The three-body problem, by Liu Cixin

The three-body problem Book Cover The three-body problem
Three body trilogy
Liu Cixin (Translator: Ken Liu)
Science fiction
Tor Books
October 14th 2014
e-book
336

My happiest moment in the recent week was not the usual "returning to my own bed" or "having a big mug of chai" or "oh, I actually already paid that bill!".  Instead, it was the discovery that The three-body problem is actually the first part of a trilogy. There's more of it! And it's going to be translated! I may actually have done a little dance.

Because this was a fantastic read.  So much so that it helped me to see some clear rules for exactly what makes a book rise on the awesome-scale, to this reader. A couple of examples include:

A coherent story in which I don't feel lost or confused, and yet have NOT guessed exactly where everything is going before I'm even halfway through the book.  (It's actually very rare.  I don't mean I always guess everything early on, but in most cases an experienced genre peruser will have a good idea of the end of the road after just a few steps on it, you know? I wouldn't be an SF reader if I didn't adore the tropes, but being kept guessing is, uh, also very cool.)

Density.  I love the kind of novel where every paragraph is so sodden with information, references to other phenomena/sources/knowledge, concepts, the immediate visualisation is something like a monster book with pages like sponges, all swelled up so the cover doesn't have a chance to close over it all.   This is partly why I'm a Neal Stephenson reader, it's why this year's biggest new author crush has been Peter Watts, and it's a big part of  why I loved this book,. The three-body problem, to bits.

Some readers will dislike the parts with all the, what's the word, tech babble.   Some because they're bored by tech babble in general, and some, undoubtedly, because they already know enough of the science involved to find it boringly basic - or even full of flaws, I don't know.  With my half-a-completed-astronomy-101-class I fit neatly into the middle group,  free to just go "ooh" and "aah" and "whoah".

Being a European reader, though, the most alien thing encountered in this novel was probably the flashes of the Chinese cultural revolution.   I've never been fed much information about it or been exposed to a trigger that led me to look it up on my own, but now I want to know more, and that's just one more reason why translating fiction like this is neat stuff. (How much of your general knowledge of history and culture comes from the fiction you read? I've been terribly aware of this ever since I was a tiny and my school teacher got to the curriculum bit with Marco Polo and I was all "I know this! I've read this Donald Duck story!"...  It was, in fact, a very accurate Duckburg story, at least as accurate as the school texts, for what that's worth.)

The book opens with a little chart of the three generations of characters populating the story.  For me, that page was the scariest one, because I sort of panicked about remembering all the names.  That's how I always react to that kind of thing at the start of a book, though.  Back when I started reading Dead Russian Guys I often kept pen and paper nearby to make notes about characters until I felt confident about all the long names.  Happily, that's completely unneccesary here.  Just turn the page.

A highly educated young woman is employed in manual labor, cutting down trees, somewhere in middle-of-nowhere, or possibly Mongolia.  She keeps to herself, until she befriends a man who will ruin her political status in order to save himself,  but not before he's provided her with a forbidden book that helps to confirm the woman's dismal view of human civilization. Not a surprising view, given her personal history - and not, as it turns out, a lonely view.  There will come to be many like her.

Scientific buzzwords, miracles, haptic video games, a classic charming-bastard police officer and a handful of other memorable characters, make up a novel I didn't anticipate and was completely swept away by.  I don't want to discuss the plot in more detail than that, because I never really get a good feel for where the "spoiler!"-border is, just have faith in all this geeky excitement I'm displaying.   I'll add that Ken Liu's translation work is smooth and painless, the resulting prose is clear and beautiful, and his foot notes and afterword display what I consider to be sound choices and guesses about what kind of thing a reader like me might need to know more about in order to make sense of it all.

I can only hope the next part of the story will be available in a language I can read very soon.

Status update: Danish germs and imminent spookiness

Hello!

I’m going to do a ramblypost in bullet list format. Because that’s how I roll.  Here’s some things:

  • It’s been a slow transition, but I’m still often struck by how weird it is not to carry a hefty weight of books when travelling. And be all “meh” about book stores. Because, well, there’s more books on my kindle than I can even list off the top of my head, and I can carry it in one single tiny pale hand without strain.  And those books will nearly always be cheaper than their paper counterparts.
  • Copenhagen is a nice place and offers things like cat cafés and huge aquariums and hazelnut milk lattes, but it also provides very persistant head colds. Good grief.  I even bought a knit hat there, isn’t that supposed to be some kind of ward against germy discomfort?
  • Started reading Liu Cixin’s The three-body problem on the flight home. I love it to bits and am glad I already threw money at Clarkesworld’s kickstarter to fund the translation of more Chinese SF.  Really, awesome reading.
  • I just discovered a title of a coming Neal Stephenson novel, but more information is nearly impossible to find – I did stumble across a reddit thread, also drenched in uncertainty and desperate need-to-know-moreness, so Seveneves remains a mystery.
  • A lot of people are planning spooky reads for October! I’ll be finishing a horror/dark fantasy anthology and possibly McCammon’s Swan song, but I don’t have any specific horror plans aside from that.  Well, except for attending a Welcome to Night Vale-show near the end of the month.
  • I’m having a lot of NaNoWriMo thoughts. Are you?
  • One of my audible credits this month was spent on Scott Westerfeld’s Afterworlds, even though I didn’t particularly care for my previous experience with the author, which was Uglies.  Will find out once I’m through Abercrombie’s Half a king, though.
  • It’s finally cold enough to enjoy bunny slippers and flannel PJs. And hot beverages all day.  Yay!

Waiting on: Bête

Adam Roberts intrigued me with By light alone  and Yellow Blue Tibia,  and I’ve wanted to read pretty much every book of his I’ve come across.  And I will, someday!  But, very likely, the coming novel Bête will be on the top of my reading list.  Because:

A man is about to kill a cow. He discusses life and death and his right to kill with the compliant animal. He begins to suspect he may be about to commit murder. But kills anyway…

It began when the animal rights movement injected domestic animals with artificial intelligences in bid to have the status of animals realigned by the international court of human rights. But what is an animal that can talk? Where does its intelligence end at its machine intelligence begin? And where might its soul reside?

As we place more and more pressure on the natural world and become more and more divorced, Adam Roberts’ new novel posits a world where nature can talk back, and can question us and our beliefs.

 

Animal intelligence! Soul philosophy! Food chain ethics!  I can’t wait, seriously.   And yet I have to wait another… 24 hours, as this becomes available to my kindle on Sep 25th. Ha!

Top ten books on my fall to-read list

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by the Broke and the Bookish.
Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by the Broke and the Bookish.

At the moment I’m in Copenhagen and not actually publishing this post at all, except by means of magic. And wordpress scheduling. We have to assume I’m dazed with shark glee (because there’s a new aquarium!) and full of tea and nothing even resembling traditional Danish cooking because I will have beelined for the nearest thai restaurant.  And who knows what I’m reading – skipping the teaser Tuesday post seems in order.   Here goes Top Ten Tuesday instead!

This one is difficult, though.  I’m going to do it twice over: One list for the new and exciting crop of books,  and one for my backlog.

Top ten new shinies:

  • Maplecroft by Cherie Priest
  • Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes
  • Bête by Adam Roberts
  • The Peripheral by William Gibson
  • Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie
  • Willful Child by Steven Erikson
  • The three-body problem by Cixin Lu
  • Symbiont by Mira Grant
  • Dragons at Crumbling Castle by Terry Pratchett
  • Beautiful You by Chuck Palahniuk

There were others I wanted to add, and probably some major ones I just couldn’t think of off the top of my head, not to mention some I still have in mind as “recent” which turns out to have been out for over a year now,  because time flies and I can’t keep up.

Top ten from the stacks:

  • Galileo’s Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson
  • Bonk: The curious coupling of science and sex by Mary Roach
  • Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones
  • The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe
  • House of chains by Steven Erikson *
  • The Knowledge: How to rebuild our world from scratch by Lewis Dartnell
  • Swan Song by Robert McCannon
  • Foundation’s Edge by Isaac Asimov
  • Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank
  • Zoobiquity: What animals can teach us about health and the science of healing by B. Natterson-Horowitz and K. Bowers

* This is a terrifying point on the list. It’s the 4th of the Malazan books of the fallen series. I devoured and loved the first three, and then some reality things occured and I’ve been away from the series for a little over a year now just gathering the energy to dive back in.  I even bought this back then, so it’s just been sitting around, woefully ignored, waiting for me to get back to my smoky tea and dinosaur PJs whole-day Malazan reading sessions.

Hey, you know what?  Without any planning or consideration, my lists are almost evenly gender-balanced in authors.  It’s mostly speculative fiction and a few bits of non-fic,  and the “B. and K.” authors on the last one there are both female.   I’m making a note because I don’t feel like women are invisible in SFF at all.  I know I’m fortunate to be a reader of recent decades, of course.  I’ll look over my reading year as a whole in a few months, but I really believe my reading, as a sample of “an average genre enthusiast’s reading”,  is not as skewed toward male authors as SFF critics might predict.

Dragonflight, by Anne McCaffrey

Dragonflight Book Cover Dragonflight
Dragonriders of Pern
Anne McCaffrey
Fantasy, Science fiction
Transworld Digital: New Ed Edition
first published 1968
e-book
356

I'm not crazy about dragons.  For a long time, I considered dragons on the cover of a book to be a sure sign it was the type of fantasy I would be terribly bored by.  Of course, I've been proven wrong on many occasions now, but I think it might be relevant here, because Anne McCaffrey's Dragonflight was probably always most popular among readers inclined to dream of bonding with a dragon of their own.

See, I struggle to see any other reason this novel would still have an audience.  I feel apologetic about this; I know it's a beloved classic of the genre and all that.  I learned while reading that the book Dragonflight is actually a few stitched-together parts written at different points in the author's career,  which goes a long way toward explaining why I spent the first half generally bored and annoyed, while the last, oh, forty percent was noteably better, in both plot and prose.

Young Lessa, with a grand background of her own, is taken from dreary surroundings into the Dragon Weyr, chosen along with other girls as a candidate for the traditional impression on the new dragon queen, who is bursting out of her egg just then.    Once a dragon has chosen, impressed, a human, they are a close unit until death - a telepathic connection, friendship, understanding.  A dragon rider need never be alone.

Oh, and the dragons have a few other useful abilities, especially when it comes to fighting enemies from a neighbor star.  (I understand that at the time of writing, science fiction was the "respectable" genre, which I think at least partly explains the genre overlay.)

My main issue with the book is that there aren't really any obstacles.  Or, they're there, but they're overcome with the bat of an eye, a hint of magic powers, a timely discovery of a new trick.  Obstacles are held up and pointed at, but then quietly put down and taken off scene.   It might matter less if there was anything else to hold my attention, but the characters are mostly two-dimensional, and the main character is - to me! - simply unlikeable.   The author decided to have her think certain things and act certain things with the reason because I am a girl, after all.   Huge red flag! Eek.    Additionally. there is a problematic romance scene,  and it's all really just very far from how I prefer my fiction to work.   (McCaffrey was a romance writer: I respect that, and recognise that a lot of my reaction here is a huge genre mismatch.)

The good thing about reading Dragonflight is knowing what everyone else is talking about when they mention Dragonflight,  and sooner or later they will, because of the whole classic status thing.  I now know what it is,  and I understand how the story probably had a bigger impact nearly fifty years ago.   (But Ursula Le Guin wrote in the same time period, with a very different take on girls. Time isn't an auto-excuse.)   I know from discussion threads about the book that the following Pern books are considered to have vastly improved characters and interesting stories,  which I'm inclined to believe, but I have so much epic fantasy on my to-read list, I prbably won't see any reason to spend any more time with these dragons.

(But hey,  science fiction fantasy is always fun in combination.  I can't actually think of any good examples except perhaps Richard Morgan's fantasy books - but I suppose most of the dying Earth trope is like this.  I've been promised I'll find what I want when, finally, I read Gene Wolfe. Which I've pledged to do this month, but on Monday I will be close to sharks, so my attention span may be compromised.)

Red Rising, by Pierce Brown

Red Rising Book Cover Red Rising
Red rising trilogy
Pierce Brown
Science fiction, YA, Dystopia
Del Rey (Random House)
Jan 1st 2014
e-book
382

"Uh", I told my cohabitant, "I'm reading this thing that is sort of a cross of Hunger Games and the battle school bits of Ender's game and it's on Mars."

"That sounds awesome", he said.

"Well, it is, but..."

-

This shouldn't really be compared to the Hunger Games, or anything else really, but it's pretty inevitable given the main ingredients:  Future totalitarian dystopia, rigid class society, a televised war between teenagers representing different school houses,  and a sprinkle of rebellion.  Oh, and some handy future tech to shape the plot.

I picked this up because I have a huge soft spot for Mars.  Not the chocolate. Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars,  Dan Simmons' Mars,  Andy Weir's Mars, Philip K. Dick's Mars, James S. E. Corey's Mars,  et cetera.   Babylon 5 Mars. You understand.  (And there are plenty of other dorks like me.)  Well played, Red Rising.  I just wish you let the planet play an even greater part in the story,  though I'm willing to admit that's an unreasonable point of criticism as long as the genre is not infact Mars Fiction.

This is of course a trilogy starter, with the second volume, Golden son, to be published in January 2015.   It's a well shaped first-of-a-trilogy sort of story; it has its own contained arc that gets a satisfying kind of closure, while leaving a bigger arc to play out, of course, over the next two books.   I'm taking the time to appreciate this because of recent experiences with series-starters that read more like simply chopped-off books with no questions answered at all.  You get a cookie for that, Red Rising.

The class system is colors. There are pinks and greens and browns and blues, and plenty of others.  Darrow, the protagonist, is red.  He and his fellow reds are pioneers; toiling underground to extract valuable resources so that Mars may eventually be colonized.  They have been isolated in their hard work for generations; they have culture, traditions, habits, expectations.  Low expectations.  They are not unaware of the other colors.  There are grays and bronzes and even golden supervisors making appearances every now and then.

Darrow's story takes off when, through a harsh series of events, he finds out he's been deceived. They've all been deceived.

I thought the book started out unconvincing and fairly slow,  but once things got rolling,  it turned out to be a quickly devoured pageturner.   Action and a bit of pathos is what the novel has going for it.

The characters are less solid,  including our hero, Darrow.  While they're not exactly cardboard,  we don't get very far under their skin.  The story is told in first person from Darrow's point of view, so we get to look around a little bit in his head, but not quite enough to make the emotional impact of his losses and victories as great as it could have been.   He does however develop, learn, and change through his experiences;  good for him.

So I was telling my cohabitant about the book and I said, "Well, it's like one of those movies we totally would watch, but maybe not stand in line for at the premiere."

A good action adventure has its time and place, though.  It is possible I'll read the next book if I come across it at, well, the right time and in the right place.

Waiting on: The fifth season

N.K. Jemisin is yet another current author I pay a lot of attention to, after her Inheritance trilogy.  A new series starter is on its way, stated in tha author’s blog to be published in 2015;  The fifth season.  From the description, and what I know Jemisin to be able to deliver,  it sounds crazyawesome.*

* Technical term

THIS IS THE WAY THE WORLD ENDS. AGAIN.

Three terrible things happen in a single day.

Essun, masquerading as an ordinary schoolteacher in a quiet small town, comes home to find that her husband has brutally murdered their son and kidnapped their daughter. Mighty Sanze, the empire whose innovations have been civilization’s bedrock for a thousand years, collapses as its greatest city is destroyed by a madman’s vengeance. And worst of all, across the heartland of the world’s sole continent, a great red rift has been been torn which spews ash enough to darken the sky for years. Or centuries.

But this is the Stillness, a land long familiar with struggle, and where orogenes — those who wield the power of the earth as a weapon — are feared far more than the long cold night. Essun has remembered herself, and she will have her daughter back.

She does not care if the world falls apart around her. Essun will break it herself, if she must, to save her daughter.

Teaser: The female man

…I’m currently reading The female man by Joanna Russ, an SF classic for obvious and less obvious reasons, and often considered “outdated” because it has a lot of things to say about men and women,  and feminism is apparently different now than when when this book was published in 1975.   Maybe it is! I haven’t finished it, so I won’t state an opinion yet – but really, bits like this feel quite current in 2014.  Also, it made me giggle-snort.

“The game is a dominance game called I Must Impress This Woman. Failure makes the active player play harder. Wear a hunched back or a withered arm; you will then experience the invisibility of the passive player. I’m never impressed — no woman ever is — it’s just a cue that you like me and I’m supposed to like that. If you really like me, maybe I can get you to stop. Stop; I want to talk to you! Stop; I want to see you! Stop; I’m dying and disappearing!
SHE: Isn’t it just a game?
HE: Yes, of course.
SHE: And if you play the game, it means you like me, doesn’t it?
HE: Of course.
SHE: Then if it’s just a game and you like me, you can stop playing. Please stop.
HE: No.
SHE: Then I won’t play.
HE: Bitch! You want to destroy me. I’ll show you. (He plays harder)
SHE: All right. I’m impressed.
HE: You really are sweet and responsive after all. You’ve kept your femininity. You’re not one of those hysterical feminist bitches who wants to be a man and have a penis. You’re a woman.
SHE: Yes. (She kills herself)”

Horns, by Joe Hill

Horns Book Cover Horns
Joe Hill
Horror, supernatural, paranormal
HarperCollins
Feb 2010
e-book
446

On GoodReads, this novel is shelved as "Horror", "Supernatural", "Paranormal", "Thriller", and whatnot.  It is all of those things, but I feel like it doesn't provide a full picture. I often feel like that after reading this kind of thing.  There are readers who'll look at genre labels and automatically translate it to mean not real good.   And then they'll miss out on books like Horns.

Just as with most of the genres i read, of course - but I get a stronger sense of it with supernatural/horror than with, for instance, hard science fiction, because your average-reader is much more likely to pick up a paranormal thriller on the "popular choices"-shelf than suddenly finding and choosing KSR's Red Mars.  Right.  Well. Rant.  I don't know why I even type this; I don't consider book snobbery a problem, just sometimes bafflingly misguided.

So, uh. This is a story about a dude who grows horns.

That's it. That's what we have here.  Ignacious Parrish wakes up one day with a terrible hangover; the kind where you feel like your skull is splitting. And it is.   He has no idea what's going on, and asking for advice or help is problematic, as everyone is suddenly very bent on telling him their terrible true thoughts about him, what they think he did to his dead girlfriend, and everything else they have terrible secret thoughts about.

They can see the horns, too, so he has to let go of the plausible explanation, which would be some sudden mental illness unfolding between his eyes and the mirror.

He didn't kill his girlfriend - but he needs to know who did.   Is that what the horns are for? What happened last night? What he remembers is crude and un-churchly, but not quite enough to warrant demonic transformation or godly punishment... is it?  Ig was never that kind of man - actually, it was in church he first met his girlfriend.   He has lived very comfortably as the child of rich, somewhat famous parents, but spends his own time on volunteer work for charity and children's summer camps.   He's supposed to be the good guy - not the guy constantly rubbing his goatee.

Joe Hill brings humor and stylish prose to the story, painting everything vividly in words, so much that I kept wondering why this became a novel when we know he knows his way around writing graphic novels, too. (Locke & Key, the last volume of which I still haven't read, and it bothers me a lot.)   That's not a complaint - just an attempt at saying something about what the author's strenghts are.  In my post-read contentment, I'm crossing my fingers he  has a long, very long future bibliography, and that it branches out from its supernatural roots, high and low into other genres.

Waiting on: A man lies dreaming

I really, really want to read more books by Lavie Tidhar. Because I loved Osama. And he’s funny on twitter!  So though I still have The violent century and Martian sands in my to-read pile, I’m also waiting excitedly for this:

A man lies dreaming,  to be published Oct 23rd. (Or that’s when I get to buy the ebook, anyway!)

Deep in the heart of history’s most infamous concentration camp, a man lies dreaming. His name is Shomer, and before the war he was a pulp fiction author. Now, to escape the brutal reality of life in Auschwitz, Shomer spends his nights imagining another world – a world where a disgraced former dictator now known only as Wolf ekes out a miserable existence as a low-rent PI in London’s grimiest streets.

An extraordinary story of revenge and redemption, A Man Lies Dreaming is the unforgettable testament to the power of imagination.

 

“Imagining another world” is the trigger word for me – I really, really love alternate/parallel/stacked universes/worlds/dimensions  (those are a lot of ways to say one thing…!)  – which I blame on the components of my childhood; Mr. Benn, the chronicles of Narnia, the Neverending Story,  and then exploding all over discovering Philip K. Dick.  (And Kafka, I guess, which came before that. My “young adulthood” was actually spent being a classic literature snob.)  So uh yes. October!