A dazzling, puzzling, techno-philosophical SF mystery-thriller: Nick Harkaway’s ‘Gnomon’


If anything were needed to demonstrate the great plasticity of the mystery as a form, Gnomon would do it. In a future England where privacy has been all but abolished for the sake of greater social order, a woman dissident with the myth-inflected name Diana Hunter dies while resisting an interrogation. A woman police inspector, Mielikki Neith, is assigned to find out why she died and what if anything she was trying to hide. So begins a whopper of a tale by Nick Harkaway, published in Britain last fall and in America early this year, in which the contents of Hunter’s mind can be probed retrospectively, further mysteries unfold like origami flowers, and the controlled, rational, material world clashes with realms of magic and disorderly human desires as objective third-person narration butts up against first-person accounts.

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Update on a work in progress: my friend’s SF novel from the 80s

My friend Duncan was perhaps not really a polymath, but even back in high school he was something in that direction. He was interested in the history of firearms. As luck would have it, there was a shop in our area of University Park (one of the wealthy enclaves within the city of Dallas known as the Park Cities) that specialized in such things, a place called Jackson Arms, which he visited often; he owned an antique that, as I recall, he identified as a matchlock, rather than a flintlock, rifle; he could name all the parts of these devices and used to tantalize my ears with strange-sounding terms such as “frizzen” and “tang.” Continue reading

Who was George Orwell’s first wife? A new book may tell us.

In the spacious kitchen of a house in Houston occupied by a surgeon, his wife, and their children (one of whom was a friend of mine), I once saw a decorative sign saying, “Behind every great man there’s a woman telling him he’s wrong.” The man of the house was known in my neighborhood to be a surgeon and, I think, a member of the cardiac unit at Houston Methodist that did groundbreaking heart transplants. Less was known—at least to me as a young teenager—about the woman who stood behind him or, more likely, beside him. Continue reading

Passing glances: choosing a calendar for Mars; a look at Annalee Newitz’s debut SF novel

A question for Elon Musk and the rest of us: What’s the date on Mars? Our first, unthinking impulse may be to say that of course it’s today everywhere—except where, because of that darned International Date Line, it may be tomorrow, or yesterday—and that today is December 4, 2017. But soon we remember that more than one calendar is in use upon Earth; our friends in China may label today differently, as do those who follow Islamic practice or another method. And a little reflection, combined with that dangerous thing a little knowledge, will convince us that, at least for certain purposes, none of these will work on Mars and a wholly new scheme will be needed if, as Musk and others propose, colonists are to take up residence there. Let’s say, for the sake of convenience, that people have just arrived on Mars and that they decide to mark the start of a new year at the same time as the Western system starts it here, at the beginning of January 1, 2018. When will the Martians next bring out the confetti? Mars won’t return to the same position in its orbit around the sun, which is what we mean by the passage of a year, for very close to 687 Earth days. The poor Martian colonists will have to wait a lot longer between New Year’s celebrations than we do. What’s more, if those colonists are counting the days, they’ll be counting Martian days, which are called sols, and which are a little longer than our days; they’ll have to wait a little more than 668 sols before they can pop a cork on a champagne bottle or—given that such spirits may be hard to come by on Mars—do whatever they do instead. And unless they’re content simply to number their sols, which lacks a certain elegance, they’ll want a system of months, but whereas we on Earth can use the orbit of the Moon as a rough guide, the Martian colonists won’t get much help from their moons, which zoom around the planet in a matter of hours. Even their clocks will have to be different, because a sol lasts about 24 hours and 39 minutes.

Scientists have already thought about these issues—for a long time, in fact. But they haven’t come to any settled conclusions yet, maybe because they don’t need to. The landers that are operating on the surface of Mars know nothing of time in the sense in which we know time; they’re like mechanical flowers, whose lives and welfare depend mainly on the position of the sun, which recharges their batteries and warms them considerably above the nighttime temperature. Because sunlight matters for the landers, mission managers who supervise them have kept track of what’s called local solar time, in which, if the sun is directly overhead, it’s noon. The managers have employed a stretched clock, in which hours, minutes, and seconds are 2.7 percent longer so as to match the duration of a sol, but they seem to have mostly ignored the other questions. Unsurprisingly, science fiction writers have also grappled with clocks and calendars for Mars. A few of them have settled on the notion of dividing the Martian year into 24 months, which shows, if nothing else, how fond we are of multiples of 12, but no consensus seems to have emerged. As in other things, wherever two or three have gathered in consideration of an issue, there too is Wikipedia; it has an entry on Martian timekeeping that’s illuminating and enjoyably complex, at least for the scientific-minded.

Today, no matter how you label it, these concerns are largely theoretical. Soon enough, it will matter in a concrete way, if some enterprising government or business leader sends people to the fourth planet to take up residence. How will the colonists denote the birthday of a child born on Mars? How will they track the seasons, plan their work, record the warp and woof of passing time, or reckon the anniversary of their own arrival? Even an exploratory mission, designed to arrive, poke around a bit, and return home, may find itself needing, at the very least, one of those stretched clocks; anyone employing an Earth-based wristwatch will very quickly find that the time is out of joint. But the colonists and the organization on Earth that sends them there face an important challenge, which I imagine somebody somewhere is thinking about even now, though I haven’t heard about it: whoever gets there first and stays may get to establish the Martian calendar.

Autonomous cover (w)In Autonomous, a dystopian novel set largely in the 2140s, property, especially intellectual property, is paramount; almost everything has a price, including the right to work, and little is free—indentured servitude applies to most robots and even to many humans. Fighting the system is a biotech pirate calling herself Jack, who recreates pricey drugs and sells them more cheaply, and who finds a serious defect in a major corporate product that she’s pirating; as she struggles to find a fix and get the word out, murderous agents of the prevailing order are on her tail. Meanwhile, between those two poles of piracy and property rights, a sort of biotech freeware movement struggles to find a new way. Annalee Newitz, in her provocative, ambitious, but not entirely successful debut novel (published in September), apparently wants us to see villainy only in the prevailing system, so she glosses over some ethical issues in her handling of those agents. And she relies on a dubious though tangential technical notion about machine understanding of human emotional expression. On the other hand, her exploration of machine intelligences and of human-machine relations, including love, is thoughtful and sometimes oddly affecting.

The above is a slightly revised version of a short review I posted on Goodreads.

Get smart: Nick Tosches serves up a scam to warn us against scams

Under Tiberius cover

In Under Tiberius, a 2015 novel from Nick Tosches, a well-off Roman named Gaius who has been Emperor Tiberius’s speechwriter loses his job, goes to what we’d now call the Middle East, meets a scraggly Jewish thief who calls himself Iesous, and decides to work with him to fabricate a messiah named Jesus. The region is rife with would-be prophets and the like, but those guys are howling madmen or mere street preachers; Gaius knows the arts of persuasion, Jesus proves to have potential as a performer, and together they begin raking in money as well as piling up followers. The crucial thing, though, is that they begin to take their job more seriously.

One implication of Tosches’s premise is obvious: Continue reading

Before and after Pong: a new book traces the rise of video games

Comic Book History of Video Games cover (w)

In The Comic Book Story of Video Games, due out in a few weeks, the author and the artist present a history of video games that’s knowledgeable and wide-ranging but somewhat eccentric. Initially, Jonathan Hennessey focuses equally on “electronic games and electronic screen displays,” but much of the book covers the highways and byways of computer history, in which he finds that computers, which were “intended only for military, scientific, government, and industry use,” were soon used for games as well: a tennis game, a mouse-in-a-maze game, a billiards game, even a clever text-based game called Colossal Cave Adventure, which used only words on a screen. Much of this will be familiar to anyone who already knows the story of computers, but it’s presented in a rather colorful way. Continue reading