Sunday, January 23, 2011

Ventus [Review]

Title: Ventus

Author: Karl Schroeder (official web site). Schroeder is a physicist by training, an author of more than half a dozen science fiction titles and a professional futurist/consultant.

ISBN: 0-312-87197-X (note that the full text of Ventus may be downloaded from the author's site in formats compatible with a number of e-reader devices; see this page for more information)

Genre: Science Fiction (Hard SF)

Copyright: 2000, Tor, New York

Length: 477 pages

Summary:  In exploring his theme of man's intelligence versus machine intelligence, Schroeder provides us with a set of characters who before the ending of the novel will reveal themselves to actually be a range of beings some of whom are fully human, others part-human-part-machine and finally others who are fully machine. We first meet Jordan, a youth who is ripped away from his home and family when he goes in pursuit of a runaway sister. Calandria May is a woman who has a mission to complete on Ventus, a planet she doesn't find to be particularly congenial or welcoming., and it is she who spirits Jordan away to join her in an assassination plot impacting on a war that threatens to engulf this planet. One meets the character Armiger when he is lying dead in his tomb with a grave robber about to sack the place for whatever may be of value. Later the reader encounters Queen Galas, both goddess and monarch to her people. These inhabitants of Ventus live uneasily between the tyranny of the Winds who maintain control over Ventus and the social constructs that humans have created in order to survive on this planet. Before Jordan, Armiger and Galas and the other significant players (Axel, Megan, General Lavin, Marya, Enneas, Ka) have assembled for the last battle, each will have traveled across the planet and into space in the interests of protecting and sustaining civilization as they understand it.

The story is told in tensions between male and female, human initiative and programmed hardware, agrarian world and technological environment. This is a science-fiction reworking of the Frankenstein tale -- what happens when man creates a machine that is smarter and stronger than humankind? What can be done when that machine must be turned off but there is no record of how that might be accomplished, when there is no clear understanding of the nature of the original programming that drives the machine? There are hints of the fantastical technologies found in Isaac Asimov's and Ray Bradbury's short stories of the 1950's, but Schroeder examines our interactions with tools and technologies in the harsh light of artificial intelligence and nanotechnology as we understood them in the year 2000.

Extract: One image that I tapped seemed to stagger as it stopped. I tapped it again and it jittered in place. I touched my finger to the wall and slowly drew it along. To my amazement, the pictograph followed....Soon I had ten or so of the things lined up in front of me. The rest were were still whirling around, but they were less fearsome now that I knew I could control them....I immediately made another discovery. If two or more images overlapped, they would both flash for a few seconds, then disappear, replaced by new ones. These new images were the reply of the desal. (page 221)

Also Relevant: Vernor Vinge addressed an audience of information professionals at ALA Midwinter this month and suggested that this novel along with Canticle for Liebowitz were the science fiction they needed to read in order to prepare for the future. As per his notes found here, he sees the theme of Ventus as being a discussion on the nature of extreme distributed computing. His talk was entitled "Guardians of the Past, Enablers of the Future" and focused on how important the preservation of the human record is at both a local level (as represented by the way in which the inhabitants of Ventus have fallen back in their use of technology) and at a far higher level (grasping Ventus' role in the wider space-traveling universe known as the Archipelago). The cover art shown above represents Queen Galas, but might just as easily have been a futuristic image of a librarian. Having learned through Twitter of Vinge's recommendation, I went out and found this book in both print and ebook forms and tried to race through it as quickly as I could.

That was a mistake. Ventus is a novel best read slowly, taking in every paragraph, as there is significance in every scene in the early chapters describing each individual character and their interactions. The pacing is slow in the beginning but in the middle third of the text, the action speeds up dramatically. You need to understand Armiger's rising from his tomb just as you need to absorb the nature of Calandria May's space ship and the uninhabited mansions of Ventus. This is not science fiction to be read through lightly, but rather to be ingested and considered. I thoroughly enjoyed it and recognize its creative fuel for re-thinking the role of libraries and archives in the future.

Bonus Link: Science fiction author Cory Doctorow blogs about Karl Schroeder's work (Feb 2006 -- note link to podcast interview there)