Books by Kroese, Robert

Kroese, Robert. Schrödinger's Gat. Seattle: CreateSpace, 2012. ISBN 978-1-4903-1821-9.
It was pure coincidence (or was it?) that caused me to pick up this book immediately after finishing Dean Radin's Real Magic (May 2018), but it is a perfect fictional companion to that work. Robert Kroese, whose Starship Grifters (February 2018) is the funniest science fiction novel I've read in the last several years, here delivers a tour de force grounded in quantum theory, multiple worlds, free will, the nature of consciousness, determinism versus uncertainty, the nature of genius, and the madness which can result from thinking too long and deeply about these enigmatic matters. This is a novel, not a work of philosophy or physics, and the story moves along smartly with interesting characters including a full-on villain and an off-stage…well, we're not really sure. In a postscript, the author explicitly lists the “cheats” he used to make the plot work but notes, “The remarkable thing about writing this book was how few liberties I actually had to take.”

The story is narrated by Paul Bayes (whose name should be a clue we're about to ponder what we can know in an uncertain world), who we meet as he is ready to take his life by jumping under a BART train at a Bay Area station. Paul considers himself a failure: failed crime writer, failed father whose wife divorced him and took the kids, and undistinguished high school English teacher with little hope of advancement. Perhaps contributing to his career problems, Paul is indecisive. Kill himself or just walk away—why not flip a coin? Paul's life is spared through the intervention of a mysterious woman who he impulsively follows on a madcap adventure which ends up averting a potential mass murder on San Francisco's Embarcadero. Only after, does he learn her name, Tali. She agrees to meet him for dinner the next day and explain everything.

Paul shows up at the restaurant, but Tali doesn't. Has he been stood up? He knows next to nothing about Tali—not even her last name, but after some time on the Internet following leads from their brief conversation the day before he discovers a curious book by a recently-retired Stanford physics professor titled Fate and Consciousness—hardly the topics you'd expect one with his background to expound upon. After reading some of the odd text, he decides to go to the source.

This launches Paul into an series of adventures which cause him to question the foundations of reality: to what extent do we really have free will, and how much is the mindless gears of determinism turning toward the inevitable? Why does the universe seem to “fight back” when we try to impose our will upon it? Is there a “force”, and can we detect disturbances in it and act upon them? (The technology described in the story is remarkably similar to the one to which I have contributed to developing and deploying off and on for the last twenty years.) If such a thing could be done, who might be willing to kill to obtain the power it would confer? Is the universe a passive player in the unfolding of the future, or an active and potentially ruthless agent?

All of these questions are explored in a compelling story with plenty of action as Paul grapples with the mysteries confronting him, incorporating prior discoveries into the emerging picture. This is an entertaining, rewarding, and thought-provoking read which, although entirely fiction, may not be any more weird than the universe we inhabit.

The Kindle edition is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

May 2018 Permalink

Kroese, Robert. Starship Grifters. Seattle: 47North, 2014. ISBN 978-1-4778-1848-0.
This is the funniest science fiction novel I have read in quite a while. Set in the year 3013, not long after galactic civilisation barely escaped an artificial intelligence apocalypse and banned fully self-aware robots, the story is related by Sasha, one of a small number of Self-Arresting near Sentient Heuristic Androids built to be useful without running the risk of their taking over. SASHA robots are equipped with an impossible-to-defeat watchdog module which causes a hard reboot whenever they are on the verge of having an original thought. The limitation of the design proved a serious handicap, and all of their manufacturers went bankrupt. Our narrator, Sasha, was bought at an auction by the protagonist, Rex Nihilo, for thirty-five credits in a lot of “ASSORTED MACHINE PARTS”. Sasha is Rex's assistant and sidekick.

Rex is an adventurer. Sasha says he “never had much of an interest in anything but self-preservation and the accumulation of wealth, the latter taking clear precedence over the former.” Sasha's built in limitations (in addition to the new idea watchdog, she is unable to tell a lie, but if humans should draw incorrect conclusions from incomplete information she provides them, well…) pose problems in Rex's assorted lines of work, most of which seem to involve scams, gambling, and contraband of various kinds. In fact, Rex seems to fit in very well with the universe he inhabits, which appears to be firmly grounded in Walker's Law: “Absent evidence to the contrary, assume everything is a scam”. Evidence appears almost totally absent, and the oppressive tyranny called the Galactic Malarchy, those who supply it, the rebels who oppose it, entrepreneurs like Rex working in the cracks, organised religions and cults, and just about everybody else, appear to be on the make or on the take, looking to grift everybody else for their own account. Cosmologists attribute this to the “Strong Misanthropic Principle, which asserts that the universe exists in order to screw with us.” Rex does his part, although he usually seems to veer between broke and dangerously in debt.

Perhaps that's due to his somewhat threadbare talent stack. As Shasha describes him, Rex doesn't have a head for numbers. Nor does he have much of a head for letters, and “Newtonian physics isn't really his strong suit either”. He is, however, occasionally lucky, or so it seems at first. In an absurdly high-stakes card game with weapons merchant Gavin Larviton, reputed to be one of the wealthiest men in the galaxy, Rex manages to win, almost honestly, not only Larviton's personal starship, but an entire planet, Schnufnaasik Six. After barely escaping a raid by Malarchian marines led by the dread and squeaky-voiced Lord Heinous Vlaak, Rex and Sasha set off in the ship Rex has won, the Flagrante Delicto, to survey the planetary prize.

It doesn't take Rex long to discover, not surprisingly, that he's been had, and that his financial situation is now far more dire than he'd previously been able to imagine. If any of the bounty hunters now on his trail should collar him, he could spend a near-eternity on the prison planet of Gulagatraz (the names are a delight in themselves). So, it's off the rebel base on the forest moon (which is actually a swamp; the swamp moon is all desert) to try to con the Frente Repugnante (all the other names were taken by rival splinter factions, so they ended up with “Revolting Front”, which was translated to Spanish to appear to Latino planets) into paying for a secret weapon which exists only in Rex's imagination.

Thus we embark upon a romp which has a laugh-out-loud line about every other page. This is comic science fiction in the vein of Keith Laumer's Retief stories. As with Laumer, Kroese achieves the perfect balance of laugh lines, plot development, interesting ideas, and recurring gags (there's a planet-destroying weapon called the “plasmatic entropy cannon” which the oft-inebriated Rex refers to variously as the “positronic endoscopy cannon”, “pulmonary embolism cannon”, “ponderosa alopecia cannon”, “propitious elderberry cannon”, and many other ways). There is a huge and satisfying reveal at the end—I kind of expected one was coming, but I'd have never guessed the details.

If reading this leaves you with an appetite for more Rex Nihilo, there is a prequel novella, The Chicolini Incident, and a sequel, Aye, Robot.

The Kindle edition is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

February 2018 Permalink