Ventus review

Date: Wed Feb 13 2002 - 02:03:09 MST

I've now finished Ventus, by Karl Schroeder. It should be widely
available in paperback in the U.S.

I enjoyed the book very much. It was a little slow to get going;
the planet Ventus is trapped in a medieval society, and while there are
hints of deep secrets and unexplained technologies, mostly we are dealing
with horseback and swords. However by about 1/3 of the way through the
book most of the actors are in place, and we understand the role of the
struggle on Ventus against a galactic background. From then on I could
hardly put the book down.

The plot unfolds in a linear and logical fashion. Schroeder avoids
the tricks so many authors use to hold the reader's interest, dropping
tantalizing hints and cutting away from characters just as something
is about to be revealed. For the most part, when we are warned that
something interesting is about to happen, it then immediately happens.
Characters reveal their knowledge freely, as it is needed. Although there
is are great mysteries to be solved, the reader has as much information
as any of the characters. We learn as they do, and in the end the
resolution is very satisfying.

Schroeder's perspective is fundamentally optimistic. Unlike so many
authors in this genre, he doesn't feel the need to kill off most of the
main characters, or to arrange a galactic holocaust. While there is
great evil to be faced, the good guys are given a fighting chance to win.

This shows through in his galactic milieu as well. I literally got
tears in my eyes upon learning that the population of the Solar System
is 70 trillion humans (and others), while Earth is mostly a park with few
people living there. How many authors would have the courage to present
such a future? And we aren't just tantalized with this description,
we get to visit these places, get a view of the wonders.

The visual imagination in the story is extraordinary. Ventus begs to be
illustrated. The Winds, the powerful AIs which control the terraforming
of Ventus, manifest themselves amazingly. The Diadem Swans, energy beings
of the upper atmosphere who can reach down to the surface via nanotech
threads; the vagabond moons, gigantic aerostats with grappling hooks for
moving huge quantities of matter about the planet; the shambling morphs
which create new life forms; the desals, with their shining towers;
the variety is incredible.

I do find some weaknesses in the writing. The characters seem a little
cold. They are all pursuing their various missions almost robotically.
While there is growth and change for virtually everyone, there wasn't
much conflict. Most of the time, everyone is working largely at common
purposes. I think Schroeder could work on bringing his characters to
more vivid life.

Ultimately, the story turns on a moral question. What is the ideal
society? What is the best way for man to live? Most people in galactic
society (the Archipelago) apparently live in virtual reality, linked
into the inscape, the pervasive data net. People are happy there.
But some see it as a dead end. The "tyranny of condescension", where
man is ruled by benevolent AI gods, has brought peace and happiness,
but is that enough? These are serious issues for budding transhumans
to consider.

>From the Extropian perspective, I don't think Archipelago society
is ideal. Most people don't seek to transform and improve themselves.
They want happiness, indulging in "a permanent orgy inside the computers."
But the opportunities are there for more. At least some people transform
themselves into gods, merging with AIs or enhancing their biologies.
However I think you may have to become rich and powerful to achieve
this transformation, a difficult task in a world with so many others to
compete against.

But in many ways I do find this a plausible and basically optimistic
view of the future. In a world where benevolent AIs prevent violence
and harm, it's likely that happiness will be enough for the majority
of people. They won't necessarily want to become gods. They are happy
with the opportunities open to them. And for those few who want more,
the goal can be reached.

Overall, I strongly recommend this book for Extropians, or anyone
interested in future societies involving gods and men. The blurbs
printed in the book compare Schroeder to Vinge, Egan and Banks among
others; while I don't think his writing is as polished as theirs, this
is a highly promising first novel. The Archipelago and Ventus represent
new and useful models of future worlds where we might want to live.


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