The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin

The Three-Body ProblemTitle: The Three-Body Problem
Author: Liu Cixin
Translation: Ken Liu
Series: Three Body #1
Published: 14 October 2014 (originally published in China in 2008)
Publisher: Tor Books
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: science fiction
Rating: 7/10

In 1967, during China’s Cultural Revolution, Ye Wenjie sees her father, a physics professor, beaten to death for teaching the ideologically unacceptable theory of relativity. It’s a time of catastrophic anti-intelluctualism, when any academic considered too bourgeois and reactionary (i.e. most academics) is persecuted and killed. Ye Wenjie is an astrophysicist herself, but is forced to abandon her studies. Because of her father she is considered ideologically suspect, and when she is betrayed by a cowardly rebel, she ends up in jail awaiting death. She is saved only by a second form of imprisonment – the opportunity to work at project Red Coast, a top-secret scientific facility conducting SETI research. Ye’s work in astrophysics caught their attention, and her skills have become particularly useful since China started systematically executing its brightest minds. Ye expects nothing but a quiet life and death at Red Coast, but instead she finds something to change the world – communication from an alien race.

In the present day, nanomaterials researcher Wang Miao notices a disturbing phenomenon on the photos he takes – each of them has a sequence of numbers, counting down. Soon he starts to see it imprinted on his vision, and no matter what he tries he cannot figure out how this could be possible. His investigations lead him to an organisation called The Frontiers of Science and a game called Three Body. In the game, an alien world is besieged by unpredictable cataclysms and apocalypses. Various characters in the game – leaders, philosophers and scientists from Chinese and European history – try to come up with theories for predicting the next cataclysm or apocalypse, but these always fail. To beat the game, the player needs to solve the three-body problem, which Wang eventually realises is a mathematical problem.

All this is connected to the strange phenomena he experienced, the mysterious deaths of scientists, and the way scientific research has been losing credibility in the world at large. And it all comes back to Ye Wenjie, and her actions at Red Coast.

The Three-Body Problem was a particularly challenging novel for me to read and review. Firstly, it’s hard sf, which I seldom read because the science just goes way over my head. Secondly, the novel is partly set during the Cultural Revolution in China, which holds great importance for the story as a whole. And… yeah, I don’t know much about that either. Add to this multiple plotlines, some of which are non-linear and one of which takes place in the surreal world of a complex computer game, and what you’ve got is a book best read at a desk in the morning with a few cups of coffee, not relaxing in the evening with a glass of wine.

Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy The Three-Body Problem. I requested a review copy because I was curious, and although it was tough, it was worthwhile. I wouldn’t be able to tell you much about the science in the novel, but I found Liu’s depiction of the intellectual milieu of the Cultural Revolution unforgettable. China is described as a place where “any idea that dared to take flight would only crash back to the ground. The gravity of reality is too strong.” The Revolution is both wildly ambitious and severely limiting and destructive. It’s hard to fathom how absurdly restrictive life under that regime must have been. One of the scenes I found most memorable is when Ye Wenjie asks her supervisor to authorise an experiment that involves firing a radio beam at the sun. Her supervisor immediately rejects her request – the sun is a political symbol, and firing a beam at it could be interpreted in a negative way that would create a political disaster for everyone involved. Absurd as everyone knows this to be, it’s become such a fundamental part of their lives that Ye isn’t even shocked or angry at her supervisor’s decision; instead, she can’t believe she didn’t think of the symbolism herself.

This sociopolitical landscape is crucial to the story because the Cultural Revolution leaves many characters feeling disgusted with humanity. Ye Wenjie witnesses the death of her father; works for a company that chops down beautiful, ancient forests for lumber; is betrayed by a friend, her sister and her mother; and is jailed, nearly killed and eventually forced to work at Red Coast, all in service of the Cultural Revolution. Her experiences define her perspective of humanity:

Is it possible that the relationship between humanity and evil is similar to the relationship between the ocean and an iceberg floating on its surface? Both the ocean and the iceberg are made of the same material. That the iceberg seems separate is only because it is in a different form. In reality, it is but a part of the vast ocean.… It was impossible to expect a moral awakening from humankind itself, just like it was impossible to expect humans to lift off the earth by pulling up on their own hair. To achieve moral awakening required a force outside the human race. This thought determined the entire direction of Ye’s life.

This, in turn, drives the plot. Many people feel the way Ye does, and what they want is for a superior alien race to take over and force change up on the world. Exactly what action they think the aliens should take is a divisive topic of debate.

It’s a very bleak notion – this idea that humanity is a lost cause if left to its own devices. But I’m not al that optimistic about humanity myself, and in reading the novel, it’s easy to understand how people have come to feel that way. Also, the novel doesn’t push that perspective as the truth – it’s a meditation on morality and human nature, constantly grappling with the questions it raises. As a novel about science and philosophy, The Three-Body Problem is an exceptional piece of fiction. Liu does a really amazing job of tying all the elements of the novel together – the Cultural Revolution, the game Three Body, mathematics, physics, first contact, environmental destruction, etc.

The novel does have its shortcomings however, and its weakest point is its characters. Most of them feel flat, moving mechanically through the story with little to bring them to life. It makes sense in a few cases – some characters are just simulations in the Three Body game, and there’s a fairly long section that doesn’t use any named characters at all, like a fable, focusing only on plot. But readers might struggle in the absence of strong characters to connect with, and  it really doesn’t help that Wang Miao, one of the protagonists, is terribly bland and forgettable.

There’s not much to say about him except that he works in nanomaterials and gets caught up in the story because of his scientific education and mindset. At the start, we’re told that he’s an avid amateur photographer, but this is just a plot device that gets discarded after serving its purpose. The same goes for his family, who seem completely pointless from the start. He has a wife and son who both express alarm at Wang’s strange behaviour when he starts freaking out about the countdown, but then they disappear from the plot and Wang doesn’t give them a second thought. It’s particularly odd given that he’s always doing things that would affect his family – he buys a virtual reality suit and spends hours playing Three Body; he skips work; he stays out late investigating the mysteries he encounters; he gets tangled up in a global conspiracy; he finds himself in real danger; he travels to another continent. All this, and not a word about his wife and son. Why write them only to drop them completely?

It’s no surprise, then, that Wang’s part of the story tends to be pretty boring, and the novel as a whole takes a long time to get its main story going with Ye Wenjie. Ye at least is a more exciting, memorable character, given that her experiences are far more dire and her ideas and actions set the story in motion (while Wang just runs around gathering info). Still, she comes across as cold, perhaps because she’s a scientist. In fact most of the characters are scientists or mathematicians, and it’s worth noting that the only other character I found memorable was a police detective – a big, boisterous man named Shi Qiang, nicknamed Da Shi (Big Shi).

So yeah, not an easy read – the content can be complex, the pace slow, and the characters hard to connect with. The one advantage of this is that when the plot eventually gets to its most dramatic moments, it’s incredible to read – bold, exhilarating, thought-provoking stuff. Although there were times during this book that I thought I’d made a huge mistake requesting a review copy, by the end I was very curious about how things are going to turn out for the human race in the second and third books. I don’t know if I’ll keep reviewing the series (feeling a bit out of my depth here), but I would like to keep reading.

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Yesterday’s Kin by Nancy Kress

Yesterday's KinTitle: Yesterday’s Kin
Author: Nancy Kress
Published: 9 September 2014
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: science fiction
Rating: 4/10

Four months ago, an alien ship parked in Earth’s orbit. Contact was made, and while the aliens remained reticent, they assured humanity that they were there on a mission of peace. Two months later the UN granted the aliens – known as Denebs – permission to set up an Embassy in New York Harbor.

Geneticist Marianne Jenner has just published an important paper on mitochondrial DNA, and because of her discovery she is invited to the Embassy to meet the aliens when they finally decide to share their reasons for visiting. A deadly spore cloud wiped out the populations of two of their colony planets, and in ten months that spore cloud will hit Earth, before heading for the Denebs’ home planet. What the Denebs want is to work together with Earth’s scientists to find a vaccine for the spores, which will otherwise cause everyone to die a horrible death. Although their technology is mostly superior, their medical technology is less advanced, so they need the help of local scientists.

Marianne is invited to join the researchers at the Embassy. With three grown children and a grandchild on the way, she feels deeply invested in saving humanity. Nevertheless, she has some very conflictual relationships with her children. Elizabeth, who works in Border Patrol, is an isolationist and doesn’t want aliens on Earth any more than she wants immigrants in America. Ryan, a botanist considers the aliens an invasive species. Both of them believe the aliens are actually conspiring to do something sinister. Noah, the youngest, doesn’t seem to care, but then again he’s the kind of person who considers topics like politics, religion and isolationism to be inconsequential. Noah is primarily concerned with sustaining his addiction to sugarcane, a drug that allows him to feel like a different person every time he takes it.

Yesterday’s Kin is a quick read with a clear story and ideas. It feels like sf for beginners. It’s got some hard science, but whether or not you understand it the basic concepts are easy to grasp and it’s easy to understand what they mean for the narrative. It’s got some great, thought-provoking ideas. The characters’ motives are very clear where necessary. It makes family and motherhood an integral part of a story about aliens and an impending apocalypse, dispelling the stereotype that non-fans have of sf, that it’s all about tech/science/aliens/rayguns etc. rather than human relationships.

It’s all very simple and very neat but it’s actually what made me dislike Yesterday’s Kin. Simplicity can be beautiful and elegant, but it can also mean rudimentary or unrefined, and I feel that this book belongs in the latter category.

There is a lot of clunky infodumping. It’s set in New York and barely looks outward, even though the plot is of international concern and the aliens’ presence is public knowledge. Although the aliens have some interesting aspects, and we get some idea of their monocultural way of living, they’re pretty flat and dull. They refer to their planet, very prosaically, as “World”.

The human characters are more vivid at least, but there’s still something perfunctory about them. Each of them has one or two definitive characteristics: Ryan and Elizabeth are combative xenophobes, Noah is a drug addict desperate to be anyone but himself, Marianne is a scientist and mother, her friend Evan is a cheerful and encouraging gay man. I think the problem is that these attributes fail to make the characters seem like real people. They’re little more than tools shaped to serve the purposes of the plot as opposed to well-rounded individuals. As a result, their personal conflicts feel like cheap melodrama, especially all Marianne’s prosaic blathering about motherhood.

Then there are a couple of characters whose only purpose seems to be to die tragically. The book treats this as something serious, and Marianne expresses grief, but it’s hard to care when the characters were so lifeless to begin with.

An additional problem is a twist in the plot that I saw coming from such a long way off that it seemed like I spent half the book waiting impatiently for the characters to catch up. It’s not something that you’d only notice from your privileged perspective as a reader – plenty of characters are privy to the enough information to at least ask the right questions. It’s ridiculous then, that a bunch of award-winning, world-class scientists don’t notice it.

Consequently, the ending is anticlimactic, with a bunch of trite criticisms about the nature of humanity and American society to wrap up the themes running throughout the book. Quite frankly, the whole point of the book seems to be to provide a vehicle for those criticisms. While I’m inclined to agree with them, it does absolutely nothing to make this uninspired story enjoyable. This really shouldn’t have been my first Kress.

The Humans by Matt Haig

The HumansTitle: The Humans
Author: Matt Haig
Published: 9 May 2013
Publisher: Canongate Books
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: science fiction
Rating: 7/10

This book, this actual book, is set right here, on Earth. It is about the meaning of life and nothing at all. It is about what it takes to kill somebody, and save them. It is about love and dead poets and wholenut peanut butter. It’s about matter and antimatter, everything and nothing, hope and hate. It’s about a forty-one-year-old female historian called Isobel and her fifteen-year-old son called Gulliver and the cleverest mathematician in the world. It is, in short, about how to become a human.

An unnamed alien is sent to earth in the guise of a forty-three-year-old mathematician named Andrew Martin. The aliens kidnapped and killed the real Andrew Martin shortly beforehand, after he proved the Riemann hypothesis – “the most significant mathematical puzzle the humans had ever faced”. It’s a breakthrough that would have “advanced the human race beyond anyone’s imagining”.

But the aliens – Vonnadorians – don’t want such a greedy, violent, narrow-minded species to achieve space travel and go around exploiting other planets and killing other beings. So they’ve sent an unpopular underling to do the unpleasant task of destroying all knowledge of the proof – wiping it from any computer, and killing anyone who might even know that it was solved. LIke Andrew’s wife Isobel and his son Gulliver.

Despite the Vonnadorians’ sophisticated technology however, they can only turn themselves into clones of humans, not replicate their memories. And their understanding of humanity is actually very unsophisticated and deeply, deeply cynical.

Thus, the new Andrew Martin is essentially a “forty-three-year-old newborn on planet Earth”. Or rather, a weirdly rational and extremely pessimistic newborn. He arrives naked and utterly clueless as to why he can’t walk around Cambridge without any clothes on. He stops at a petrol station and reads a copy of Cosmopolitan at the shop to educate himself, giving him a very skewed idea of humanity that focuses rather heavily on orgasms.

The new Andrew’s clumsy attempts to be human are often funny, but it gets a lot more serious when it comes to his wife and son. The original Andrew was a distant and uncaring father who always chose his work over his family, and as a result the alien Andrew’s extremely odd behaviour is not just baffling but hurtful to them.

Not that alien Andrew is happy to be on Earth. At first the only creature he can get along with is the family dog, Newton. He finds everything about humans repulsive and ridiculous, from their protruding noses to their feelings to their clothes. He’s shocked that they actually have spend parts of their short little lives reading instead of just instantly consuming books in capsules – “No wonder they were a species of primitives. By the time they had read enough books to actually reach a state of knowledge where they can do anything with it they are dead”. He criticises the news for being only news about humans (and not one of the other millions of species on the planet) and generally only about war and money rather than “new mathematical observations or still undiscovered polygons”. He can’t believe that the buildings and cars are all dead and stuck to the ground.

His home planet is, of course, completely different. They have no names because they never prioritise the individual over the collective. Their mastery of mathematics has given them immortality, telekinesis and many other gifts. The cars and buildings are living beings in beautiful, complex shapes. They have no weather, no fear, no war, no suffering etc. And they can’t just let the universe do what it wants to do, because [they] will be inside it for eternity”. Hence halting the progress of dangerous species like humans (and probably many others, from the sound of it).

The interesting thing is that the Vonnadorians have achieved many things that humanity desires, like highly advanced technology and immortality, but the novels forces us to look askance at these things when juxtaposed with primitive humanity and all its terrible flaws.

Because, of course, Andrew slowly becomes more and more human, and learns to appreciate humanity. It’s illogical and chaotic, but there’s a beauty in that craziness. As Andrew sees that, he reveals the darker side of his supposedly utopian home – that the Vonnadorians never enjoy anything, never feel anything, don’t care about each other. Despite their vast understanding of mathematics and everything that comes with it, they are stagnant in their understanding of other species and cultures. Andrew’s masters, who are constantly watching his progress, are unable to understand his growing empathy for humans, particularly his ‘wife’ Isobel and ‘son’ Gulliver. He doesn’t want to murder them for the greater good, but his masters won’t give him any choice in the matter.

This novel has frequently been lauded as inspiring and heartwarming, and it’s easy to see why. It wholeheartedly affirms the wonders of human life, despite all its shortcomings and failures. It’s sf aspects are not particularly impressive, but it’s got a feel-good aspect to it that I don’t often encounter in the genre, and it’s the kind of well-written, emotionally charged book that you can give to people who scoff at sff to show them that it’s not whatever cliche they assume it to be.

I’m not a particularly sentimental person though, and there were times when I felt like I was reading the literary equivalent of a Disney movie, particularly in the way alien Andrew becomes a far better father and husband than the original ever was. There’s also a very soft fluffiness in that his growing appreciation for humanity is made so easy by the privileges of Andrew Martin’s life. He’s extremely intelligent, well-educated, has meaningful work as a professor at Cambridge University, lives in a large, comfortable home, enjoys good food and wine. He doesn’t live in an impoverished country, doesn’t have to worry about food, shelter, medical care, political unrest, or a high crime rate. He doesn’t have to deal with the prejudices or other difficulties that might arise from being black, gay, female, poor, disabled, etc. Andrew Martin is a straight white male from an intellectual elite living a cushy life in a first-world country. The only way you could make it easier for him to appreciate being human would be to make him young, gorgeous and athletic too

So, Andrew’s supposedly inspiring insights into the beauty of humanity can sometimes be rather trite or narrow-minded. As a result, It wasn’t a profound and meaningful read for me, as it seems to have been for some people.

That said, it has an optimism that I find charming and perhaps even important. Whether or not your life is anything like Andrew Martin’s it helps to be reminded to appreciate the little things or the way the bad things in life can be good for you. Haig also does some really beautiful things with his story, by entwining mathematics and poetry with Andrew’s awakening. One of the reasons he learns to love humans is the poetry of Emily Dickinson, which is frequently quoted amidst other lovely bits of literature.

And, overall, The Humans is just a nice book to read. That might sound bland, but amidst the horror, grimdark, and dark fantasy, the dystopian and (post)apocalyptic fiction, it helps to be reminded that the world isn’t always as bleak as the Vonnadorians assume.

Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

LagoonTitle: Lagoon
Author: Nnedi Okorafor
Published: 10 April 2014
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Genre: science fiction, fantasy
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 6/10

An alien ship crashes into the ocean off the coast of Lagos. The polluted waters become pure and salty-sweet, and teem with fantastical marine and alien life. Just before the event, three people were wandering towards each other on Bar Beach – Adaora (a marine biologist), Agu (a soldier), and Anthony (a famous rapper). Then the sea itself rears up to swallow them for a meeting with the aliens that changes their lives forever.

When they awake on shore a shape-shifting alien is with them, in the form of a woman who Adaora names Ayodele. They take her back to Adaora’s home laboratory to conduct a few simple tests and decide what to do, but the situation quickly spirals out of their control.

Adaora, Agu and Anthony want to protect Ayodele, so they her help send out peaceful messages to Lagos and the world. Adaora’s maid Philo tells her boyfriend Moziz about the alien, and he and his friends decide to kidnap Ayodele and make her print money for them, assuming that if the technologically advanced aliens can shape-shift, they can create money out of thin air. Moziz’ friend Jacobs is in on the money-making plan but also has hopes for living openly as a transvestite, given that an LGBT student organisation is trying to use the shape-shifting aliens in a campaign for inclusivity. When Adaora’s newly religious husband Chris finds out, he tells his priest, Father Oke, who tries to make the aliens part of his congregation. Many people try to flee the city, where some are reacting to the alien presence with riots, looting and violence. The aliens in turn react to humanity with curiosity and kindness, but also devastating brutality.

It’s a story in which Lagos itself is part of the narrative. Adaora suggests that the aliens chose the city because “If they’d landed in New York, Tokyo or London, the governments of these places would have quickly swooped in to hide, isolate and study the aliens. Here in Lagos, there was no such order.” It’s a city of contradictions. With all its walls and gates, Chris says, “It’s secure but there is no security.” Adaora describes it as a city where everyone wants to leave but no one ever goes; people want to return as soon as they step out. The city is “riddled with corruption” but she can’t imagine living anywhere else.

The writing is flavoured with Nigerian culture – there are lots of local words and expressions, and some of the characters speak in pidgin English, which takes some getting used to. There is a glossary at the back of the book, but I didn’t find this until I’d finished, and it could be highly impractical for eBook readers who want to flip back and forth.

Culture, social circumstances, religion and folklore also play a major role. Adaora is having serious personal problems with her husband Chris, who has become convinced that Adaora is not merely a marine biologist but a marine witch (the worst kind of witch) and that the home laboratory he built for her is a witch’s den. It was when he turned to physical violence that Adaora stormed out and went to Bar Beach where the ocean engulfed her.

Chris isn’t the only one thinking of witches though; many Lagosians see the aliens from the perspective of traditional beliefs, of which witches and shape-shifters are a part. Adaora mentions that she wishes her grandmother could have seen the aliens, because she believed in shape-shifters. Of course not everyone is optimistic – lots of people think the aliens are evil and a threat to deeply ingrained beliefs. When more of the aliens emerge and take human form, the violence escalates. It’s also influenced by poverty and hardship. As Agu notes, people are using it as an opportunity to take out their frustrations.

Creatures from myth and folklore also appear. I thought they were the aliens in other forms, but they’re the creatures themselves. One of my favourite scenes is when a gravelly monster – the personification of a dangerous road – rises up and faces an alien who has taken the form of a Nigerian soap opera celebrity.

Thus science fiction and fantasy become entwined to the point that you can’t fit this book neatly in either genre. Aliens are the stuff of sf and Ayodele describes her race as being technology, but since we have so little understanding of how they do things that their abilities feel like magic. Like the way they alter the marine life in the ocean by giving the creatures what they desire. A swordfish in the opening chapter becomes a big, badass monster (this chapter is the story “Moom!” in Okorafor’s collection Kabu Kabu). The aliens hack into human technology so that crystal clear video broadcasts appear appear on TVs, computers and phones, even if it goes beyond the devices’ capabilities. It’s sci fi that feels like fantasy. Adaora talks about taking refuge in science, but she, Agu and Anthony have all had powerful, fantastical abilities since childhood, none of which she can explain in scientific terms.

Not that Adaora has the luxury of studying the aliens or her abilities; there’s too much going on. For the reader though, there isn’t actually much of a plot. The As – Adaora, Agu and Anthony – have vague goals, which include getting the sickly Nigerian president to negotiate with the aliens, but their plans are frequently thwarted, so progress is slow. In addition the story frequently hops to other POVs, many of which do not contribute to the main plot, although they add texture and colour to the bigger picture.

And there are loads of POV characters – the three As, Adaora’s husband Chris, their kids Kola and Fred, Adaora’s maid Philo, Philo’s boyfriend Moziz, his friend Jacobs, Jacobs’s prostitute sister Fisayo, a mute child, Father Oke. And those are just the recurring characters. We also hear from a 419 scammer, a bat, and a seven-legged spider.

It’s a riot of a story, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As Anthony mentions, Lagos rhymes with chaos, and the city is chaotic even on an average day. The arrival of the aliens sends it into overdrive, and the novel gives us a large, detailed sketch of what that looks like. You get the sense that this is a massive, wild story that can’t be easily contained, so Okorafor chose to depict it as such rather than going for a more traditionally streamlined narrative. And she handles it pretty well – it’s fairly easy to keep track of everything.

But, admittedly, I struggled to get invested in the story. I’d start to engage with a particular character’s struggles, only to be whisked off to see through other POVs. The three As and Ayodele get the most page-time, but I found them to be the least interesting characters. In all the chaos, I was never sure what would happen and or what I wanted to happen; I just sat back and watched it unfold. It’s all open-ended, and the novel closes without any major resolutions. It’s more like the beginning of what will be a long, epochal story, but Okorafor didn’t intend to write a sequel. What’s also frustrating is that we never see the aliens in their “true” forms, never learn what happens when they speak to the humans underwater, and only have a vague idea of what they want. It’s a contact story focused almost entirely on the human reaction in Lagos.

I wouldn’t say this is badly written in the way that some novels with too many characters and POVs are. It’s a kind of planned chaos, rather than a story gone amorphously out of control, and I have no criticisms of Okorafor’s writing. So I can appreciate what she did with novel, even if I didn’t get as wrapped up in it as I would have liked to. Time will tell if it’s made enough of an impression on me that I’ll start to admire it more, or if it’s going to fade from memory. But hey, that gorgeous Joey Hi-Fi cover drove me to buy the book in print, so I’ll probably read it again one day.

Review of Twin-Bred by Karen A. Wyle

Twin-Bred2 by Karen A WyleTitle: Twin-Bred
Series: Twin-Bred
Author: 
Karen A. Wyle
Publisher: 
self-published
Published:
 13 October 2011
Genre: 
science fiction
Source:
 eARC from the author
Rating:
 4/10

When considering the possibility of alien contact, I worry how humanity will behave. As a species, we have frequently proven to be intolerant or hostile when confronted with difference (of race, gender, culture, nationality etc.). Sf has frequently used the alien as a metaphor for the other, exposing and critiquing modes of prejudice and oppression. Less socially conscious tales often reveal our assumptions about the other; consider the stereotype of aliens kidnapping humans for experiments or how many sf stories are about violent alien invaders, portraying other intelligent species as our enemies.

Twin-Bred by Karen A. Wyle is a case of humans behaving badly towards an alien whose motives and culture they do not understand because they can’t or won’t speak to them. It’s an almost embarrassing portrayal of close-minded people encountering a race of technologically inferior beings who might turn hostile.

In the novel, a human colony has been living on the planet Tofarn for 70 years. They share the world with the indigenous Tofa, a race of inscrutable four-armed aliens who don’t have any facial features except a blank pair of eyes. The humans do not know how to communicate with the Tofa, and after seven decades of co-habitation the two races still don’t understand each other. So far, this hasn’t been too problematic and the Tofa didn’t seem accepting of the human presence on their planet. But every now and then a conflict arises: the Tofa pack up and leave a village for reasons the humans cannot discern; they complain that humans are shaking hands in public or wearing the colour blue; they make a noise to prevent the humans sleeping at night.

Mara, an ambitious but emotionally dysfunctional young scientist, comes up with a solution: breeding human and Tofa twins. They will not have any genetic relationship; instead, a host mother (human or Tofa) will be implanted with both a human and a Tofa foetus. Mara believes that sharing a womb will forge a unique bond between the twins, finally enabling the two species to communicate. The humans will be able to learn about the Tofa, and the twins will be trained to resolve inter-species conflicts.

Mara’s idea is the result of her bond with Levi, her own twin who died in utero. Mara has secretly kept him alive in her mind as an entity who is also her only friend and confidant. Mara even names her twin project after him: the Long-Term Emissary Viviparous Initiative or L.E.V.I.

The Project gets government backing, probably because the government officials all have their own agendas, hoping to use the twins and their abilities to gain power and influence. Even the Tofa seem to be plotting something, not that any of the humans have the means of finding out what they’re up to.

Now that you have the gist of the plot, I’ll return to the start and begin unpacking all the ludicrously implausible aspects of this story. Humans lived for 70 YEARS on Tofarn without talking to the Tofa. SEVENTY YEARS. There are actually villages and towns where the two species live together, but still, nothing. Granted, the Tofa are not what you’d call sociable, but the overwhelming impression I got is that humans didn’t even try. It seemed like they took one look at the Tofa’s featureless faces, and gave up any hope of conversation. A couple of them might have tried speaking loudly in English.

But guess what: the Tofa have mouths and they can speak. A little girl named Laura learns this when she befriends a young Tofa who tells her his name. Her father tells her that Tofa mouths are just hidden by membranes. She tells her friend Veda this and introduces her to the Tofa. They play together until the Tofa’s father comes and breaks up the friendship. Laura, her father, and Veda never mention this groundbreaking information to anybody, and no one reports a similar experience.

So humanity plods along in total ignorance. Apparently they left Earth without realising they might encounter beings who aren’t exactly like humans. Many of them are outright racist and a couple behave like rednecks whose ideal social gathering would be a lynch mob. It’s been seventy years and the sight or close proximity of the Tofa still disgusts and disturbs them. The Tofa basically allowed them to set up a very comfortable colony on their planet, and all the humans can do is complain about how weird and icky the aliens are.

Enter Mara with L.E.V.I. Because when people don’t even want to look at the Tofa you can try implanting human women with their foetuses. Humanity goes from making virtually no effort at communication to setting up an extremely complex, long-term, expensive Project based on an “uncertain and speculative” hypothesis from a scientist with serious mental problems.There are so many holes in this Project it’s easier for me to put a few in point form:

  • Humans know NOTHING about Tofa biology. They haven’t even realised that the Tofa have mouths. They don’t know how Tofa reproduce. How could anyone possibly conceive of a Project that involves implanting Tofa and human mothers with embryos of both species?
  • Most humans seem disgusted or at least disturbed by the Tofa, so why is it so easy to get host mothers who are willing to carry an alien foetus?
  • The humans can’t speak Tofa and the Tofa can’t speak English so they have to explain the Project using drawings with stick figures. WTF?
  • If the humans can explain something as complex as the Project using stick figures, then why didn’t they try this before or after?
  • The Tofa are technologically inferior to the humans, so how are they able to harvest and store embryos for the human scientists to use?

But whatever. The Project continues as (badly) planned, with a few hiccups like foetuses dying or human mothers freaking out when they see alien babies inside them during the ultrasounds (were they not briefed?). Nevertheless, a bunch of healthy human-Tofa twins are born.

The Tofa children are taught to speak English, which they do as easily as the human children. And to everyone’s shock, the Tofa mothers learn to speak English too, picking it up while living in the Project compound. If communicating was so simple why have none of the Tofa done it before?! Yes, they aren’t generally in favour of speaking to humans, but if the mothers are so willing to do it, I find it impossible that they were the first. The ending reveals additional reasons for the Tofa remaining aloof, but it’s unconvincing and just leaves you with another slew of questions.

It’s impossible for the humans to truly learn the Tofa language, because it has a telepathic component, so humans are conveniently exempt from having to bother. But you’d think that the human scientists would spend every waking moment learning everything they can about Tofa biology and culture. They don’t. Or at least they don’t seem to. Every revelation happens by chance, usually when the twins are playing together and one of the adults notices something unusual and asks for an explanation. It’s perhaps not surprising when you consider what some of the staff members are like – even after years spent working on the Project they still squirm at the sight of human and Tofa children sitting together, or seeing a Tofa come up to speak to them. Considering the resources that must have gone into the Project, it seems almost fruitless.

Even more so when the twin-bred are actually sent out on their first assignments. Up to this point, the Project remained top secret (highly unlikely, given their sloppy security measures). You can imagine what happens when the the results of a human/alien breeding program are introduced as surprise communication specialists to a world full of people who don’t like aliens. FAIL.

There are loads of other plot issues, but there’s not much point getting into them; you get the picture. I’ll move on to the writing, characters and worldbuilding.

The writing is fine and seems to have been properly edited, but the style or structure is very strange – Wyle tells the entire story in brief sections with more POVs than I could possibly remember. Most of these are only a few paragraphs long; the longest scenes are maybe 2 or 3 pages. The result is that the story moves very quickly because each little section is like a report on an issue or development in the plot, which covers 30-40 years. You could argue that this very perfunctory narration suits the pseudo-scientific plot, but it’s also completely… um, alienating. It struck me as a means of writing a novel if you were focussing on the plot but weren’t in the mood for things like character development or worldbuilding.

There are far too many characters, quite possibly more than I’ve encountered in any novel. Many of them make such minuscule contributions to the plot that it doesn’t matter if you instantly forget who they are. Sometimes Wyle randomly throws in a new character with a name, job title and a cup of coffee just so they can make a minor point about something. There’s almost no characterisation except to distinguish Tofa children from their human twins and to emphasise how socially inept Mara is. She’s actually the only character with a personality, but at the same time I found her thoroughly unlikeable.

The worldbuilding is equally flat. Tofarn is the most un-alien alien planet I’ve ever come across. It’s like a human society on Earth with a scattering of aliens thrown in. We hear very little or absolutely nothing about the flora, fauna, climate, geography, etc. of Tofarn. Whatever is mentioned has no bearing on the plot whatsoever. The humans are still in the process of reproducing what they had on Earth (they don’t have the resources to farm cows yet, for example), but most of the time you could forget that they were on another planet. Their society is almost identical to an affluent American town. They eat chocolate and muffins, wear leather, keeps cats as pets. The only major differences are the technological advancements like hover cars and the tablets everyone carries around in lieu of cellphones.  It makes perfect sense that they brought the necessary plant seeds, animal DNA and tech from Earth, but how is it that everything works perfectly on Tofa? Did they not have to make any adjustments? How do the humans even know that the planet is called Tofa?

Even though I didn’t like the way the humans behaved or how mysterious the Tofa are as an alien race, I can accept that as the tough situation within which the characters must struggle. One of the more interesting aspects of the plot was the way some people viewed the Project as a means of customising the Tofa, making them more acceptable to humans. Clearly the novel is meant to function as a critique of intolerance, which is good, although it ends up being quite defeatist about the issue. But I can accept that too – we can’t always have he endings we want. What I can’t ignore are all those other flaws. It’s just so deficient in the speculative part inherent in speculative fiction.

Review of Existence by David Brin

Title: Existence
Author: David Brin
Published: 19 June 2012
Publisher: Tor Books
Genre: science fiction
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 8/10

It’s not often that you come across a novel of such immense scope as this one. In fact I’m not sure I ever have. Existence makes The Lord of the Rings look like a short story. Not in terms of length, of course. At 560 pages, it’s long but hardly epic-fantasy long. But in those 560 pages, David Brin has given us a detailed and realistic future world, a large cast of characters, a decades-long story, articles on topics such as the apocalypse, first contact and artificial intelligence, and a discourse on humanity, the universe and the very nature of existence. Reading it was something like the literary equivalent of boarding a spaceship and, after a long journey, finding myself floating before the star-dusted canvas of space. Not that I know what that’s really like, but you get my point – it’s requires some effort, but it’s really impressive.

Existence begins in the late 2040s or 2050s. Gerald Livingston is an astronaut garbage collector whose job it is to clean up the trash orbiting the Earth. One day he finds an alien artefact and humanity finally realises that long-pondered possibility of alien contact. The world is awestruck, and debates immediately begin to rage across the globe. What do the aliens want? Do they want to invade our planet, colonise us, enslave us? Or are they friendly, looking only for company and the chance to share knowledge? Are they supreme beings or monsters or both? What should we do about it?

The story is told from the perspectives of multiple narrators. Gerald Livingston is one of them, of course, since his discovery is the very basis of the novel. There’s Peng Xiang Bin, a Chinese peasant who makes a meagre living scavenging junk on a drowned coastline and makes an equally epic discovery. On the other side of the wealth spectrum is trillionaire altruist Lacey Hacker-Sander and her adventure seeking son Hacker. Tor Povlov is a young rising star in online journalism in a world where journalists can have their thoughts recorded and instantly uploaded during events. Hamish Brookman is a novelist whose works always warned against technological and scientific hubris. He acts as a spokesperson from a movement that believes humanity should halt technological progress and revert to a simpler life in order to avert inevitable disaster.

There are more narrators, some with only small parts. With this multitude of perspectives, Brin not only shows you different views of the main story, but also builds a complex, realistic world and offers diverse thoughts on existence, intelligence, and what it is to be human. For example, one of the narrators is autistic and speaks in a manner that is difficult for the average person to understand. His perspective is part of a larger debate about “auties” – is autism a disability or is it another (higher?) form of intelligence? This comes after an event or epidemic known as the Autism Plague.

There’s also a good deal of fictional non-fiction in the form of short essays/articles on related topics – ways in which the apocalypse might come about, debates about artificial intelligence, immortality, and, obviously, the aliens. Basically the kinds of articles you might expect to read in Brin’s vision of the future. It gives his world incredible depth, and offers some delectable food for thought for idea fetishists and philosophically minded sf readers. Existence even quotes and comments on science fiction and other literature from our time, as that would naturally become part of the discussion.

The articles and the discussions about the aliens were my favourite parts of the book. At first, no one is entirely sure what the aliens’ motives are, and people make whatever guesses they can. There are the familiar scenarios that we’ve come across in books and movies – that the aliens want to invade; that the aliens are practically deities and in comparison humans are barbarians who could never understand such sophisticated beings.

However, these ideas are basically just given an honourable mention amidst much more complex, carefully considered theories that are constantly modified as people learn more about the alien artefact. Why should they fall into such simple categories as monsters or gods? What if, unlike most alien contact scenarios, we proved perfectly capable of interacting with aliens in a peaceful, intelligent and productive manner? The aliens invite humanity to “join us”, and people around the world are inspired by the thought of joining an interstellar community, but what if “join us” means join our religion, or join our army? What if the aliens charge a price for any technology they might have? How might their technology affect our own industries and economies? What will happen to human culture if it comes into contact with an alien one? And what kinds of being are the aliens themselves? Why do they behave the way they do?

The theories evolve as people learn more, and there’s always a plurality of possibilities. As the novel progresses, humanity changes, and ideas of existence acquire new facets and depths. What if, what if, what if? The novel never stops asking this, really flexing the speculative abilities of the sf genre. It’s as much a thought experiment as a story, and that’s the beauty of it. It gave me far more than I anticipated.

The downside is that it can be tedious at times. Some parts are bound to be less interesting to you than others. Given the scope of Brin’s project, it’s probably unavoidable. Deciding on my rating required a bit of personal debate – how does ease of reading and enjoyment weigh up against the novel’s scope and ideas? I considered giving the novel a 7 (or a 6, during some boring bits) simply because it was often so damn hard to read. With nothing even resembling a scientific background, plus having a relationship with sf that’s less than a decade old, I struggle with hard sf (and I consider this to be hard sf, although it incorporates many of the things I love about soft sf too). The technical details often go right over my head, and Existence has good deal of those. If I knew more about information technology or space travel, I might have had an easier time.

Admittedly, these are my shortcomings rather than the novel’s but to add to that, you’re also dropped into the depths of a future world without the benefit of info dumps. Brin’s worldbuilding is excellent and has the sense of realism that comes from treating his future as the norm, in the same way that an author writing a contemporary novel wouldn’t explain things like Facebook and Twitter to his readers. Which is great in some ways, but also means that you’ll probably struggle to get a grasp on the technological, ecological, and social changes that distinguish this world from our current version. Naturally, there’s a lot of sophisticated technology, most of which is used to immerse humans in the digital world. There are plenty of neologisms. For example, AI is known as ai, and the two letters are placed in words that denote the use of such technology, eg. aissistant, aintity. Characters also frequently make reference to fictional events or concepts such as Awfulday or the Basque Chimera, but without offering any explanation to the reader. Even when there are detailed explanations or demonstrations of tech, they may only come much later in the book.

Add to this a multitude of characters and several series of speculative essays, and you can begin to understand what I mean when I say this isn’t an easy read. At times it isn’t even a particularly enjoyable one so (to get back to the rating issue) I couldn’t give it a 9 or 10, at least not on a first read. But 7 felt too low, for two reasons. Firstly, it’s so ambitious, and I have to admire what Brin has achieved. Secondly it has a spectacularly satisfying ending that achieves a stunning balance of optimism, gravity, and excitement. At times I wondered if I was ever going to finish this, but at the end I just thought “WOW. That’s brilliant. That’s better than I’d ever expected. I have to read this again one day.”

 

Buy a copy of Existence at The Book Depository

Up for Review: Existence by David Brin

I’m reading this one now. It requires a lot of focus, being the kind of sci fi novel that really exploits the genre’s fetish for ideas and speculation.

Existence by David Brin (Tor Books)

Marketing copy from NetGalley:

Bestselling, award-winning futurist David Brin returns to globe-spanning, high concept SF with Existence.

Gerald Livingston is an orbital garbage collector. For a hundred years, people have been abandoning things in space, and someone has to clean it up. But there’s something spinning a little bit higher than he expects, something that isn’t on the decades’ old orbital maps. An hour after he grabs it and brings it in, rumors fill Earth’s infomesh about an “alien artifact.”

Thrown into the maelstrom of worldwide shared experience, the Artifact is a game-changer. A message in a bottle; an alien capsule that wants to communicate. The world reacts as humans always do: with fear and hope and selfishness and love and violence. And insatiable curiosity.

Existence will be published on 19 June by Tor Books.