In the late '70s and early '80s James P Hogan wrote some great hard SF novels (and also short stories, in Judy-Lynn Del Rey's Stellar anthologies), and was on my "must read" list. In the late '80s he wandered off into political thrillers (The Proteus Operation, Endgame Enigma) and Libertarian polemic (The Mirror Maze), and I stopped reading him, disappointed to lose such a good author. But I've recently noticed that in the early '90s he seems to have come back SF, so I've got some catching up to do....
Earth tries to re-establish control over a lost colony. The colonists, who have been raised in an unconventional manner, have other ideas.
A collection of Hogan's short stories, essays, and bibliographic details, originally published in 1988, this edition is a re-release by Baen in 1999, with various Afterwords, to accompany Rockets, Redheads and Revolution.
This is a future techno-thriller, rather than SF. (Well, it was when it was written -- set in the year 2000 with the Soviet Union still in existence, with flashbacks to the early 1990s -- it's now an alternate history techno-thriller.)
It's the turn of the millennium, and the new Constitutional party's candidate has just won the US Presidential election, with a promise to pass the 28th Amendment, that will separate government and free trade. Government's only function is to enforce the honouring of contracts, where necessary, between freely trading individuals. But the Big Money doesn't want this to happen, since it threatens their lucrative monopoly stranglehold, so they conspire to destroy the party.
This is Hogan's attempt to write a novel explaining the Libertarian philosophy. But, since the Libertarians have only just won the election, and haven't had time to do anything yet, it's all "tell" and no "show". The thriller part of it -- ordinary people fighting a major conspiracy -- is mildly engaging (especially the part where one of the characters is mistaken for a US security hotshot), but you have to plough through too much stodgy lecturing to get there. The flashback structure works quite well, helping to show how the various characters have ended up where they have. But there is a lot of explanation: of how free trade will work, of how a logical consequence is all drugs become legalised, of how government interference is A Bad Thing. Whenever I hear these arguments, I find it difficult to see how government spending on infrastructure -- like roads, the fire brigade, police, sewers, prisons,... -- could be reduced or abolished. These thing are never discussed, however: only free trade. Surely these can't all be funded from private insurance policies? What do you do with a thief or murderer in such a society?
I also suffered a major assault on my willing suspension of disbelief, over admittedly a very minor plot point. The main character's sister is murdered early on, and she finds a message on her answer-phone from her parents, desperately trying to contact her about this family tragedy. But she never calls them back, or contacts them in any way, even after the danger is past! I really felt for those parents...
Cop Joe Kopeksky has been assigned to discover why time is getting out of sync in New York. Why a cop? Because someone has come up with the idea that aliens from another dimension are stealing it -- which makes it larceny -- and the authorities are desperate enough to follow any lead, no matter how looney.
This is not a full blown novel, but a stand-alone novella (117 pages). So there is little time for any depth of plot twisting, and the characters are rather stereotyped. (In particular, the mannerisms of the Oirish priest, the German mad scientist, and the frumpy cop, are a bit much to take -- but the exposure of the psychic is entertaining.) The puzzle story investigation of the time lags is nicely done -- with the physics being plausibly info-dumped as explanations to the police -- and the sympathetic portrayal of the cops, the main scientist and the priest as they hunt for the answer makes for a pleasant light read.
Joe Corrigan wakes up in hospital, his memory in fragments, everything and everyone feeling strangely unreal. He gradually remembers his earlier life, as director of a large Virtual Reality project. But he is told the project was cancelled, and he suffered a breakdown.
Now, we as readers know what is going on, and not just because the backcover blurb gives it away. Face it, working on a VR project, then weird stuff happens, then everything seems a bit unreal -- what's not to get? But it takes Joe twelve subjective years, then someone else telling him, to realise. There's a good technical reason why it's then hard to get out (but the "back door" is blindingly obvious). That technical reason unfolds in flashbacks, setting up the original project, with loads of slightly stodgy info-dumping about the hardware and software technology. Some of this has stood the test of time surprisingly well (reading it 15 years after it was written). In fact, the main implausibility is how quickly some of this stuff happened: it is (coincidentally) set in 2010. In fact, the tech is thought out in enough detail that Hogan reuses something very like it in Bug Park.
The bits inside the VR are a well-done standard solopsist paranoid nightmare, done in everything from Heinlein's 1941 short story "They", and since carried on in plots like Tom Cool's Infectress and Secret Realms, and in films like The Truman Show, The Matrix, and eXistenZ. The main question is, as always, how do you know that you've really got out?
This is pleasingly Libertarian-lite. The main philosophical message is how you are not free if other people control the things that matter to you (here, things like prestige); the solution is to choose different things to matter.
According to the dedication, Hogan was inspired to write Paths to Otherwhere after spending an evening with David Deutsch, a proponent of Everett's Many Worlds interpretation of Quantum Mechanics.
Here, scientists in a rather unpleasant near-future world are working on harnessing the computational power of this multitude of parallel worlds to help the decision making process -- but they get more than they bargained for when they discover they can transfer a consciousness to any of its parallel analogues. The race is then on to see whether the Good Scientists or the Evil Government win a place in the Libertarian Paradise.
The Many Worlds science is handled nicely; it is a sort of "the thinking fan's Sliders". And in a pleasant burst of realism, the inevitable Libertarian society isn't painted as perfect -- some people there are still petty and mean -- it is just significantly nicer than the protagonists' world. (I'm a tad surprised about how recently that world split from ours -- apparently some time in the 1910s -- given the enormous global social attitude differences.)
Unfortunately the good points are spoilt by the rest. As well as using the plot to preach about his current dissatisfaction with the theory of evolution, Hogan makes some rather nasty racial comments (one might argue that these are not really racist, because some of the parallel worlds have the opposite problems, and some don't have them at all -- but he is making them about our world, or at least one very close to it -- that is, about the real world). And yet again, he seems unable to draw a female character who is both sympathetic and a scientist.
But I reserve my main dismay for the stupendous moral dilemma right at the centre of the plot -- about the rights of the person whose body another consciousness is transferred to -- which some of the main characters don't even notice until they have it explicitly brought to their attention, and even then don't seem to be to particularly worried by it.
Eric Haber owns Neurodyne, a company making microminiaturised 'mecs', run using a Direct Neural Control form of VR. Neurodyne is working on scientific and engineering applications, but Eric's son Kevin has developed the idea of Bug Park, using the tiny mecs for entertainment, 'small game hunting' and adventure safaris. And when the competition start playing dirty, Kevin's expertise with the mecs becomes important.
The different effects of physics at the very small scale is quite well drawn, as is the VR control of the various walking, climbing and flying mecs. (The interface to the DNC technology does takes a bit of willing suspension of disbelief, however.) There are at least three different generations of mec size scales, with different properties, giving the feel that this is all part of a developing technology, not just a single super-gadget being built in a garage.
The plot feels more like a techno-thriller than SF (peppered with the occasional rather heavy handed paragraph of politics, taking swipes at all sides); the mecs and their controls are the only difference from today's technology. The mecs are central: they are the technology being fought over, and are also doing the fighting. And they are not 'magical' devices: their technological limitations are integrated into the plot -- they run out of power, have insufficient strength, can't always communicate when they want to. A couple of mecs are left strategically lying around early on in the plot, obviously to be used later, but I liked the way they didn't then magically 'save the day', but instead were just a small part of the entire jigsaw. The action takes a while to get going, but there are several twists, and the scenes where loads of mecs are fighting the baddies are fun.
Taya has been raised alone by the robot Kort all her life on the ship Merkon. As her questions get more acute, Kort begins to tell her the whole truth. And then her life changes dramatically, as first she meets other ship children, then returns to the planet that first launched Merkon millennia ago.
I was disappointed by this curiously passionless story. It does have glimmers of some of Hogan's ideas, in particular, that children may need to be raised in rather special circumstances to be able to achieve full humanity. But there seem to be no really new ideas, themes or depth here.
We never get involved with any of the characters. This is partly due to the structure of four parts, focussing on four incidents in Taya's life from beginning to end (the first and best part, when she is 9, was originally published as the short story "Silver Shoes for a Princess" in 1979), and never getting involved. Also, some of the pseudo-Penrosian speculations on the reasons for the difference between robot and human consciousness, followed by the unnecessarily religious overtones of the ending, spoilt it for me. Hogan has written much better stories than this.
An entertaining collection of Hogan's short stories, biographical anecdotes, and some thought-provoking non-fiction libertarian articles.
This is a "Jupiter Novel", a series inspired by the Heinlein coming-of-age juveniles. Trouble is, no-one else manages to preach as well as Heinlein.
Linc Marani is a 15-year-old street tough well on the way to becoming a hoodlum, when he winds up being offered a stark choice: a 5 year stint in a labour camp, or throw in his lot with an unknown organisation, preaching hard work, duty, and obligations. He reckons he has little to choose, so opts for the latter, and discovers himself in a training camp for those heading out towards a new libertarian paradise.
Actually, the preaching isn't as bad as some of Hogan's later work, and the plot rattles along relatively smoothly. if a tad too conveniently. There's talk of accepting everyone into this new order, of fitting society to people, and even a discussion of how this isn't incompatible with having thrown out many of the initial recruits. I'm not saying the reason holds water, but at least the seeming paradox is confronted, unlike a few of the problems in Hogan's other novels. All in all, a good second rate Heinleinesque juvenile.
-- James Nicoll, rec.arts.sf.written, June 2000