Pattern Recognition, by William Gibson

After reading Ian McDonald’s River of Gods recently, I was compelled to read another science fiction novel that took place around the planet, interacting with a number of other cultures. As William Gibson’s latest novel, and the last of his ‘Bigend’ trilogy, Zero History was recently released, I picked up the first of the series, Pattern Recognition, published in 2003. I’ve had the book for a number of years, but had never picked it up, or even cracked it open. My first surprise, upon doing so, was to discover that the book had been signed by Mr. Gibson.

Pattern Recognition, from an author that helped define the notion (and term) cyberspace, as well as much of the cyberpunk genre, might seem as a sort of step back. The book takes place in contemporary times, in a post-9/11 setting, in England, Japan and Russia. Media consultant Cayce Pollard is hired by a company, Blue Ant, who is redesigning a logo for a Tokyo firm. Pollard, who has an adverse reaction to logos and marketing, and a curiosity with a series of videos that have surfaced on the internet, is hired by Blue Ant founder Hubertus Bigend, who wants her to find the maker of the clips, because of the potential gain that can be achieved by learning everything about them, and why they attract so much attention. This job is one that takes her across the world, from London to Tokyo to uncover a code that would help connect the videos to a firm in the United States, and to Russia as more leads come about. Her trip around the planet is one of discovery, as she moves from world to world following information.

While the book is set in contemporary times, it fits well with Gibson’s notion that science fiction doesn’t have to be part of the future. Instead, this book does what the best science fiction stories do: amidst the science fictional elements that surround the story, there is a central element that defines the book. In this case, this book is about networking, and the ability of technology to bring a diverse set of people together. In 2003, this stage of the internet hadn’t quite happened yet: blogging was the big thing, and Facebook was still a year away, twitter three. Pollard’s quest? To find what’s arguably a viral video. In a large way, Gibson has recognized the rise of social media before it happened.

While the predictions of Pattern Recognition aren’t quite as revolutionary as Gibson’s were with Neuromancer, this book is far more relatable, relevant, and understands the heart of the internet. The story contains very few speculative elements: Pollard’s allergy to advertising (in some cases) and some of the technological elements that are at this point outdated. Author Dennis Danvers noted it best in his review:

Science fiction, in effect, has become a narrative strategy, a way of approaching story, in which not only characters must be invented, but the world and its ways as well, without resorting to magic or the supernatural, where the fantasy folks work.

In a large way, Gibson has demonstrated that he’s very good at figuring out how people will use various technologies, and in a way, the gap between Neuromancer and Pattern Recognition (and presumably, its sequels, Spook Country and Zero History.) isn’t as far apart as when it first meets the eye. Pattern Recognition illustrates a reality that is cold, separated from humanity while being connected at almost all times through the internet. Gibson makes the point that the future isn’t far away, it’s right now, this very moment.

Indeed, Gibson is probably one of the few science fiction authors to see his works come to life – not only in the details as to what he’s written, but in how the future has been realized. It’s a bit of a given point, seeing how the book has been set, but between 2003 (when I entered college) and the present day (out of school and working for several years) the world has changed immensely, not just in the speeds and the availability of communications, but in how people understand and utilize the internet. This seems to have been anticipated, and while the real world is already leaving this story behind, it’s clear that there are some lessons here that can be learned: we’re all connected.

As a story, the execution leaves a book that makes me feel much like Chris Kelvin from Solaris: isolated, cold, somewhat depressed, and Gibson writes Pollard’s character as a fairly empty person, someone who is socially isolated, but at the same time connected to those people whom she shares mutual interests with. Pollard’s journey across the planet in search of a revolutionary form of marketing is an interesting one across a number of countries and subcultures that could only exist in the internet age. At journey’s end in Moscow, Pollard comes to meet the maker of the clips, and an interesting story of commercial viability vs. artistic creativity is brought full circle.

While it’s not as groundbreaking, Pattern Recognition succeeds by using science fiction as a mirror, demonstrating not only that we live in a futuristic world, it’s one that we’re only now fully realizing as we live it.


River of Gods, by Ian McDonald

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Published in 2004, Ian McDonald’s River of Gods is a compelling, complicated and fascinating book that ranks amongst one of the best modern science fiction novels that I’ve ever read. Set in a future India, McDonald takes multiple, diverse story lines, over several fields: artificial intelligence, mass market entertainment, traditional values and international politics, to meld together a book that pulled me in completely. McDonald’s vision of the future is one that is wholly realistic, and I have to wonder how long before 2047 that many of the elements will come to pass.

The book is a complicated one to read, and the book forced me to take my time and really absorb what was going on. Following several storylines, where India has become a divided country, split along loose lines. Artificial intelligences over a certain level of intelligence are banned by international law, while life is run by thousands of different A.I.s (called aeais). Drought has created tensions between the Indian states, and a Hindu fundamentalist leader named N.K Jeevanji has begun to push tensions with his own agenda, while feeding information to a reporter. A genderless set designer, Tal, works on a soap opera that has captivated the nation (with an entire cast of aeais actors), while involved with a secretary for the Prime Minister. Elusive A.I. scientist Thomas Lull comes across a girl, AJ, with extraordinary abilities, while Lisa Durnau is sent into space to investigate an asteroid that houses an 8 billion year old sphere that may or may not hold the key to existence, which in turn leads her to find Lull. While is ongoing, Mr. Nandha, a Krishna Cop tasked with destroying rogue AI systems, faces class troubles at home with his wife, while investigating the possibility of the creation of a Generation 3 aeai by Ray Power, who has just turned over control of their research and development section to Vishram Ray, a standup comedian who inherits a powerful position within the company, with the potential to completely change the world. As the story progresses, each of these separate storylines begin to merge and impact one another, revolving around the progression of an intelligence that is far greater than mankind and the inevitable conflict that that might bring forward.

The dominant theme of this book is the role of AIs in the world. While some books such as Neuromancer have taken their own lead in the early stages of cyberpunk, River of Gods moves forward under its own power and understandings of the world from a far more modern perspective. In a word, it’s modern cyberpunk, and McDonald pulls the concept of modern computing and Indian perspective of Gods, bringing the idea of deus ex machine literally to life, and bringing about a very different perspective on any sort of conflict between humanity and programmed entities. Here, programs are entities in and of themselves (much like the film Tron seemed to portray them), and throughout the high-tech environment of India’s cities, they regulate much of the automated processes that go on (air conditioning, safety measures, automated drones, and so forth), while there is a constant battle being waged against unauthorized intelligences on the part of the government, against the aeais themselves, but also their creators, smalltime technicians and programming wizards who are constantly pushing the boundaries that technology can provide. A murder in the early stages of the book bring Nandha’s attention to one plot in particular, as a pair of scientists with links to various companies are found burned alive in their home, one of the many elements that pushes the plot forward.

River of Gods has a complicated, interesting storyline, one that features numerous elements moving at different speeds, all running together with the same conclusion at the end, much like the film Syriana and Traffic have done, telling multiple storylines to get the entire plot together. The story as a whole is greater than the individual storylines, although there were times, and a couple of storylines that seemed to drop off or not fit as well as some of the others. Regardless, the complicated structure of the book is something that worked to highlight numerous elements of McDonald’s future india, and give the book a richness that made me desire to turn the page and resist putting the book down on more than one occasion.

India as a setting was a refreshing tone for the novel, and I found myself marveling at the rich feeling and background that McDonald was able to imbue into the text. While not a native Indian himself, he apparently spent several years in the country for research, which has yielded a very unique novel, which I hope is the start of a larger trend in the genre. The fact that McDonald has done similar books (Brazyl, set in Brazil, and The Dervish House, set in Turkey), is encouraging that there is material set like this. Another notable example is The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi, which is set in Thailand. I’m sure that there are others, and I’m reminded of a panel that I sat in on at ReaderCon, titled ‘Citizens of the World, Citizens of the Universe’, where it was pointed out that science fiction is predominantly slanted towards the United States and other western nations, which leaves out much of the world, and with it, a number of stories. While the aforementioned examples of ‘international science fiction’ has been written by western writers, it’s a step in the right direction, and hopefully with it, there will be a push from consumers for more science fiction that was written locally from various locations around the world. River of Gods provided an interesting glimpse into a different view of science fiction, and while it is something that helps the book stand out, it is not something that was done to provide a sort of ‘stunt casting’ to make it do so. The setting is an important part of the book, which makes it all the more interesting and essential.

River of Gods is a fantastic science fiction story, one that has taken several familiar tropes and twisted them with the culture that it’s injected them into. The West is certainly not the only place with a future, and it is a relief to see that there are some authors who have a very realistic understanding f how the world fits together, with multiple elements and sides that come together at the end. This book is good in its execution, but also in its story, where both have been put together to come up with something wholly unique interesting and exciting.

David J. Williams’ Burning Skies

A couple of weeks ago, I finished David J. Williams’ second book, The Burning Skies, and came away with about the same reaction that I had with his first novel, The Mirrored Heavens: I liked it, but at points, I completely lost sight of the overall picture of what was happening in the novel. The second book of his sleek Autumn Rain trilogy, The Burning Skies is a thrill ride right to the end, and for anyone who’s into cyber-punk and military science fiction, this is probably the trilogy for you.

Coming hot off the heels of The Mirrored Heavens, The Burning Skies picks up a number of the storylines that were left hanging. Where the first book could have easily been a standalone novel, this one isn’t, picking up and leaving off with loose ends that need to be tied up. The Autumn Rain had been though to have been destroyed in the first book, but it comes back with a vengeance, going for a power grab that sees a massive gunfight in an orbital facility where the Hand (The President) has holed up. The aims of the Rain isn’t wanton destruction: they represent a whole host of post-humanity interests with the idea of bringing mankind into some sort of evolutionary advance by taking control of planetary networks.

The breakneck speed of this book is complimented by Williams’ writing style, which takes a little getting used to. I found myself reading through the book very quickly once I got the hang of the tense and what was going on, and writing in the present tense, as he does, allows for an unprecedented view of the action that is going on in the book. With much of the book action, it makes for an interesting read. Williams’ has noted that part of his background is in video games, and for gamers, this book will most likely feel very familiar: it’s quite the adrenaline rush.

At other points, however, the breakneck speed hampers the storytelling: there’s a lot of points where I found myself having to re-read a chapter or two to bring myself up to speed with why the action was happening, as I’d lose sight of the goals of the characters and the story as a whole.

What I really appreciate about this trilogy as a whole is Williams’ attention to detail when it comes to geopolitical elements, which should be a proper backbone in any military science fiction novel. In a lot of ways, he’s done his homework conceiving of the future that he wants his story set up in, and worked on a lot of background material that helps to establish a baseline, telling a story within that context, something that not every military science fiction novel does. The result is an interesting one: the theme here is the complexity of political power, even in the future.

This sort of background is essential, especially for a book that is as fast-paced and complicated as William’s trilogy. Fortunately, between the books and his website, there is quite a bit of background reference material that’s been put into place, with diagrams, explanations, character lists, and so forth. The first two books have set up a fun ride. Soon, it’ll be onto the last novel, The Machinery of Heaven, which promises to be a read that’s just as exciting as the first two.

Stop Punking the Genre!

In 1983, the term Cyberpunk was born, with a story by the same name by author Bruce Bethke in Amazing Stories #94. The term is defined as a “[S]ubgenre of science fiction that focuses on the effects on society and individuals of advanced computer technology, artificial intelligence and bionic implants in an increasingly global culture, especially as seen in the struggles of streetwise, disaffected characters. (Prucher, Jeff, Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction, 30). The word itself comes from the meshing of ‘cyber’ and ‘punk’, which to me has always seemed as an electronics rebellion. Certainly, the subgenre is one that presents drastically different stories and meanings than what had traditionally been science fiction, and in a way, the style represents a degree of cutting edge thinking that really belongs to the first on the scene, with the truly unique and original thoughts that go against the grain. I think of cyberpunk as the books that are out looking for a fight, ready to cut those unprepared with what they have to say.

My main issue here is two-fold. The first is that with that in mind, it’s hard to apply that sort of label to any sort of science fiction after the term is pushing 30 years old, much as it’s hard to take someone seriously who’s been involved in the punk scene for a comparable amount of time, with several records under their belt to a major record label. The surprise and edge vanishes after a while, and in a way, the ‘Cyberpunk’ term has become a label that’s synonymous with electronics and dystopia. At the same time, the suffix ‘-Punk’ seems to be added onto any number of themes and styles of science fiction literature. Steampunk is a ready example, both visually with film, photography and costuming, but also with such books as Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker, where there is a blend of dystopic and steam-powered technology. The problem that I see is that the idea behind ‘punk’-style music, video, literature is that it’s something that ultimately rebells against a label, and in science fiction’s field of vision, -punk is the marketing term to rally behind in creating a subgenre, undermining or missing what the word in the meantime really means.

The term itself came at a time of globalization and a rise of technology around the world, and has since become a label for any number of stories that correspond to a use of technology, with dystopic and near-future themes. Promoted by Gardiner Dozois, the term has largely been used to describe books by William Gibson, Philip K. Dick, Bruce Sterling, Neil Stephenson, and many more. Neuromancer really cut in close at a time before the Internet and home computing, creating a vision of the future that was wholly unique, interesting and edgy. In a large way, the term really did apply to a lot of these earlier books. (This is not to say that modern books in the ‘cyberpunk’ genre are bad – far from it. This isn’t a specific criticism at the books within, just at the association and labeling that they’re saddled with). Like observing a quantum event, you change the picture simply by looking at it, and in effect, calling something ‘punk’ undermines the meaning of the term, and ultimately, does the books labeled as such a big of a disservice. In this day and age with computers and virtual worlds becoming the norm, computers and electronics aren’t necessarily that edgy, and any book written in the genre will most likely be compared to Neuromancer in some way or form.

At the same time, I’ve long been irritated by the Steampunk genre as a concept. According to Brave New Words, the term was coined just four years later by K.W. Jeter in a letter, noting that he believed that stories set in the Victorian era will become the next big thing, and suggested the term Steampunk, most likely in relation to the same edgy connotations that ‘-punk’ gave the word ‘cyber’. Once again, the idea of the word ‘punk’ being used as a label, especially a label right out of the gate, goes against all of the rebellion and fire that the term really should hold for that which it describes. Steampunk is a subgenre that is really beginning to grow a bit more, but doesn’t feel new or edgy as far as its content goes: much of what you can see in the stories has long roots in the genre: the stories of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, for example, could easily fall well within the common definitions of Steampunk, and they did it when the concepts were really new and punkish in their own right. (Wells, especially, went across the grain in his literature and his personal life). Thus, a lot of this current steampunk fad is a retread over old ground, with stories that tell drastically different things this time around. Cherie Prist’s latest book, for example, isn’t so much about technology as it is about character inter-relations in a steampunk-styled environment, one that I’d really label as alternate history over Steampunk. The same goes for recent books by K.J Parker with Devices and Desires, Christopher Priest’s The Prestige and Ekaterina Sedia’s The Alchemy of Stone. I’ve long believed that the term science fiction, fantasy and speculative fiction in general really transcends the content and goes far more towards the themes, plotline and characters of each work.

Still, there seems to be a tendency for new genres to be bestowed with the ‘-punk’ suffix to differentiate various groups of works by content and theme to perfectly define its own little sub-genre and capture a specific audience. In a large way, it’s a good move on the parts of publishing marketing departments to better make their books sell: define an audience, and target them. In some cases, it’s warranted. The stories of Paolo Bacigalupi, for example, such as The Windup Girl, The People of Sand and Slag and The Calorie Man, all exist within stories that are defined by their environmentalism-styled stories, ones that have a clear and defining message within a near future, influenced by current events. I’ve seen others, and called them myself, bio-punk, because in a way, they are some of the more raw, unique and though-provoking stories that I’ve yet seen. I’m sure that there are other stories, (including the upcoming story at Lightspeed Magazine called Amyrillis, by Carrie Vaughn), that looks at the environmental future and the speculative elements of the next several decades, at the same level of intensity as the early Cyberpunk stories. At other points, I’ve seen a tendency to apply the label to other things that really don’t warrant it, and I can’t help but wonder if ‘-punk’ has just become synonymous with ‘subgenre’ or ‘cool’. With the rise of steampunk and cyberpunk, what’s to say that there won’t be a major movement like ‘biopunk’, but alongside such things as woodpunk, ironpunk and stonepunk, each with their own style of stories, each more ridiculous than the last? In this possible future, Homer’s Iliad, Odyssey and the entirety of the Greek myths will be re-categorized as ‘Bronzepunk’, and the Apollo-era of space stories will be titled ‘Vacuumpunk’ (which will most likely be re-titled for ironic effect, vacuum pump fiction).

The main question behind all this is that if the term ‘-punk’ becomes an expected title for any style of sub genre, does it really convey the same meaning as it did in those early days, when? I think that it doesn’t, because the idea behind the term is that the fiction is unexpected and raw, and placing the label on it becomes an effective, safe bandage that soothes what shouldn’t be. The fiction isn’t at fault, it’s the hype behind it. Ultimately, speculative fiction as a whole is done a disservice by the constant subgenres, which separates out everything into miniscule categories that are ultimately meaningless, governed and sold based upon their superficial elements, but not the central themes that ultimately make a story worth reading. Punking a genre seems to be the epitome of posing, especially if the term is simply applied to a brand of stories for the simple purpose of finding a market for them.

Deus EX Machina: The Matrix is really just Tron

One of the films that I’ve watched lately that’s become a real favorite of mine is 1982’s TRON, which told what I feel is one of the better stories about artificial intelligence and the future of computers. The movie is a dated one, given how much computers have changed in the past thirty years, but I feel that it holds up extremely well, even in the modern computing age. Given the craze in Hollywood over the past decade for sequels, it comes as no surprise that a sequel for TRON will be released later this year. What is surprising is just how long it’s taken (28 years!) to make a sequel. Except for one thing: the film has already been remade with another hit: The Matrix.

I saw The Matrix first, about a year or two after it was first released, and really enjoyed it. The combination of martial arts, cyberpunk and gothic themes blended together into a genuinely smart science fiction thriller worked extremely well, even extending into the sequels, which I thought were decent (although they certainly suffer from the ‘More is Better’ mentality that sequels are often saddled with), especially with some of the themes that were introduced in Reloaded and Revolutions.

When I watched TRON this past fall, I was astonished at some of the marked similarities between the two films. The Matrix is a film that plays homage to a number of films that influenced the Wachowski Brothers early on, and it’s easy to assume that much of what is consistent in The Matrix is influenced from TRON. Some of these similarities are in the form of the visual nature of the film – the opening title sequences are nearly identical, as are some camera angles and scenes. Moreover, the story idea of a person entering a completely digital world is a major similarity between the two, and is certainly not something that’s tied only to TRON. (William Gibson’s fantastic thriller Neuromancer comes to mind) But in the visual arts, it’s clear that there’s quite a bit of TRON in The Matrix.

What made Steven Lisberger’s film so interesting to me was the real depth to the story, and the religious connections that were placed there between the programs in the computer systems, and the mythical users who created them. Like any good story set in a speculative fiction universe, the story extrapolates from the fantastic and has several themes that are relatable to the audience watching the film. Here, there is a link between the cold and analytical electronics, with an element of the supernatural to the beliefs of the programs. Moreover, it changes the viewpoint of a program to something that’s highly relatable, as people with fairly specific purposes within the innards of a computer, while the user, a creator of programs, is akin to a god in the machine.

The Matrix incorporates some of these elements in TRON, where Neo proves to be an exceptional person within the programming of the Matrix, someone who can ultimately conceptualize and realize the full extent of his abilities within the Matrix – he’s able to alter the reality around him in order to accomplish extraordinary things. Neo is essentially superman within the computer, with a number of religious connotations surrounding him throughout the story.

With the coming Tron: Legacy film coming in December, the question has to be asked: is it necessary? In the follow-up Matrix films, we see that there’s an environment that is very similar to the world that TRON presents, with programs acting on their own in their own little world. This seems to be where the next TRON is exploring, with a new world with better graphics (literally in both cases), but in a way, the Matrix films acted as a reboot to the 1982 film in their own way. The hope with film producers is that this new TRON film will become the start to a new franchise of films, with a trilogy and television series planned (at least that’s the rumor). There’s a number of ways that this story can go, and it will be very interesting to see just which direction can be taken with the future films and productions.

When it comes down to it, however, The Matrix is really a highly stylized, slightly different version of TRON. The protagonists in each film are largely the same: challenge a malevolent computer program and overlord within ambitions to control humanity. There are some differences here between the two, but for all intents and purposes, the Matrix has a similar enough story and had the same impact as its predecessor.

Hopefully, the upcoming TRON film will fare better than its counterparts in the Matrix trilogy, providing an interesting and thought provoking sequel to a film that really sparked that in the first place. Both the Matrix and TRON were excellent films that arguably changed the genre of science fiction film.

Review: The Mirrored Heavens

David J. Williams‘ debut novel came out back in 2008, but it came to my attention after I wrote up piece on military science fiction for io9. In it, I looked to an argument that military science fiction generally avoided some of the root lessons and causes of warfare, which helps to dictate how the actions and world around the characters would play out. Williams’ books were recommended by a couple of readers as a good example of this sort of storytelling and world, and I was eager to see how his books lined up with what I had been hoping to see in a military science fiction book.

The Mirrored Heavens is a fun, action packed read. Taking place in 2110, a terrorist act, perpetrated by an unknown group, the Autumn Rain, destroys major construct in space: the Phoenix Space Elevator, shortly before it is activated. Constructed following a Cold War between the United States and a Eurasian Coalition, the destruction of the space elevator throws the main actions of the story together. U.S. counterintelligence agents Claire Haskell and Jason Marlowe, move to seek out the origins of the attack, while several other characters move through the story to their own agendas, culminating in a fairly exciting conclusion.

What works exceptionally well is Williams’ approach to the story is the surrounding back story and world building that helps put warfare into context. Throughout my studies, I’ve found that warfare is not an isolated event, even it is generally treated as such in fiction and in film; it is a complicated and convoluted process of politics, public figures, implementation of policy and foreign relations, before any of the bullets begin to fly. Williams, with a degree in history from Yale, seems to understand this, and has begun his trilogy (followed by The Burning Skies and The Machinery of Light, which is coming out soon) with a strong start.

The Mirrored Heavens is a thriller from start to finish. Williams adds on the action from the get-go, and rarely lets up from there, blending in military science fiction and cyberpunk together to form a pretty unique, high-octane vision of the future. There were points where I just blew through the book. Williams’ short, to the point writing style really suits this sort of story, and it really moved things along. Throughout, the actions in the story are well articulated and clear, something that I’ve seen some writers stumble with. Moreover, the action in the book ultimately does help to support the story, pushing each storyline along bit by bit.

The action is both a good thing and a bad thing, however. While it does serve the story well, The Mirrored Heavens is the literary equivalent of a video game (and it comes as no surprise that Williams worked in the video game industry before turning to writing). At points, it overwhelms the story, and looking back, I have a hard time pulling out a detailed summary of what happened over the course of the book, simply because there is so many lasers, guns and missiles that there were points where I had to put the book down to find something else to do, to clear my head and try and make sense of what was going on. Taken as a whole, the story becomes very clear at the end, but that is of little help prior to that point. Ultimately, the book simply feels unbalanced, with more towards world building and action, and less on the story at hand and character building to fill in, and I’m hoping with the sequel, The Burning Skies, that there’ll be a bit more in the way of that. That being said, the book has a significant leg up once you reach the end, and find that everything that has been read through really comes to a fine point, one that really leaves the reader looking for more, and fortunately, there are two further books in the trilogy to read through to get into Williams’ universe.
What I really liked the most about this book, however, was the attention to the world building. At the back of my copy is a chronology of events that lead up to the book, reminding me much of George Friedman’s book: The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century. There are similar approaches to how geopolitics will shift over the next century, and where Friedman’s book takes the somewhat academic route, Williams takes the far more entertaining one, set in a futuristic world with spaceflight and cybernetics, and ultimately does what Friedman’s book should have: entertain, and present a somewhat plausible view of the future.

What also really helped was some of the background information present in the book’s appendix, such as the sequence of events, glossary and character list, but in addition to the information in the book, Williams has put together a fantastic website, which functions not only as a promotional item for the book, but also a reference one as well.
Both books share a similar message: the future will hold a number of changes, mostly unexpected, and that nations will act in their own interests, even if that means causing a certain amount of chaos in the world to achieve their goals. William’s future is much the same: rogue interests in a government act in their perceived best interests, seeking to take charge where others have failed, leading to what is set up to be a fantastic storyline overall.

At the end of the day, Williams has created a fun book, and a promising start in the genre. While there are certainly a couple of issues that I took from the writing and storytelling, they are more than made up with in the end result: an entertaining, well thought out science fiction/cyberpunk/military SF thriller that really grabs the reader and doesn’t let go until the last page. The Mirrored Heavens is certainly a book that will appeal to the Military SF crowd, but also the video game one, and met with most of my arguments in my article from a couple of months ago with a punch to the head from one of the Razor/Mech teams from the start.


Last Friday, the final episode of Dollhouse ended, leaving viewers with the end of a story, but like with Firefly, the feeling that there was more to tell. While it certainly wasn’t as much fun as Joss Whedon’s other short-lived wonder Firefly, it outstripped it with potential and stories that really felt like they were going places. Dollhouse is a show that will be missed immensely, and while I was thrilled to see it get a second season, and even happier that the production team was able to get the story wrapped up fairly neatly, there is the inevitable pang of the loss of a good science fiction television show.

From the start, Dollhouse has had a rough time, and it is a bit of a wonder that the show made it as far as it did. Delays, reshoots, the show almost never made it out the gate, and slowly limped along from first to second seasons, before the plug was finally pulled. After watching the first episode, I was reminded of one of my favorite science fiction novels, Altered Carbon. In Richard K. Morgan‘s first novel, an implant (a stack) is used to download a person’s consciousness and place them into another body as needed, opening a whole world of possibilities for characters and stories. In this instance, it was a noir-ish murder mystery set in the future, with a rich patron hiring the protagonist, Takeshi Kovacs, to find out why he killed himself.

Dollhouse falls much within the same sort of hard science fiction cyberpunk that Altered Carbon occupies. Some of the plot parts are the same, but at the same time, Dollhouse seems to be very typical of a Whedon show: where possible, there’s a constant reminder of a message that is being put forth by the story. In a way, it is one of the best cautionary tales that I have seen in a very long time, becoming a model of what science fiction should be: a modern day story, wrapped up in an environment that is just out of context enough for an audience to extrapolate some sort of message from the show. It worked well in True Blood, with the issue of same-sex marriage and relationships, and with Battlestar Galactica, for several issues, such as the Iraq War, torture and wartime conduct.

Dollhouse certainly had its ups and downs. The first half of the first season followed an active mission of the day, which worked marginally well. It helped introduce the concept of the Dollhouse, but did little to really delve into the main storyline until the very end of the season, and things really didn’t kick in until viewers hit the unaired episode, Epitaph One, on the DVD set, when the real stakes of the show are laid out: the technology of the Dollhouse will spell the end of the world, if unchecked. Unlike the world that Altered Carbon and its sequels, where there seems to have been a progression and maturing relationship between technology and society, Dollhouse’s work demonstrates the raw, unchecked and irresponsible power that technology can have in the place for those who aren’t ready to wield it. As has often been quoted from Spiderman: With great power comes great responsibility.

In a way, Dollhouse is the perfect story for the last eighteen months. For anybody who has followed the news in the United States, the entire world has fallen onto hard times because of the sheer power that has been wielded by lending firms, largely motivated out of greed and profit. While this crisis hasn’t turned a large part of humanity into mindless zombies, it is an example that so clearly resonates from the TV show, on an even deeper level: corporate greed, a theme that permeates so many other science fiction novels, television shows and movies. Paolo Bachgalupi’s The Windup Girl, Duncan JonesMoon, and even elements of J.J. Abram’s show Fringe share this story element, amongst many others in the genre, helping to demonstrate that science fiction is an incredibly relevant and important segment of the arts.

While I don’t know that Dollhouse rises to the absolute top with the acting and some of the stories, the overall storyline and conception of the show bring it to incredible heights. Not only is it a cautionary tale towards the problems with technology in the wrong hands, it examines other important themes and storylines: the role of consent and individuality, but even the deeper themes of the soul: what is personality, and can it be replicated, duplicated and swapped out like a machine part in a person? Together, these major themes hold up the show and propel it much further than most science fiction shows ever make it. Unfortunately, while the baseline ideas of the show are amongst the best that the genre has to offer, the show faltered in its execution: the slow start to the show, the wooden acting from some of the actors, and the unfinished potential that was shown as the producers rushed to tie off the show. There are hundreds of stories left untold, after watching the finale, Epitaph Two, and I would like to see more from this world, even in other mediums.

While lofty space epics can be fun to watch, with long lasting storylines that bring on years of stories, I don’t know that I’ve actually seen a television show that takes on such personal issues. Dollhouse was the best sort of science fiction series in the way that it acts as a mirror: we see ourselves and how the world functions in very terrifying ways, showing us what is plausible, possible and even probable.