June 20th, 2002

A Thursday Lunchtime Review: Playing God

Sarah Zettel is a relatively new SF voice. While she's published 6 novels, she's yet to make her mark this side of the Atlantic. That's a pity, as her mix of hard and soft SF is intriguing, intellectually challenging, and - ultimately - deeply satisfying.

Playing God is her third novel, a tale of ecological collapse, violence, and possible redemption. The alien Dedelphi, victims of internecine violence on a scale that makes our human troubles seem like playground squabbles, have ruined their home world. The experiences of their refugees among the scattered commercial tribes of a star-faring humanity have led them to ask for human intervention. But do the humans have the right to play god with the Dedelphi? Hi-tech biosciences meet real politik in a conflict that appears to have no resolution, unless a few humans and Dedelphi break the rules that lock their civilsations into a collision course.

Zettel isn't writing about tomorrow. There's a school of thought that describes SF as the literature of today, as its many "what-ifs" allow us to explore the ramifications of our complex world. In Playing God Zettel uses the genetically programmed Dedelphi to explore the reasons for violence in our society. Are we driven to hate the "other", or is there another road. And if there is, can we go down it alone, or do we need to be dragged kicking and screaming as our instincts pull us back onto the old paths?

A worthy book, and one that teaches without preaching.

Enjoy. I know I did
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Big ideas in small doses: Toast - A Book Report

Ok, first, I'd better declare a vested interest. Charlie Stross is an old friend of mine, I've beta tested many of his stories (including several that are in this book), we've spent many hours just brain storming, and, well, I just love his gonzo style and hi-tech on speed imagery. So you're unlikely to see a bad review here...

Toast (And Other Rusted Futures) is Charlie's first short story collection. It's a slice through several years of writing, and includes some of his earliest work alongside some of the latest. You may have seen the Manfred stories in Asimov's and thought that Charlie is a new writer, but he's been published in the UK since the early 90s, writing everything from dark fantasies to radical hard SF.

You'll find a bit of everything here. Some stories haven't aged well, especially "Ship of Fools", a Y2K story. Others are timeless, and deeply chilling, like the alternate history "A Colder War", where the dark paranoia of the 1950's military-industrial complex meets H.P. Lovecraft underneath the ice of Lake Vostok in the middle of the 1980s.

One of the standouts is original to this collection, "Big Brother Iron". Ingsoc has been computerised, and the computer is your friend (Trust The Computer). Charlie's many years in the IT industry pay off here, as he shows the flaws at the heart of Orwell's dystopia go to the heart of everything, even the mathematical cleanliness of computer code.

However, my two favourite stories skirt the edges of the Spike. "Toast: A Con Report" and "Dechlorinating The Moderator" are magazine articles from the future. Both send their reporter characters to fringe events, to indulge in a little gonzo reportage. It's a great way to show the larger changes, reflecting them in the eyes of nerds and geeks as they explore their hobbies.

Buy Toast from Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com (using Charlie's own referral accounts)
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Now this is neat: turning Google searches into a RSS feed

http://www.razorsoft.net/weblog/stories/2002/04/13/google2rss.html

It's a .NET application that can be used to regularly run a search, and expose it as RSS. This is an excellent example of showing how the two basic web service models can cooperate. The query is run through a SOAP RPC call, and then output as a published RSS document, that any site can subscribe to using an RSS aggregator.
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