Daily Reads: Monday 17/11/2014

Daily Reads 17112014

Morning everyone! I’m online early-ish today (for some parts of the world, anyway), with SA author Dave-Brendon de Burgh’s debut novel Betrayal’s Shadow on my desk, ready to review. Before I get started on that, here are today’s Daily Reads:

– Jared from Pornokitsch has been sick in bed reading duchess porn, and came up with a list of five things epic fantasy can learn from historical romance. I particularly like the points about sex, gender equality (yep, even historical romance is waaay more progressive) and a sense of humour. And now I kind of want to read duchess porn…

– The Little Red Reviewer interviews one of my favourite authors – Ken Liu! He chats about his themes, translating Chinese sf, and gives the best answer for reading translated sf – not because it’s ‘good’ for you, but because it’s fun to try new things.

– Lynn’s Book Blog hosts author S.L. Eaves for a guest review of the home-invasion horror movie You’re Next! (2011). And it sounds pretty good! I like horror, but I do find that the genre tends to generate a lot of crap, so I’m always glad to hear about something worth watching.

Have a great week guys 🙂

 

Daily Reads is my new little feature for helping me get more organised about my online reading, and sharing my favourite posts with you. If you know of something cool you think I should check out, please let me know in the comments 🙂

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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.

Short Story Review: February 2014

I’m a bit shocked that February is already over. I don’t think I can handle another year that somehow flashes by as quickly as 2013 did! But on the other hand, I get to go home to South Africa this March, so yay! I’d also like to spend this month checking out all the Nebula-nominated short fiction because, sadly, I have only read two of them.

But, for now, here are my favourite short stories for February:

full_waterthatfalls“The Water That Falls on You From Nowhere” by John Chu (Tor.com)

This story is based on a thoroughly improbable premise – that water will fall on you from nowhere when you lie, and the quantity and temperature of the water depends on the severity of the lie. The how and why of this is unimportant, but it has profound implications for personal relationships and that’s the subject of Chu’s story.

The protagonist Matt and his boyfriend Gus are in love and perhaps even ready to get married, but Matt has never come out to his traditional Chinese family. Not only is he worried about his parents’ reaction, but about his domineering sister who insists that it is his duty to marry a woman and provide their parents with grandchildren, regardless of his feelings. Matt decides to face the issue head-on by inviting Gus to Christmas dinner with his family.

It’s one of those lovely stories that’s full of emotion – fear, sadness, humour, warmth, tragedy, hope, love. Chu also does an amazing job of weaving Chinese culture and the Mandarin language into the narrative, as in Matt’s way of explaining how he avoided revealing Gus’s gender when speaking about him to his family:

“Mandarin doesn’t have gender-specific third person pronouns. Well, the written language does, but it’s a relatively recent invention and they all sound the same and no one really uses the female and neuter variants anyway. And it’s not like there aren’t words for ‘boyfriend’ or ‘girlfriend’ but I always refer to you as ‘愛人.’ It means ‘sweetheart,’ ‘lover,’ ‘spouse.’ And never using your name isn’t all that unusual. Names are for friends and acquaintances. Members of your family you refer to by title—”

Rather than get angry, Gus handles this with amazing tenderness, and often lightens the mood. I was worried that this might be an emotionally draining story to read, but although it can be difficult it surprised me with its complexity. It’s one of the reasons I love speculative fiction – the way authors can write such touching stories using a premise like water falling on you from nowhere.

 

“A Raft” by Charlie Human (Pornokitsch / Pandemonium: Ash)

This is a very short story – only 635 words – so go and read it now because it’ll only take a couple of minutes. It’s an absurd, fucked up horror story set on a raft, and it’s the kind of short fiction that seems to hit you out of nowhere.

You can read it for free via the link above, and you can find it in the anthology Pandemonium: Ash – a collection of six stories set in the aftermath of the 1883 explosion of Krakatoa – which can also be downloaded for free.

 

 

full_andersonproject“Reborn” by Ken Liu (Tor.com)

I’ll be honest – at least half the Ken Liu stories I read are going to make it into my monthly recommendations. This one is part of a three-story series curated by senior Tor Books editor David G. Hartwell. All three are based on a singular piece of art by Richard Anderson and will be released for free on Tor.com. The image to the right is the Anderson artwork that inspired this story.

Liu tackles some of his common themes in this story – colonialism, culture and the irreconcilable conflicts between past and present. The story is set on Earth after it was colonised by the Tawnin a race of aliens that are neither male or female in gender (Liu uses different pronouns for them; difficult to get used to, but it adds to the worldbuilding). The Tawnin have altered some human minds to remove ‘evil’ and the memories of crimes, allowing both races to live in harmony. The people who undergo these procedures are the ‘reborn’, and of course there are lots of thorny ethical issues surrounding this practice.

Joshua Rennon is a reborn human Special Agent who deals with human rebels, and is in an intimate relationship with a Tawnin. When a bomb is detonated at the arrival of the Reborn from The Judgement Ship (based on the ship in the picture, I think), Josh has to find the people responsible. The case is unavoidably personal, forcing him to deal with issues about his own rebirth and his relationship with the Tawnin Kai. The story explores ideas about gender, sexuality and intimacy as well as memory and human nature, all tied up with the problems of colonialism and post-colonialism. It’s a complex socio-political tangle; definitely something I need to read again.