Review: Architect of Aeons

The Architect of Aeons (Count To A Trillion Book 4)Quick review: buy and read it, already! Lots of fun, full of cool sci-fi speculation, and another cliff-hanger or two. Trends are extrapolated, worlds built and moral quandaries examined.

The 4th novel in John C. Wright’s Count to a Trillion hexology, The Architect of Aeons takes up the story of Menelaus Montrose and Ximen del Azarchel after they were exiled from earth at the end of The Judge of Ages by the very post-humans Montrose had engineered to defeat del Azarchel’s schemes. Meany wants people to be free; Blackie wants to bioengineer people to be better slaves to the soon to arrive super-intelligences from Hyades. And they are both in love with the same woman – who took a little trip to M3 and won’t be back for millennia.

Meany and Blackie wake from stasis after the Hyades, having won an epic battle, swept the earth of most of its inhabitants and shipped them off to various nearby (sidereally speaking) planets. It seems that the economics of the Hyades and their masters indicate that the only value people have in the big scheme of things is to work to ‘wake up’ various planets and stars by converting the bulk of their masses to logic crystal. That the people of earth in their present state are fatally unfit for this work doesn’t matter – the Hyades seed many planets with people by simply dumping them there, whether or not those worlds are suitable for (post) human life.

The people of earth must adapt or die. Further, the Hyades will be back in a few millennia for another sweep. Much of the first part of the book is concerned with what Montrose does to try to defend earth against this second attack. Meanwhile, del Azarchel heads off the the Sagittarius Arm with a bunch of his heavily modified minions to check out another contraterrene star and monument. The second sweep and Montrose’s planned war against it take place while Blackie is gone.

It does not go as planned. It does not go well. The theme of these books might be: the best laid plans of mice and cliometricians…

Montrose, a man who insists on freedom, who is a bit put out that some poxy Yankee state got the motto that rightfully belongs to his Texas – Live Free or Die – is a cliometric singularity. Funny things happen, mathematically speaking, wherever he treads. So the Hyades give him a choice.

The last bit of this book was my favorite by far, one of my favorite sections in the whole series. Wright channels Cordwainer Smith (specifically, Alpha Ralpha Boulevard and The Ballad of Lost C-mell sprang to mind) and Jack Vance. After Montrose cut his deal with the Hyades, the various creatures of earth origin develop elaborate cultures – no more elaborate than, say, Italian Renaissance courtly culture, but, needing to incorporate the social implications of space-faring, as well as all sorts of biotech and nanotech and what have you. The story achieves the sort of bizarre yet believable formality that Vance trafficked in, as well as his penchant for detective stories and gasping reveals. Totally fun.

This book gives the reader more insight into del Azarchel’s character. Wright walks the fine line between making him sympathetic, but not too sympathetic – you feel sorry for the guy, for sure, but still want him to lose big.The book ends with choice, where a creature with (to us) godlike powers lays them down for something she knows is better. Del Azarchel cannot believe it – and that’s the point.

Architects of Aeons is one of, if not the, best book in the series. I’ll readily admit that this assessment is partly the result of Wright’s deft echos of Cordwainer Smith and Jack Vance (and probably other writers I don’t know as well – that’s for someone else to comment on). But the thinking is deepening, too. The philosophical speculations that are the backbone of the hexology are coming into sharper focus, and the longer term implication of what man decides to do are laid out across eons. We are all cliometric singularities, after all – that’s what Free Will means. Ultimately, vast historical calculus is not the work of men, nor angels. We don’t throw the switch and KNOW that the trolley will kill the man in the alley (or that that is the best outcome if it were to happen); we don’t KNOW that if we just kill enough of the right people, the worker’s paradise will spontaneously arise. We only know that it is good to love, good to be loved, and that life and this universe are achingly beautiful – and we should be on the side of that life and beauty, even if, especially if it costs us.

Go read the book! I’m ready for Volumes 5 and 6.

Age of Ultron: Recap of Criticisms

In this post, I opine that Age of Ultron, unlike the rest of the Marvel Universe movies, is morally bad. Most of the people who commented on my humble review disputed this. After careful consideration – I hope you’re sitting down – it’s possible I’m the wrongest wronger who ever wronged a wrong. The issues hinges, I think, on whether Stark, Banner and Thor were in their right minds when Thor allowed Stark and Banner to play with Loki’s scepter. Although I didn’t pick this up at the time (and I don’t intend to watch this one again) the Scarlet Witch’s mind-fritz of the team during the initial scenes was intended to establish that they were ‘compromised’ (a recurring theme among the Avengers) in their efforts to create Ultron. If so, then Stark, Banner and Thor are not responsible for the death and destruction it caused, but Hydra (again!) takes all the blame.

The problem with this view is that Stark would not have been able to keep his hands off the scepter in any event, and that his dream of Ultron seems not to have been the result of the having his mind messed with. The responsibility then falls back to Thor, who could reasonable be expected to have some serious doubts about letting Stark out of his sight with *anything* that came from Asgard. They can play with the hammer – it seems to have adequate fail-safes against puny humans – but everything we’ve seen so far shows that nothing good comes from humans messing with Asgard-tech, especially Tony.

Within the Marvel Universe, with its rules about how superheroes act and their responsibilities to us mere mortals, does it work for Thor to let Stark play with the scepter? Or does the resulting *predictable* body count of innocents break the spell? It did for me. I can see why, on the ‘their minds were clouded’ premise, another man might disagree, and might enjoy this movie.

Galaxar
Another Egomaniacal Mad Scientist who destroys a planet. It’s the tentacles which make it so that he has to die at the end of the cartoon.

Lots of great comments, but here I’ll just look at two which seem to capture the major objections.

I think Stark and Banner tinkering with Loki’s scepter is reckless, given that they *know* it was the weapon of a bad guy – Loki – who used it to do Bad Things, and that it is based on technology that makes Stark’s weapons look like pop guns.  The gist of my complaint:

Predictably, the scepter doesn’t want to be used by puny humans, but instead, disassembles Jarvis and reinterprets the ‘get powerful and save humanity’ goal as ‘get powerful and save humanity by exterminating it’. Perfectly logical conclusion based on utilitarian ethics – human suffering is reduced to zero once all people are dead. Scepter-tech + Jarvis + Stark & Banner’s input = Ultron.

All hell breaks loose. Jarvis appears dead, and Ultron has infected and taken over the internet and almost all computer systems on earth. It makes an army of puppet Ultrons to serve the cannon-fodder role so essential to this sort of thing.

So far, so good-ish. We’re set up for a rollicking smash ’em up good time. Except –

One of the unwritten rules of mindless fun movies is that, if innocent people are to die, the bad guys do the killing. The good guys do the saving. Right? The Empire blows up Alderaan, the rebels blow up enemy ships and shoot storm troopers, and save planets. If the rebels started blowing up planets full of innocent people, we’d quickly loose sympathy for them.

Ultron does the actual murdering, sure, but is not this a case of (Thor) handing a loaded machine gun to (Stark) a chimpanzee? Is not the man who does so responsible for the damage the chimp causes?

To rephrase the point: even within a comic book universe, morality is the same (1). In fact, that they take place in a traditional moral universe is why comic book movies are so popular – evil is punished, virtue is rewarded, suffering has a point, redemption is always possible.

Thor, knowing Tony as he does, nonetheless lets him have a crack at the scepter. Tony and Bruce, knowing what they do about the power of the scepter, nonetheless not only tinker with it but try to bend its power to their wills. So far, it’s standard comic book fare.

Predictably, things go horribly wrong – not just predictably from our somewhat omniscient audience viewpoint, but predictably *from within the story itself*. And that’s the rub: Hitler’s parents had no reason to believe little Adolf would go bad (and having a baby is not exactly tampering with the Powers of the Universe); the genetic engineers who tinkered with the spiders (in the first Toby McGuire Spiderman) had no reason to suspect that a spider bite could have such effect. BUT: Stark and Banner would have had to have been stupid, crazy or full of hubris NOT to know that using the scepter in any way whatsoever was very, very, as in threat to the planet level, dangerous.

But it still could have worked. In my opinion, Ultron crosses that moral line by the massive body count it racks up. It’s that whole one death a tragedy, 1,000,000 a statistic thing. Ultron’s casual murder of thousands of people makes the expected reflexive act of forgiveness of Stark, Banner and Thor on the part of the audience too much for me. That nobody flinches says as much or more about the audience than about the writers.

We’re used to gratuitous violence in our popcorn movies. What makes the Marvel universe so, well, marvelous is that justice is meted out – the bad guys get nuked, Loki goes off in chains, Hydra is slaughtered in a hundred different ways, and so on. Here? Well, Ultron does get mushed. But it’s not so clear the moral responsibility stops with it.

As pure entertainment, I would probably been cool with this movie had they just toned down the murder. I didn’t like it much in the other movies, either(2), but at least those responsible got theirs in the end. On to the comments:

The best counterpoint was offered by Stephen J.:

Moreover, insofar as Ultron’s emergent personality takes any notes from Tony, it’s from the distorted state of mind in which Tony’s operating following Wanda Maximoff’s mind-warp upon him.

Taking this observation back a step, that’s enough to excuse Tony – he wasn’t in his right mind. Are we willing to extend this excuse to Thor and Bruce as well? If so, I’ll take it all back. My wife’s observation is that, in making Ultron, Tony was giving in to the temptation to despair – that his (understandable) fear of Thanos lead him to take steps that were not really justifiable – just as SHEILD’s attempts to use the Fancy Blue Cube were shown to be ultimately misguided and corrupting. That he was under the influence of the Scarlet Witch at the time is very much mitigating.

We forgive them because, while their actions were reckless, their minds were clouded and their intentions were good. A friend of ours commented that the whole Scarlet Witch mind-warp really made no difference – Tony was going to do it anyway, given everything we know about him. That sounds right to me, and may be why I overlooked the mind-fritz originally.

John C. Wright perhaps puts this in the context of history, tradition and the requirements of this particular art:

This has been the basic message of all science fiction stories from since the days of Mary Shelly.

It is hardly morally bankrupt to pen a tale warning people that good intentions are not enough, and to warn people that those who exchange freedom for security end up with neither, and that pride goeth before a fall.

Beside, that is the origin story of Ultron in the comic books (except it was Ant Man, not Iron Man, who made Ultron).

So, no. With all due respect, you are absolutely, positively, and dead wrong. Science fiction stories about man playing God and having his creations turn on him are as morally straight and upright as the Boy Scouts, and just as old, tried and true.

To this I only say: so long as the perps don’t walk, I’m down with that. The tradition as I see it is that the people playing God get their comeuppance in the end, not march off into the sunset.

1. I’ve got this draft essay about how, even in speculative fiction, the two things that don’t survive much speculation are metaphysics (the rules under which a human mind interacts with reality) and morality (what gives a story meaning, if any). It’s like the story, I think it’s in Aquinas, where a man is sure that he is looking at a round tower in the distance, only to discover it is square once he gets closer – if the tower is nothing outside his perceptions, he can’t be surprised or corrected at all. Stories play with this idea, where as they go along the characters discover what is *really* going on. Push this too far, so that the readers are left not knowing what is going on, and it’s hard if not impossible to write a good story.

Similarly, you can have cold blooded murder, suicide, gratuitous violence all around – but without some appeal to right and wrong, again, it’s next to impossible to pull off the story. If we really, truly cannot believe why the characters do what they do, or if their ‘why’ is sufficiently repulsive but presented as matter-of-fact, who would want to read the story? Blindsight, I’m thinking of you.

Lemmings
They explode, if you want them to! Nothing problematic about that!

2. Saw an otherwise completely unmemorable movie as a kid that evidently has still left me traumatized, some sort of spy/anti-hero movie. In it, the protagonist knock a lady unconscious, and throws her in the trunk of a car. Moments later, the car rolls into the water and sinks while the protagonist escapes. I just remember being shocked – what? You’re just going to let her drown? Perhaps in the context of the movie, it made sense that she had to die – I was a kid, I was not picking up on any more sophisticated plot points. Perhaps I’m hypersensitive to this sort of casual murder – ruins it for me.

Another story: our eldest son Andrew, when he was very little, like 3 or 4, wanted to play the old computer game Lemmings. When he got to the first level where you need to sacrifice some lemmings in order to complete the level, he burst into tears. It just wasn’t OK with him to kill some so that you would win the game. I think he was onto something, that my casual acceptance of the need to kill the little worker lemmings in their green overalls by the dozens says something unattractive about me.

In the Queue for This Week…

1. Several people made good comments on my review of Age of Ultron. If I get a minute, I’ll do a bit of a round-up and response.

2. Book reviews of John C. Wright’s Architect of Aeons and Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter InternationalMonster Hunter International (Monster Hunters International Book 1) (which, by no coincidence, is currently available as a free download on Amazon at the link above – the publisher seems to think that if you read one for free, you may read them all for money. He may be right.)  These are very different books, it would have gone without saying had it not just said it, but are both excellent after the manner of their kind. Mind-bending universe- and eon-spanning epic that pays homage to Jack Vance and Cordwainer Smith (and probably a lot of other guys I’m not smart enough to catch) spread out over thousands of pages in 6 novels? Wright’s got you covered. A fast-paced love story between a beefy ex-accountant with a thing for guns and Marilyn Monster, if Marilyn were dark haired and killed vampires for a living, where hardly a page goes by without being spattered with the ichor of eldritch fiends of one flavor or another as a result of the fairly indiscriminate use of military-grade ordinance and heavy weapons? Correia’s your man.

Hey, what’s not to like?

One the update front, we’re heading into graduation season at the Casa de Moore, with lovely daughter #2 getting the boot this year; end of year parties and shows (a tradition at Diablo Valley School); the confirmation of the our young German student (he asked me to be his sponsor – I’m flattered). We’ll be setting up for the graduation and end of the year party at DVS, as well as throwing a graduation party, and, a week later, a confirmation party, at our house – and then seeing our newly-confirmed off on a jaunt around the country with his mom before he heads off to college, too. Aaaand, we just finished the annual school camping trip and the Concord KidFest, in which the school has had a booth for pushing 20 years.

Busy.

Also, after a hiatus of a couple months, back to writing in my copious spare time. Weee! Got a couple stories almost done – just like you heard months back. No, really! This time, for sure!

Finally, if you have any prayers to fire up, my oldest sister has been back and forth from the hospital to a nursing home for the past several months, and recently had a seizure of some sort that left her delusional for several days, and she’s still not totally lucid. It’s a combination of a lifetime of rheumatoid arthritis, cancer and a series of strokes (and all the drugs they give you with all those things.) She’s 75, alienated from the Church, and probably won’t last a year (but of course nobody’s saying – just my gut feeling). So prayers that she will be comforted and reconciled to Jesus in his Church would be appreciated.

On a similar note, my boss’s youngest daughter, age 24 and married one year, has leukemia. Prayers for her and her family would also be appreciated.

Sorry for the downers – weirdly, things are actually picking up, emotion and energy-wise. Next couple posts will be fun, I promise.

Sci Phi Journal: Buy a Couple Copies, Already!

Some good stories and essays this issue!

It can be got in several formats, including paper! While I miss the good old days when a small flock of sheep died for every book – those were some nice books – printing on dead trees is still A-OK!

From Amazon for your Kindle.

For Mobi and Epub from Castalia House.

Printed on dead trees from CreateSpace.

Look at the cool artwork people do for it:

Finally, it’s me! Issue #3 contains a long essay I wrote that will be utterly incomprehensible to anyone not a serious Matrix trilogy fanboy or fangirl. There’s got to be a couple of those out there, at least. I hope.

So ignore that part, and get it for the stories and other essays.