I recently read these three books, and I’d like to share my experience reading them. The first book was, Isaac Asimov’s The End Of Eternity, the second book was Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon The Deep, and the third was David Eagleman’s SUM: Forty Tales From The Afterlives.
I had been craving to read Asimov since the first time I stumbled upon a web comic adaptation of his story titled The Last Question. Then I decided to buy some of his books. One of them was The End Of Eternity. It tells a story of Andrew Harlan, a Technician of time. He was recruited, educated, and trained to be a part of the Eternity—an organization that spans across time enforcing their computational result of minimal human suffering through their method of Reality Changes.
Andrew became Computer Twissell’s personal Technician supposedly because of his talent as an observer, though later revealed it was for another greater complex reason. It’s described in the story that Technicians are commonly avoided and feared; other Eternal would throw their gaze away from Technician’s presence. This is related to Technician’s authority over the fate of many. There’s a saying in the story: A trillion personalities changed—just a Technician’s yawn.
As I read the book, some part of Andrew’s struggles resonated within. It made me excited for the story and rooted for him. Anyone with some kind of nomadic lifestyle, whose possibility to settle down is thin, might sympathize with the life of an Eternal. They’re forbidden to have a family and to settle. The rule served as a prevention against individual attachment with a particular time frame; they’re only permitted to arrange temporary liaison with a timer through some kind of bureaucratic process.
Because their main job is to enforce Reality Changes, an Eternal must be detached from time to maintain objective judgement. Suppose a Technician has a family in some century, how then would he react if suddenly there’s a policy to enforce Reality Change upon said century? His family might no longer existed or changed to a degree that render them too different to be regarded as the same persons. In Andrew Harlan case, he fell in love with a girl from a century he was investigating. He hated her. He feared her. Then, as he lowered his defense for that first love he ever encountered, he suddenly find himself willing, to end the Eternity itself just to stay with her. Yes. This is basically a love story. A love story that’s imbued with time paradoxes and rich wonderful sci-fi world building.
There are weaknesses in this book. It’s too short. Asimov didn’t let the characters to build enough tension within sufficient time for them to naturally fall and hate each other. This resulted in a payoff that is somewhat a bit lacking despite the big impact of its characters’ decision at the ending as suggested by the title of the book. With The End of Eternity, I think Asimov was trying to tell us, about love, humanity, and the infinite possibilities that may rise from its ruins and wreckages.
I’m merely an insecure visitor and silent reader in LessWrong community. I also quite fancy Eliezer Yudkowsky, its founder. While I was reading his personal site, I saw a post recommending a sci-fi novel: A Fire Upon The Deep. After a bit of looking into it using search engines, I was captivated by the world building. The galaxy consisted of several variable physical laws called The Zones Of Thought. Closer to the center of it, the more intelligence and techs failed to survive or emerge; the closest zone is called the Unthinkable Depth, no civilizations mentioned ever exist there. While the zone at the outerside allowed miracles such as super artificial intelligence to exist; this outer zone is called The Transcend. Between them, there are the Slow Zone and the Beyond. Slow Zone is where the Old Earth resides; there the physical law only permit slower than light travel. The Beyond is where most of the story happened. It’s a place where various intelligence able to reach each other and built vast society because faster than light travel is common. This fascinating setting itself that swayed me to purchase the book, I didn’t even bother to check the plot and the characters.
Basically there are two things happened alongside each other as the story unveiled. First is the story of the two refugee children who were trapped in medieval conflict between aliens that look like dogs. And the other one is the story of a rescue mission unit. It wasn’t a mere rescue. There’s something in the children’s crashed ship that may or may not stop the cosmic calamity.
There are numerous aliens and characters in the story.
The Tines, the doglike medieval alien is probably everyone’s favourite. These dogs become intelligent when a number of them grouped together, but they wouldn’t likely to survive as a singular member. This characteristic raises fascinating wonders that are tightly related to the plot. Specifically to the political difference regarding soul arranging methods that caused the tension between the two factions. The antagonist enforced a dictatorial soul mutilation to members of groups in order to create ideal identity related to its engineering purposes. Guess what? The leader of the antagonist faction was an offspring of the protagonist faction.
The Skroderiders are some kind of ancient alien plants using a platform to float around fulfiling their noble and peaceful pursuit. But, watchout, there are awful secrets regarding the myth of their origin.
The Powers are godlike beings from the Transcend that sometimes interract with people of the Beyond. Old One is one of the Powers who was snooping around to investigate the disaster using a human interface it has built named Pham Nuwen. But then, the Old One eventually murdered by the disaster and that’s where the disaster started to deliver serious threat to the whole inhabitant of the galaxy.
I really enjoyed the various aliens and characters and technological differences as they affected each other in meaningful ways, like when the rescue unit gave an instruction from afar for the Tines to invent radio and gunpowder in order to help their war.
For me, the book main weakness is the disaster itself. I think it was supposed to deliver cosmic horror to the reader. But it didn’t work. Yes, there are the murder of the Old One, the fall of Relay, the destruction of Sjandra Kei, and much of the disaster’s rampage upon the top of the Beyond. But those happened far from where the point of view locked on, which are either at the Tines planet, or at the rescue ship. They’re just like news. Bad news. The fear experienced by the characters are largely based on assumptions. Sure there are closely happened evil that threatened the rescue unit, like the betrayal at Harmonious Repose and the pursuing fleet sent by the disaster. The disaster felt so passive and lacking in presence, as if it was invented just to let the world being illustrated to us because of the conflict it allowed. But still, the world of A Fire Upon The Deep is one of the most epic delicious cake to feast upon. Enjoy!
The last one I’m going to review is the book by David Eagleman titled SUM: Forty Tales From The Afterlives. Years ago, this book was mentioned in some articles and I fell in love at once with the concept because at the time I was fascinated by the speculation of the afterlife; I participated in a local short story contest thrice, and thrice I submitted stories concerning such tales. Back then, I didn’t have the cash to purchase the book, it’s only recently that I started generating a bit of cash.
Before reading the book, I was so cocky that I expected what’s inside of it are some things I might’ve thought or written.
I was proven wrong.
I expected a longer form of short stories.
But these are far shorter than what I expected.
And far more powerful.
SUM: Forty Tales From The Afterlives is a book where you can find such surprisingly powerful impact within very short narratives. As I turned the pages, I was like being mercilessly bludgeoned by David Eagleman’s awesomeness. I think, he was really confident that he didn’t need more words to push the readers’ buttons at the right places.
He was right.
SHIVERS. SHIVERS. SHIVERS.
I find my eyes getting wet, and my body shivering everytime the stories take turn to reveal the horror of its seemingly harmless introduction at each of its narratives.
Imagine the shivering I got when I read passages regarding “two-stage process of Death” from one of the stories titled Mirrors:
“…. To understand the meaning of this afterlife, you must remember that everyone is multifaceted. And since you always lived inside your own head, you were much better at seeing the truth about others than you ever were at seeing yourself. So you navigated your life with the help of others who help up mirrors for you. People praised your good qualities and criticized your bad habits, and these perspectives—often surprising to you—helped you to guide your life. So poorly did you know yourself that you were always surprised at how you looked in photographs or how you sounded on voice mail.
“In this way, much of your existence took place in the eyes, ears, and fingertips of others. And now that you’ve left the Earth, you are stored in scattered heads around the globe.
“Here in this Purgatory, all the people with whom you’ve ever come in contact are gathered. The scattered bits of you are collected, pooled, and unified. The mirrors are held up in front of you. Without the benefit of filtration, you see yourself clearly for the first time. And that is what finally kills you.”
The horror of these stories are evoked by pulling the strings of various human conditions and stitching them into a different form that reveal the perceived truth in imaginative ways. Let me give you an example, the opener, titled Sum, told an afterlife story where we relive all the experience we have ever done in our life. Nothing scary huh? Except, we have to relive them in ways that all the moments that share a quality are grouped together. Imagine reliving fifteen months of looking for lost items, six weeks waiting for green light, seven hours of vomitting, sixty seven days of heartbreak, and all things joyful and painful. This raises the realization, that we should choose a lifestyle we would gladly relive in such a way. What are the things you often do but do not actually like it, and still very possible to be eliminated from your life?