Tagged: Von Neumann

Science fan fiction

Review: “The Hunter – A Scientific Novel” by Giancarlo Genta

Springer, 2014. 

I like community plays, home-made stuff, and b-horror films because they are all about just going for it.

In a way, “The Hunter” was similar to that. It could be called Science fan fiction. Written by aeronautical engineer Giancarlo Genta, it is published in Springer’s “Science and Fiction” series, as a “scientific novel”, as it says on the cover and while it is not particularly well-written (or copy-edited), it reflects a lot of passion for the subject: A.I. and deep space exploration.

The story-line is intriguing: a young maintenance engineer joins the crew of a hunting vessel, which cruises around in now-populated deep space, searching for Von Neumann machines (replicators) of unknown origin also cruising around seemingly seeking to destroy biological life forms (i.e., humans – it’s a “Rare Earth” one) for unknown reasons.

The novel is the first part of the book and in an appendix we find a part called “the science behind the fiction”.

It is an enjoyable read – as I said – particularly when you are honestly (i.e., not ironically) into b-horror and passionate DIY non-mainstream arts. You will get better hard SF from Kim Stanley Robinson, sure. This book – I don’t know about the series as a whole yet – could do with a quick check by a fiction editor, because a lot of what makes the prose read somewhat artificial could be very easily fixed. A part of what made the reading so enjoyable, however, was this constant awareness of “This is a person used to writing scientific papers just going for it!”

In fiction it’s ok to use contractions, especially in direct speech. Everybody always saying “I do not”, “I am…” and “let us”, and using über-proper relative clauses neatly folded into very long sentences is not a realistic representation of how people talk (or maybe they do in the far future), but it may be a reflection of always being told not to use contractions in written speech by editors. The fourth wall is constantly broken that way and it was enjoyable. All in all, the prose became more confident as the story unfolded, I thought.

One sentence that made me laugh out because it read so nerdy was “The first mate gave the orders and the starship started gaining speed. However, nobody could feel the acceleration, owing to the inertial compensators, and the captain got up from this seat” (pg. 29). On the Coode Street podcast, episode 200 (recorded at LonCon), they talked about show versus tell. “The Hunter” could have done with a great deal more “show” and somewhat less “tell”. Readers – which will bring me to “who is the audience anyway?” – are smart people, especially if for whatever reason they decide to pick up a book that has “scientific novel” on its cover. It may not always be necessary to spell out everything to the reader in narration. Sometimes, it’s sufficient to have one character say to another, “Nice inertial compensators!” or observe something in the auctorial voice along the lines of, “He braced for the paralyzing thrust of initial acceleration. The captain glanced at him and smirked, getting up from his seat, ‘Not used to top-notch inertial compensators?'” Something like that.

What I very much appreciated was to hear about intersecting issues that may not usually figure in scientific papers on A.I. or space travel, specifically gender and religion. The gender issue is addressed throughout and I can point to a few passages where the reader is trusted to understand the acid criticism on her own, where it is not spelled out redundantly. First, the space station where the young protagonist is stationed in the beginning does not seem to populated by women other than one human prostitute, several robot prostitutes and their human “Madame”. Mike, Joe, and Steve are the male protagonists (I don’t know if they are called Mike, Joe, and Steve as an ironic meta-commentary designed to make them seem like regular ole American guys… the rest of the characters are refreshingly international). However, on the hunting vessel – and this IS pointed out directly to the reader – the commanding crew is made up of roughly 50% women. Later on, however, the protagonist – now in a relationship with the human (ex-)sex worker – offers to take her with him onto the hunting vessel, to which she responds (acidly, I assume, because here it is not spelled out): “‘Yes, you can take any object with you, even a wife'” (pg. 61).

What a delight to encounter an excommunicated Jesuit in far future deep space! A “heretic”, who seeks to communicate with the A.I. instead of destroying it. The discussion that is alluded to, but sadly not taken very far is essentially the “Can a machine have a soul?”-question. The excommunicated Jesuit says yes; the answer given on the very last pages of the book is: no.

The passages that really grabbed my attention were concerned with Von Neumann machines, machine evolution, and concluding on the physicality of the designer by looking at the design. I thought these were intriguing thoughts played out in an interesting scene towards the end of the novel in which the protagonist gets close enough to one of the replicators to dismantle it. I would have liked more of that!

An interesting effect occurred when I transitioned from the fiction part to the science part. It almost felt like a sigh. The first sentence of the science part is: “The action is set in the year 2328, in the system of the double-star BD-05 1844 (or Gliese 250) at 28.4 light years (9.2 parsecs) from the Sun.” (pg. 113) and then there’s a footnote. Immediately it read more natural. How much fun would it be to write a novel using the language of a scientific paper!

I wonder who the intended audience is. The whole concept reminded me of a book series I read in fifth grade history class about a boy in ancient Rome – the books were really boring because they were too obviously teaching something about ancient Rome. This is was similar but different. It wasn’t boring. I said above that there is definitely better hard SF to be found. And somebody who is interested in such a book would probably not be scared of science either. Personally speaking, I’d probably be most interested in hearing about philosophical and ethical issues from a scientist – thoughts that might not make it into scientific papers very much. The novel alludes to those themes, but they could really be more of a focus. If I were in a sort of AMA situation with an aeronautical engineer who I knew had an interest in Von Neumann machines and the A.I./soul/human/non-human question, I would definitely steer the conversation towards things like machine evolution even more. I would ask about categories: how confident are we that theories we are so used to would work in future situations that are hard to imagine? Which current theories do we use to speculate what the future might look like and with what confidence? How can we as humans even speculate about a future of non-human intelligences? How do we reverse-engineer a hypothetical far-future deep-space Von Neumann machine to make statements about its original creator? And also: What happened to the excommunicated Jesuit priest? He was arrested, and then disappeared from the story. Maybe I should give Science fan fiction fan fiction a go. All in all: thanks for this book! I enjoyed it!