Jules Verne. Since this is Verne channeled through Brin/Benford, the focus is on conquering through ingenuity rather than being saved through mischance (which kind of destroys the strength of the story completely). Although this is written with an eye toward humor, rather than being a serious attempt at being Vernian (Verne-esque?), it’s obvious that the authors didn’t really make a serious attempt to truly capture a believable 19th-century literary style, but the language comes off just feeling awkward and amateurish rather than amusing. The bar for 19th-century-style stories has been raised lately, I guess.

** Fortitude
Another first contact story, this one featuring the familiar trope of the Great and Advanced interplanetary Federation which will judge if humanity is ready to join civilization. Although not off-color, this is – literally – toilet humor.

**** An Ever Reddening Glow
Nice environmental allegory about a future star drive that turns out to have infinitesimally small – but cumulative – impacts. Drives its point home.

*** The Diplomacy Guild
Another story with very clear parallels to our world. In a future universe, humans have become known for their advanced robotics. These robots have been carefully created in accordance with Asimov’s laws, with mandatory safeguards built in. But the power of the economic market is a force to be reckoned with. Why obey the laws when there’s profit to be made? (originally published as part of this shared-universe anthology:…)

** The Other Side of the Hill
One species’ burned-out wasteland is another’s paradisical salvation. It’s all relative. Nice story with a point. However, there may be a star deduction because it’s just not quite what “The grass is always greener” actually means…

*** Temptation: A Novella from the Uplift Universe
Previously read in ‘Far Horizons.’ The first time I read it, I gave it two stars, which which usually mean that I wouldn’t re-read – but I enjoyed it a bit better this time.
I previously wrote: “I’ve read Brin’s first ‘Uplift’ trilogy, but years ago. …. This short story set in that world, didn’t really do it for me. It had a bit too much jammed into not enough pages, and the action and philosophy didn’t quite mesh. Rather a lot of time is spent in setting up a reasonably interesting sci-fi scenario – and then it’s sort of dropped: “Wait! Something new has come along! Now we are going to be faced with a philosophical dilemma having to do with the nature of reality and free will!” The terms in which the dilemma is discussed also seemed somewhat out of character for the individuals involved, as they’d been presented up until then. I also just didn’t find his sentient dolphins to be very compelling characters.”
Can’t say why, but this time I found the characters more charming, and although I still agree with my criticisms, the flaws bothered me less this time through.

**** The Avalon Probes
The history of a series of probes sent toward a distant planet gives us a window into changes in technology and culture. An ultimately melancholy musing on obsolescence. I really liked it.

Six Word Tales
A few examples of such.

*** Reality Check
One possible explanation of the Fermi Paradox (Why, in a busy and ancient universe, have we seen no evidence of other life?) Perhaps, after achieving a certain level of development, virtual reality is more attractive than any other mode of existence.

Waging War with Reality
Another essay, to round off the collection. Here Brin talks about the nature of humanity as the only animal that constantly seeks to change its environment, and how that relates to the writing of science fiction. I could see what he was getting at, but his argument is introduced by discussing how people relate to Star Trek’s Mr. Spock – and I really disagreed with pretty much everything he set out as a baseline premise, so I had a bit of a hard time getting into his points.

Many thanks to The Story Plant and NetGalley for the opportunity to read a copy of this collection. As always, my opinions are solely my own.

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