Simon’s Backup Weblog

Off for a bit…

Posted in Uncategorized by Simon Bisson on June 30, 2002

…to Barcelona for TechEd. There’s a big WLAN there, so no doubt I’ll be sending reports and EtherPEGs back for all you folk in LJ-land… But if you think it’s going to be party, party, party in a happening city, the conference will be in a huge aircraft hanger of a building nearer the airport than the Ramblas, and I’m going to be in there from 7.30 am to 7.30 pm…


The Deep Blue

Posted in Uncategorized by Simon Bisson on June 28, 2002

Coming from an island, you gain an appreciation of the sea: of its many moods, and its powerful beauty. But while you think you may know the sea, you never can. It is unpredictable, and mysterious.

But now NASA’s new Aqua observation satellite has started sending back its results. Among them are these spectacular images of the earth’s oceans, in the shape of temperature maps. These will help us produce better weather forecasting models, and in the end gain a deeper understanding of the sea.

(And I’ve been amused by the apt music that’s been playing while I’ve typed in this entry!)

The Return Of The Wide Screen Baroque: A Review of Walter Jon Williams’ The Praxis

Posted in Uncategorized by Simon Bisson on June 28, 2002

Exchanging email with Charlie Stross the other day, it was very clear that we’ve both been thinking the same thing: that the big movement in modern SF is back to the space opera.

But this isn’t the space opera we’ve known and loved, for the modern space opera isn’t the E.E. Doc Smith romps of old. Instead it builds on the 90s radical hard SF movement to give us something that, while still epic in scope, still on the scale of the wide screen baroque, has the oily, dirty feel of engineering in the real world. This isn’t warp drives (if there is FTL, then it’s based on something on the edges of modern physics), nor is it ray guns (you’re more likely to see all manners of exotic weaponry that’s just on the drawing boards of DARPA or QinetiQ). It’s space opera where the root tales are Sterling’s Schismatrix and Swanwick’s Vacuum Flowers rather than Hugo Gernsback, it’s space opera where we ask the big questions about humanity’s place in a dark and empty universe, rather than pulling out the blasters and letting those filthy space pirates have it…

One of the first writers to take this approach to space opera was Walter Jon Williams, in his novels Angel Station and Aristoi. Since then he’s written strange high tech urban fantasies, a disaster novel, and some of the best short stories of the last 5 years. Now, his forthcoming book The Praxis (not due until October – I was lucky enough to come across an advance reading copy for my proof collection) takes us back to the dark and empty skies. The first of a series, Dread Empire’s Fall, The Praxis is a tale of politics and rebellion in an urbane, and highly constrained, static multi-species galactic empire, held together by a network of naturally occuring wormholes. Unfortunately the last member of the race that founded the empire is about to die, and chaos is waiting in the wings.

With a milieu that feels like a much darker version of Williams’ earlier Drake Maijstral divertimenti (The Crown Jewels, House Of Shards and Rock Of Ages, this is a world where everything is goverened by the titular Praxis, a system of law and custom that controls everything from the direction of scientific research to the number of guests at a party. And the penalties for failing to follow the Praxis are dire… As events come to a head, Williams focuses on two characters: one a minor noble from an outlying world, the other a cadet in the military. Their paths cross in a daring rescue mission, and they seem destined to both be at the heart of the wave of change that is about to sweep through their world.

One thing to remember: this is a first volume, and you will have to wait for the rest to arrive, especially as you’re left at the end of the book feeling like a surfer poised on the top of the largest Hawaiian wave, waiting for the rush. Williams has built you up to the heights, and it’s time to watch it all crash down, and for you to hope that you’ll be left safely on the beach (together with the lead characters) once it’s all over.

Highly recommended. This, like Permanence, is a sign that the SF renaissance is not just confined to these shores.

A quick history of Apple.

Posted in Uncategorized by Simon Bisson on June 27, 2002

While the Apple T-shirts book may be long out of print, we can still get a good old fix of Apple history at this site. Just choose a model, and you can find out its history.

So here’s to all the Macs I’ve ever owned… a Powerbook 140, a slot loading iMac, and my trusty little iBook.

Off to the movies: Spider-man (a spoiler-free review)

Posted in Uncategorized by Simon Bisson on June 26, 2002

So, off we went: , Jon, Andre and I. The scene, a West End cinema; the aim, to see a block-buster movie. We’d already done Star Wars: Attack Of The Clones, so this time it was to be Spider-Man.

Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man is a movie that wants to be a comic book. It’s implicit in its dialogue, in its framing – even in the choice of lighting and colour. Comic fans could take the theme and name it: Spider-man – Year One. This the origin story writ large, in its twin themes of the birth of hero and of nemesis. And at the same time it’s a rethinking of a familiar story, and of familiar characters. We march from set piece to set piece, from secret origin, to first battle, to first failure, to learning… The arc is familiar, and comfortable.

Sure, there are retcons. But that’s to be expected when we move from the printed page to the big screen. The rules are different, we have to see everything, not imagine the events between the frames of a standard nine-panel grid. It’s a testament to Raimi’s film-making skills that we can suspend our fanboy disbelief, and just accept even the largest distortion of the Spider-man mythos. It’s all right, we tell ourselves, this is film, and this works.

But at the end of the day, can we walk away from the film and learn anything? Sure, we know that “great power means great responsibility”, but what more is there than that simple platitude? Very little. Cartoon violence and comic dialogues amid the Hong Kong action movie set pieces do little to engage the audience beyond the simple, visceral response. For a deeper analysis of what makes a superhero we must go to M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable, and leave Spider-man on the shelf next to the rest of Raimi’s light tele-dramas like Xena

Still, we had fun.

Warchalking: the WiBo way of life

Posted in Uncategorized by Simon Bisson on June 26, 2002

Since I switched to using the iBook a lot, I’ve been using MacStumbler to find myself wireless connections that I can use when on the road. Over the past few days, Boing Boing has been pointing to an interesting site that’s working on a definition of Warchalking.

Taking as its root Depression-era hobo signs, warchalking is the art of marking available public (and unsecured, err, no-so public) wireless access points. Just find a sign, decipher it, pull out the WiFi card (or turn on the Airport), and you’re online. There’s now even a Visio template for printing out stickers or “official” notifiers. All this in less than 3 days…

Visitors to our home will find this sign useful:

An early morning review: Cavalcade – Alison Sinclair

Posted in Uncategorized by Simon Bisson on June 26, 2002

Sometimes it’s hard to describe a book, or even to work out exactly why you liked it. But after a spell of the wide-screen baroque of radical hard SF space opera, it was time to read something a little more introspective. The “to-be-read” bookcase is a study in book-buying archaelogy. There are little bits of series, waiting for the rest to be found before I read them. Then there’s the detrius of countless trips to Hay on Wye, or misguided purchases on con tables when that magic “5 books for £10” sign appears on the last day that I can never realy summon the enthusiasim to read.

And finally there are those good-intentioned purchases. Usually they are “I really must get round to reading the entire Clarke Award shortlist” type events, and Alison Sinclair’s Cavalcade, part of the 1999 short list, has been sat around for quite a while, before finally drifting to the top the pile just as I finished Permanence.

It’s the day after tomorrow, and aliens have arrived. Or at least their ships have, bringing a simple, and intriguing message: if you want to come along with us, fulfil these simple conditions at this time. The story opens just after that moment, when the gathered crowds suddenly find themsleves in a set of gently glowing caverns. Electronic equipment isn’t working, and two hours seem to be missing. If this is the ship, where are the aliens, and why is no one communicating with them?

Constructed as a series of interlocking narratives, Cavalcade follows the travails of a group of random individuals (colonists? visitors? guests? abductees? recruits?) as they struggle to build a society, and at the same time discover the truth behind their mysterious surroundings. There’s conflict between the military, the scientists, and the increasingly fragmented communities – and a clock that’s quietly ticking away in the background, one that they can’t quite perceive. A misfit killer and a pregnant runaway are the keys to solving the mystery, but they may not actually want to be part of the solution.

Sinclair’s characters are well-drawn, and she’s obviously very much in love with a couple of them, as they stand out head and shoulders above the rest of the undistinguished crowd. A working scientist herself, it’s not surprising that there’s a focus on the process of understanding, of careful hypothesis and the application of the scientific method to the problems, and the resulting solution is intriguing and, to a certain extent, unexpected. The world is well drawn, and there’s an element of claustrophobia in the caverns of the ship’s heart that captures the uncertainties and the fears of their new inhabitants.

Still, despite its likeable qualities this isn’t a wonderful book. It’s a light read, with some deeper elements, but it doesn’t drive the genre forward. If anything it looks back to the past, and the early novels of Octavia Butler or Kate Wilhelm. In fact, I find it difficult to see how it reached the short list, as all-in-all, this feels like a minor work by a promising young author. Maybe, 5 or 6 novels down the line, we’ll see something earth shaking, but this most certainly isn’t it.

So, just three more books to read before I finish the 1999 short list…

Now this is cool…

Posted in Uncategorized by Simon Bisson on June 24, 2002

…burning pictures onto the unused sections of a CD-R.

Unix spamkillers make their way to Windows

Posted in Uncategorized by Simon Bisson on June 24, 2002

This morning I forwarded 24 emails to SpamCop. Most were in Korean, and did nothing but clutter up my inbox with HTML mail. Still, maybe some one using Spam Assassin won’t get them, as SpamCop’s spam database is used to feed it. But as I run a Windows mail server, it’s not available for me… yet.

It looks like Deersoft is porting Spam Assassin to Windows. You can sign up for the beta (when it’s released) on the Deersoft web site. I can’t wait.

I’m also playing with Cloudmark’s SpamNet. It’s still a little flaky, but is built on the well-regarded Vipul’s Razor spam detection network. We’ll see how that goes, too.

Under this metal sky: a Monday morning review of Karl Schroeder’s Permanence

Posted in Uncategorized by Simon Bisson on June 24, 2002

2002 is shaping up to be a bumper year for SF. Already we’ve had Swanwick’s Bones of the Earth, now we have Karl Schroeder’s third novel, Permanence.

Permanence is a far future space opera. A slower than light civilisation has meandered its way out from old Sol, supported by the nearly as fast as light cyclers that loop around the many brown dwarf stars that scatter the Galaxy. Immense Jupiters, brown dwarfs are the stars that never ignited, as they didn’t have enough mass to support fusion. Instead, they radiate the infrared heat of their collapse, and provide more than enough energy to support life and civilisation. But the old co-operative Cycler Compact is collapsing, as a copyright mad Rights Empire expands out from Old Earth using new FTL ships that can only operate around “lit stars”.

Rue Cassels is part of a dysfunctional hard-scrabble mining family in the decaying Erythion system. Abused, she runs from the family station to the heart of the system, in the hope of some sort of escape. She finds it, in the shape of a new mining claim in a system that’s rapidly running out of accessible resources. But it’s not what it seems, she’s found a cycler that appears to be abandoned. What’s more, it isn’t human. And it’s not old enough, either…

While it doesn’t explicitly say it, Karl Schroeder’s latest novel is an examination of that perennial problem for SF: the Fermi Paradox. If there are 400 billion stars in the galaxy, where is everyone else? Schroeder’s innovative and intriguing novel raises the bar for everyone else exploring this mystery. The resulting story takes us out into the Rights Empire (a civilisation that controls what its citizens see through copyright controls and an overlaid virtual reality), to alien ruins and to a final understanding of the destiny of intelligence in the universe. We learn of the cult of Permanence and its relationship with the archaeologists of the Panspermia Institute. With a galaxy full of the ruins of long dead civilisations, and the only other intelligent space-fairing aliens either unwilling or unable to communicate with us, human civilisation is approaching a crux – one driven by the very nature of intelligence. Has it finally served its purpose, and are we destined to become beavers that build starships, or something else?

Rue’s quest for control, for stability, drags her and her companions through the heart of conspiracies and of war, to an eventual acceptance of what is permanent, and what is not. As we reach the Schroeder’s answers to the Fermi Paradox are intriguing. A modern writer, his is not the route of manifest destiny. Instead, it is one of compromise and acceptance. In the midst of despair there is hope for the Cycler Compact, and for humanity. Radical hard SF at its height, Permanence is an engrossing and stimulating read. If it gets a UK publisher, it’s the sort of hard SF that stands an excellent chance of reaching the Clarke Award shortlist.

And Rue lives happily ever after, too…

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