I’m reading Stephen Hunt’s Six Against the Stars at the moment, I’m only two chapters in and it has already descended into Hunt’s trademark rollicking flow of happenstance encounters, but it’s got a very nice idea for an adventure setting that I don’t think I’ve seen before. The story starts on a far future Earth, its history full of wars and environmental troubles, whose present inhabitants seem not really to fully understand the world they live on or its history. Beneath the earth is the “World Below,” which sounds a lot like a kind of far future Underdark. As our hero runs through it, we have it described thus:

In the heyday of the conflict age, the empire had hollowed out the Earth and refilled it with underground factories and cities, keeping the surface as a park that was only seen by the imperial court.

Some of these subterranean continents had caved in, but others had failed more gradually, only to be reclaimed by the flotsam of the ancient Earth – criminals, slaves, rogue androids, rebels, computer viruses which had become self aware, feral genetically engineered creatures which had broken their own behavioral programming. As the core was abandoned, the pets and toys of the merchant palaces became inbred in bizarre and unanticipated ways, sharing genes and self-splicing where run-down shaping technology lay derelict. They preyed on the safaris that ventured from above. Self-cleaning floors that had learnt to secrete acid to paralyze rodents, drink dispensers which could spray superheated water when threatened, wild herds of protein blocks that had grown armour and gored unwary travellers.

Like much of Hunt’s work, the idea is slightly comic or carnivalesque, but also rich with ideas for adventure settings and a kind of space opera or shadowrun-styled megadungeon. Instead of Aboleths we have ancient AIs residing in abandoned research factories; in place of Mimics, vending machines. Perhaps self-aware cleaning droids float through the corridors like robotic Beholders, and old abandoned tanks or other war machines function like golems and dragons. Were the world above to be fashioned as a post-shadowrun collapse society (perhaps akin to the society from the Amtrak Wars novels?) then the World Below would be a treasure trove of ancient items, and access points that still functioned would be hotly contested by the tribal powers of the surface – or avoided at all costs. Perhaps then some elves would have migrated to the World Below, so it would even have its own stock of shadowrun-styled Drow.

This would be a great setting for a campaign – a post-apocalyptic shadowrun future on the Great Plains of the USA, with a mad max styled surface world where adventurers attempt to enrich themselves and their communities by plundering the World Below. Perhaps more civilized folk use its surface ways as secret routes to attack their neighbours, or to cross deserts and wastelands. Bandits set up kingdoms, and all the rebels and renegades of the surface world flee to the World Below to make their uncertain future. It would be particularly fun to adventure in such a kingdom using Shadowrun, or one of the simpler space opera style systems like Stars Without Number. If you want dungeoneering with a mixture of savagery and high space opera, perhaps Stephen Hunt’s World Below is the perfect place to go looking for adventure …

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This is another Stephen Hunt novel, set in the same world and with the same characters as the previous two I have read, The Court of the Air and The Kingdom Beyond the Waves. While the last two were definitely steampunk-fantasy, this one has crossed the line to science-fantasy, with a heavy dose of space opera and time travel to leaven the mix. I really like the world Hunt has created, and I think it provides interesting insights into the kind of post-scarcity fantasy that has been under discussion here recently. The world of these books includes clockwork-run computers and steam “transaction engines,” as well as sentient “steam men” who are basically steam-driven robots; this is a kind of steam-driven cyberpunk, with a heavy element of magic hanging it altogether. It also has a basis in real world politics, with the kingdom of Jackals clearly modeled on an atheist, post-revolutionary Victorian steampunk Britain; while Quatershift is clearly post-revolutionary France, where the revolution turned horribly communist but revolutionary Britain remained free-market capitalist. These models for a fantasy world based in an alternative-history earth with different geography and multiple races, as well as druidic magic, are really fun to wander through. The world of these tales has a high amount of magic that is put heavily to use in the service of the state: law and justice, war, public transport and scientific research are heavily driven by a combination of magic, old-fashioned science, steam technology and mysterious semi-magical materials science. The world is identifiably Victorian but also wealthy and capable of stupendous feats of technology and human achievement.

In this novel, the kingdom of Jackals is threatened by a powerful force using very high technology to an extremely destructive end. Although the technology resembles space opera-level power (space and time travel, nuclear power and weapons, and beam weapons and modern aerial machinery) much of its impetus is derived from harnessing the magic of the land. As a consequence it is understandable by and – more particularly – vulnerable to the ancient magical powers of the druids and fey creatures who live in Jackals. The heroes of previous stories have access to these powers and use them to combat the invasion, but they are clearly outclassed and need to use all their wits and power to face their foe.

Just as in previous books, the narrative is fast-paced and exciting, and some of the characters very enjoyable – I particularly became fond of Commodore Black in this story – and the plot is fairly robust, requiring leaps of faith and imagination but not particularly unbelievable or inconsistent. We learn more about the history of Jackals and Quatershift, as well as their present cultures and the magic and cosmology of the world. We also get a glimpse of what people without a proper knowledge of science can achieve if they have magic and an ingenious turn of mind.

Also like the previous stories, this one involves a certain element of deus ex machina that can be occasionally frustrating. It leads to main characters gettnig sudden mighty powers out of nowhere to rescue them from mounting adversary, and also causes the plot to hang on sudden leaps of intuition or new-found abilities that sometimes stretch credibility. But the story is pacey and you want to know both the secrets of the enemy and how they’re going to solve the problems facing them, so it’s not a deal-killer; but it is frustrating at times that the story can only proceed through main characters gaining the grace of ancient powers.

Despite these small complaints, it’s a fun book and the world it’s set in is an interesting and enjoyable addition to the fantasy genre. Also, revisiting the characters of Molly, Oliver, Coppertracks and Commodore Black is fun, as is the rumbunctious and chaotic politics of Jackals. Stephen Hunt’s writing is fast-paced and fun, and his books more than hold my interest. Read this novel if you want to see Steampunk taken in interesting and challenging new directions.

When I was a student of physics I remember having to answer a question about what faster-than-light travel would look like, from the windows of a spaceship. I think it was in Mathematical Methods and Classical Field Theory[1], though it may have been Relativistic Field Theory[7], and I vaguely recall the answer involved stars from behind the spaceship (that you couldn’t see from the windscreen) slowly moving into the front view; as the ship got further from the lightspeed limit, more of these stars would come into the front and if you got fast enough you would eventually see all the stars visible to the eye in a kind of field in front of you, surrounded by darkness (or something). This, of course, would be when the gibbering madness set in, and one of your crew decided to torch the ship in honour of an unnamed god[9]. Note that this is very different to the Star Wars image, where all the stars blur. In fact, I think our solutions explicitly stated that at faster than the speed of light, stars can’t  blur (I can’t remember why).

It’s a mark of how far we had come by the time we got to MM&CFT (3rd year, I seem to recall) to compare that question and its solution to the question we got in first year Newtonian Mechanics: do you get less wet if you run through rain?

Currently I’m reading China Mieville’s Embassytown, and he’s writing about hyperspace quite a bit – he calls it the immer – which got me to thinking about different visions of hyperspace and how it can be represented in science fiction. It’s a topic of enduring interest to sci-fi authors, and there’s a lot of different ways of representing it. I can only remember four now, but here goes:

  • Mieville’s strange ocean: The immer is a kind of ocean of darkness and chaos, with its own predators that may or may not be life-forms, and strange beings that sometimes hitch into the realm of the living. There are tides, currents, and deeps, and it is navigated by humans who learn to work their way through these precarious shoals. It also makes humans sick to be in it, and it is conceived as running through or between the material of the universe. The universe we are in is the third universe, with two previous ones having grown and then collapsed; but the immer was there through all of them. This immer is dark and dangerous, rich in its own life and history.
  • Iain M. Banks’s strange geometry: in contrast, Banks’s Culture novels have a representation of hyperspace as a barren, mathematical substrate underlying physical reality; ships travel at hyperspeed through this substrate, and as far as I can remember there are no dangers or risks to them, except when they emerge too close to a gravitational source, which warps the substrate and increases the risk that the ship will be torn apart by entering or leaving the substrate. While Mieville’s hyperspace speaks of a mysterious and wild universe that humans explore at their peril, Banks’s vision speaks of a universe subjugated to human will, reduced to a toll-road with a few tricky interchanges. These different visions are very suited to the cultural backdrops of the novel, I think – an interesting pairing of the cosmological and the sociological.
  • Stephen Baxter’s Bubble: In Ark (the sequel to Flood) we get a description of an early attempt at inerstellar FTL flight. This time it’s a fragile bubble surrounding a spaceship, held together with huge amounts of energy, which draws the ship forward into a kind of gap in the space-time continuum. Anything touching the bubble from the inside is instantly torn apart, and once the bubble is set on its path it can’t be diverted or its direction changed. It’s very “realistic” sci-fi (he even gives a reference) and the whole story, both inside the Ark and in the science guiding its use, is based primarily around the constraints the science poses on action. The opposite of the Culture in every way.
  • Gateway Catapults: The staple of shows like Babylon 5, these present us with hyperspace as a kind of insoluble problem. Instead of navigating it, you get chucked through it by a massive catapult. Some ships (usually military) can open their own gateways into the swirling mystery of hyperspace, but others just hurl themselves at the gate and hope for the best. This is a vision of high science fiction where one of the fundamental mechanisms of the social order is actually quite primitive. We also see this in Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, where the decision to close the gates destroys whole societies – and is driven by the realization that the human “masters” of the gates never understood them or their real purpose at all.

Hyperspace in its many forms seems like it plays a more important role in the universes of its setting than mere substance. It’s not just a scientific backdrop or a constraint on action; it takes a form which often reinforces or complements the style and cultural background of the novel. It’s a very good example of how the best sci-fi is not about the science at all, but about what it can be used to tell us about ourselves.

fn1:literally the most evil subject you can take. This subject ate Electromagnetism and Advanced Quantum Mechanics[2] for breakfast and shat them out as a tensor problem you couldn’t solve by graduation, then laughed at your poor mortal brain and ate your soul for lunch. It was an evil subject, worth a paltry 2 credit points (out of 24 in my year), but which consisted of 6 assignments and an exam, and each assignment took – this is not an exaggeration – at least 50 pages of scrap paper, and at least 12 hours of our time. My friends and I had a shift system going in Lab (which, by comparison, was 9 hours a week and worth 8 credit points). One of us would work on the experiment while the other three used up copious amounts of paper trying to solve impossible problems in gravitational dipoles[3]. Then after lab we would charge off to our tutor’s room and he would infuriatingly refuse to give us the answers[4], even though it meant we would pester him again. Finally we would get a breakthrough, and off we would go to reduce the romantic image of moonlight and the gentle slap of waves on the beach to a series of Bessel Functions[5].

fn2: for which I got 94%, yay![6]

fn3: seriously, who knew the tides were soooo fucking complex?

fn4: what can I say, we weren’t really paying fees at this university, we got in on merit and we survived by luck, effort and the regular application of sleepless nights and cask wine to every problem. No one thought we had any right to pass anything, and everybody forced us to study.

fn5: Which, also, can I say, you guys suck.

fn6: Which reminds me that the pure maths subject Lie Algebras – which apparently, people who understand it tell me, has some relationship to Advanced Quantum Mechanics – may have been harder than CFT&MM; but that subject was taught by a Mind Flayer, so I’m not sure if my memory of it is correct

fn7: I’m pretty sure we had a subject called this. It had a lot of Tensor equations in it, and when me and my buddies arrived in our Honours Year[8] there was an equation pinned to the door of our room (from the previous poor bastard to study there) which consisted entirely of Tensor expressions, and took up a whole page of A4 paper (in a not-very-large font). We all stood looking at it, and said “fuck. What have we done?”

fn8: Honours is an Australian idea, I think: because Australians are smarter than you lot, we do our undergraduate degree in three years, then our masters degree (and thesis) is compressed into one year with two extra subjects and called “honours” even though there’s nothing honourable about brutalizing young people in this way. In addition to having the kind of discipline and brains and educational background required to survive this kind of nasty, Australia also has one of the best rugby teams in the world. Dwell on that, Northern Hemisphere Losers!

fn9: This part wasn’t in the official solutions, but I should think it’s pretty obvious.

The next in my line of eBook downloads, Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan is perhaps best described as a cyberpunk Space Opera. It is set in a near future, perhaps 500 years from now, in which humans have developed a technology of human mind replication. This technology is not cheap, but it enables people to back up their mind and memories (their stack) and install it in a new human being (their sleeve) when their current human dies. This provides a kind of immortality, and changes many aspects of ordinary human life, including:

  • punishment: prison is time spent “on stack” while the sleeve in which you committed the crime is rented out to others to use
  • insurance: every person’s goal is to get a resleeving policy, so that when they die they can be reborn based on their last backup, in a new sleeve
  • torture: if you really really want to torture someone, you upload their stack into a virtual system, and torture them there for as long as you want – they can’t die

The very rich can afford regular backups, perhaps as often as every 48 hours and done remotely, but for the vast majority of even the middling rich, the mind and memories are backed up only internally, in essentially a memory chip inside their head. This enables them to die for real if their head is destroyed or the stack is removed and lost.

The story centres around a criminal called Takeshi Kovacs who has retired from a specialist psychotic marine unit called the Envoys. He is dragged out of a long prison sentence (on stack) by a very rich and long-lived man (a methuselah, or “meth”), who was murdered two days earlier and wants his death investigated by an independent operator. Unfortunately all is not as it seems (of course) and after a slight mishap on the first day, Kovacs ends up to his neck in real and virtual shit. There are a lot of tricks based on the fundamental conceit of the altered carbon (at one point we briefly meet an assassin who uses a copy of himself for backup, because he can’t trust anyone else); but there is also a sensitive and intelligent investigation of the consequences of this backup process for human society. What does death and childhood mean when you can live forever? Does money become more significant or less when it has the power to buy you eternal life? How does one prosecute a war when the dead can come back to life? And how does one deal with criminals who have no fear of death?

Kovacs answers most of these questions using an advanced array of extremely dangerous weaponry, and the author produces some very poignant moments based around the experiences of ordinary mortals cast into these situations. He also writes very well, giving simultaneously an excellent story, believable characters and an interesting and unpretentious exploration of some of the philosophical consequences of the phenomenon at the centre of the novel. This is an excellent novel, well worth reading, and I will definitely be pursuing the series as he writes more!