Archive for April, 2017

Review: Curiosities of Elmira

Saturday, April 22nd, 2017

I enjoy poking around in the less illuminated corners of history.  Kelli Huggins’s Curiosities of Elmira gave me a chance to do so in my old home town. I’m very fond of my first home though I recognize that it’s gauzed up a bit with age and youth.  Elmira’s one of those small Middle Atlantic towns that used to house a mix of manufacturing and agriculture that supported a stable population.  The living was good enough to afford folks their eccentricities while keeping them close to the practicalities. In the last half century many towns with that profile have begun to slide into obscurity.  I suspect that the writing is on the wall for Elmira as well.  Against that backdrop, it’s great to see people working hard to capture its legacy.

Huggins has been working at the county historical museum and blogging enthusiastically for a while now.  I’ve seen first cuts at some of these chapters on the museum’s web site.  That lent a glow of familiarity to the proceedings and having the articles all together made for a lively and friendly reunion.

She thematically breaks the book into collections of short articles.  Each of those sections reflects both her interests and Elmira’s quirky past.  In its heyday, the place was much more of a crossroads both logistically and intellectually.  Most of the heyday described here is in the later half of the 19th century into the 20th.  It makes for a breezy mix of sciences being born and society being rattled by the Civil War.  Huggins treats all the times with introspection and affection, though she does not shy away from criticism when it it due.

It’s a well written and organized survey of the middle history of an interesting place.


Review: Saturn’s Children

Friday, April 14th, 2017

Saturn’s Children starts with a deliberate and fond nod to Asimov and Heinlein and carries that legacy forward admirably. A pastiche or homage to those two by a writer of Stross’s caliber would be an entertaining read.  Stross launches from these classic works and peels away their 1960’s literary context and constraints.  He dissects both the kind of logical tight constraints imposed by Asmiov’s Laws of Robotics and the libertarianism (and scoped sexual liberation) of Heinlein’s later work through a modern historical perspective on Western Society. Stross carries the flag for stories that entertain and make you think, values at the core of Asimov’s and Heinlein’s legacies.

Children is set in a world without humans – or really without intelligent biological life of any kind – extrapolated from both our technical limitations and our societal perspectives.  In front of the plot is a Friday-ish sexy courier on the run, but the real whodunnit is about how these automata formed a society.  Along the way, Stross weighs in on the mechanics of space travel and other SF tropes.

Stross is a penetrating thinker.  He realizes that the sorts of behavioral rules that Asimov posits as edicts from an intelligent designer would instead evolve from an existing society.  Asimov’s Laws are logical; Stross’s are cultural and societal.  As with any societal rules, he recognizes that they arise from a melange of class, role, and sex.  The last may be surprising, but represents the kind of insight I respect from Stross.  Given the way humans interact with their automata (he says clinically) we’re going to screw intelligent robots as we build them.  Any intelligent and emotional entity will bend under that weight.

In addition to the deep cultural thinking, Stross projects the sense of wonder that these great writers captured in an interplanetary civilization.  One can give the statistics of a space elevator, but capturing both the sense of awe that a contemporary human would feel on seeing one while also positing the blase air that a member of that world feels is a bit of writing that elevates the work.