Wednesday, February 19, 2014

How Niven would remake us

kw: book reviews, science fiction, nanotechnology

The Goliath Stone, by Larry Niven and Matthew Joseph Harrington, has two protagonists, Toby Glyer and William Connors, AKA Mycroft Yellowhorse and a few other aliases. Connors was an employee to Glyer, became his mentor—working for him was part of a very long range scheme—and created, with Glyer's unwitting help, the "nanites" or whatever you might call them, that refashion humanity.

The novel isn't quite high concept, but nearly everything does revolve around all the possible implications of nanotechnology. Niven has always been at his most creative when collaborating with another strong writer, and the bubbling fountain of ideas he and Harrington have produced seems the fruit of many long bull sessions, with nothing left on the cutting room floor.

Two sets of nanites are in play. Firstly, a mission using them was sent to an Earth-grazing asteroid, in part to deflect it, but more to experiment with asteroid mining. No human design is ever perfect, so there is wiggle room for unexpected evolution among the "operators", which have been programmed to link up and take advantage of parallel processing. Hey, this is SciFi, so of course they develop super-high AI. Secondly, nanobots are secretly (even to Glyer) set loose among humans, and begin to remake them in an image chosen by Connors/Yellowhorse. This super-bright fellow is apparently the only fully ethical person existing; would that such a man could be! Ethics takes some strange turns, however. The new "inner population" can detect certain attitudes, and in extreme cases act on them, so for example, when one psychopath launches a weapon his head explodes.

A concept along another dimension, apparently coined by these authors, is a new title, Soylent. While the foodstuff in the movie Soylent Green was named to imply it was derived from soya and lentils, here Soylents are "activists whose reforms always seem to shorten the lifespans of human beings." This sounds like an excellent coinage, and I hope it gets into the popular vocabulary. Congress, for example, consists almost entirely of such persons, regardless which side of the aisle they sit on. I suspect Yellowhorse's nanites would cause lots of head-exploding after certain congressional votes. One can only wish…

 Something that makes a novel by Niven so riveting is the turns of the plot. You know a novel will be complex when a list of dramatis personae numbers more than 40. Yet the prose helps a reader along so you don't get lost. Where I do get lost is in the flurry of literary references and puns used by the protagonists. There are only so many of these an author can unobtrusively explain, so a few took me some thought. The name Yellowhorse is explained, and is a particularly chilling image.

Niven's writing sometimes rattles my cage, or borders on offending me. But the flow of interesting ideas makes it worth reading anyway.

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