Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Saturn's Children

I recently read Charles Stross' Saturn's Children. I'd like it noted that the book was on the new releases shelf at the Dakota County library and I passed it up at least seven times in five visits to the library because of the cover. While a sexy fembot might be intriguing to some (and I knew she was a fembot because of the inside cover, although it spells fembot "femmebot"), it has no allures for me. At least not as a reading exercise.

And then John Scalzi, whose writing I love, pointed out that it was in the 2009 Hugo Voter Packet along with Zoe's Tale (good book), Doctorow and Gaiman. In some respects, that makes Scalzi a dick, because I had to come to terms with whether I was avoiding the book because of the breasts when breasts would naturally attract me to many other things. Chicken for example. But then Scalzi has met Mean Mr. Mustard in person, and that never improves my perception of anyone. He probably steals wifi bandwidth when no one is looking.

My trust in Scalzi being enough to conquer my fear of a book with a bad cover, I checked it out. And then found I was embarrassed to read it in public. Particularly at the hospital while Pooteewheet was there. I can only imagine what the nurses thought of the husband who was sitting in the chair next to the hospital bed with a book with a purple-haired, large breasted, unreal looking woman on the cover.

However. The book was good. I've read Stross. Liked some of it. Disliked some of it. This was worth reading, although I wouldn't rank it in my top 20. I think it could have been a little tighter and dispelled some of the confusion, but I did have to pay attention while I was reading to determine who was impersonating whom, whether there was really a human left alive in the universe, who was channeling whom via their SD card, and what was afoot. It's a mystery novel in some respects. It just happens to be set in a future where humans have gone extinct and their robots are left minding the shop. I don't agree with some of the Amazon reviews that it was too complicated and that not knowing definitively what happened to us, the humans, was a problem. Stross explained himself shortly after particularly confusing sections. And as for the humans, it was clear access to copious amounts of media and sexbots had done us no good in the reproduction arena. Stross took our extinction a step further and expounded upon the fate of societies that employ slave populations and the inward thinking that can arise, distracting from expansion and devoting time to more intellectual pursuits. I also don't agree with the reviewer that was upset that there wasn't enough robot sex. WTF? If you're deprived, Wired has a clip of the Sex Life of Robots (so NSFW), including robot breast feeding (just for you LissyJo).

And then there were the extras. Sometimes a book is just full of this and that which make me think, that's not something I ever thought about before.

Item 1: How to count to binary on your fingers. I had never really thought about this until Freya, the main character, quipped that she ran out of fingers while counting, but not really, because she could count on them in binary. I felt a bit stupid being a (former) programmer and having never tried this. Try it. It's simple, but a digitary challenge. Just be careful when you get to the number four (4). You can count all the way to 1023. There are a number of variations, such as senary, where you use the first hand to do a base 6 system and count to 35. Or Chisanbop, a Korean finger counting method to get to 99. Here's a visual tutorial. And here's a page that talks about varying base-counting systems using fingers, including an applet (4 is censored).

Item 2: A discussion with Eryn, who saw the front of the book, about whether people could really have purple eyes. They can. Ignore the crap about Alexandria's Genesis and Elizabeth Taylor. It has to do with albinism. The BBC link seems to be the best explanation: "Red irides1 are a result of albinism. Albinism is where there is no melanin in the melanocytes at all. Therefore all of the blood vessels (in the iris and retina) are seen and a redder appearance is given. In practice only very few albinos have red eyes, the blue reflections of the collagen show up stronger and so most have blue/grey or even brown. The mixing of red and blue reflections can also give rise to violet eyes." Elizabeth Taylor, known for her violet eyes, thinks they're red (Larry King on Milk and Cookies), giving a bit of credence to the albinism explanation.

Item 3: Stross refers to Scalzi Spaceport in his book. This led me to tell Mean Mr. Mustard one day on Skype, after he'd mentioned he was going to see Star Trek, that it was cool he'd get to see Scalzi in his bit part as a Red Shirt. MMM was very excited, until I told him I was yanking his Vulcan lyre. Nerd taunting at its finest.

Item 4: Stross uses the phrase snicker snack. Only moments earlier Pooteewheet and I had been discussing where the phrase came from as it was used in the Fables series of graphic novels when Boy Blue is hacking off heads with his vorpal sword. It's from Lewis Carroll's Jaberwocky:

"One, two! One, two! and through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back."

Wiktionary says it means "countable and uncountable" and is onomatopoeia perhaps referring to sharpness. It also pointed me at snickersnee, a long sword-like knife, and snick or snee, to thrust and cut. So if my timelines are correct, the action (cut and thrust) became the object (a long sword-like knife), became a sound/metaphor (Carroll). That's some fascinating language work.

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