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Two Months on

The Switch cover
The Stars Are Legion cover

Two months seems to come round very quickly.

Yesterday The Switch by Justina Robson dropped onto my doormat.

It is the latest book for review in Interzone – to appear in issue 271.

Issue 270 arrived earlier in the week. That one features my review of Kameron Hurley’s The Stars Are Legion.

City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett

Jo Fletcher, 2016, 450 p. Reviewed for Interzone 264, May-Jun 2016.

 City of Blades cover

In this sequel (of sorts) to Bennett’s City of Stairs the action of the book is set round the Continental city of Voortyashtan, quite a few years after the events of the previous novel. The Continentals are still resentful of the rule of Saypur and, in Voortyashtan, especially of the cannons threatening its citizens from the ramparts of Fort Thinadeshi.

Saypuri General Turyin Mulaghesh has been recalled from retirement by Shara Komayd, now Prime Minster of Saypur, to investigate the strange goings-on in Voortyashtan to do with a mysterious powdery ore (at first described as a new element) which can greatly enhance electrical conductivity. Komayd’s previous investigator, Sumitra Choudhry, has disappeared and a series of strange ritualistic murders is taking place in Voortyashtan’s hinterland. Examination of the crime scenes rouses Mulaghesh’s guilt at what she did on the Yellow March during Saypur’s war with the Continent.

Voortyashtan was formerly the Continent’s main port but most of the city has been destroyed, sliding into its waters in the event known as the Blink which ended the war. Voortyashtan’s harbour and river are now being cleared by a consortium of Dreyling, the people from the Northern Isles. This project is being managed by Signe Harkvaldsson. The suspicion nags that the Dreyling are only there so that Sigrud from the earlier novel can be dragged into the tale. Bennet has made an effort here to humanise Sigrud a little (Signe is his estranged daughter) but he’s still quite cartoonish; and, while we’re casting aspersions, Thinadeskite is a strangely Wellsian name for the mysterious ore.

Despite its suspicious nature, on close examination the Saypurians can find no trace in Thinadeskite of influence of the Divine who used to rule the Continent. This is as it should be, as all these old Gods are supposed to be dead, killed either in the war or the Battle of Bulikov which ended City of Stairs. Yet the spirit of the Continental Saint Zhurgut still somehow manages to manifest in a guard who handles the gift of a sword meant for Mulaghesh and cuts a swath through Saypuri soldiers and Voortyashtani citizenry alike before Mulaghesh can bring him down.

Mulaghesh’s investigations lead to a scene where the blood – why does it always have to be blood? – of killers (herself, Sigrud and, more surprisingly, Signe) is required to transport her to the Voortyashtani nether world and its City of Blades where she believes Choudhry has gone. There, she uncovers the mystery of Thinadeskite but is too late to prevent an army of the dead from which the ore derives its potency setting out to devastate Voortyashtan. Her trip does provide her the means with which to confront them though.

Mulaghesh has something of a rose-tinted view of the trade of soldiering as a noble enterprise whose standards she fell below during the Yellow March but still strives to uphold. General Biswal, her commander during that march and now in charge of security at Fort Thinadeshi, represents what is perhaps a more realistic tradition of single-minded self-righteousness.

Its treatment of such themes of personal responsibility and the importance of relationships makes City of Blades very readable stuff.

The following remarks did not appear in the published review.
Pedant’s corner:- to not say so (not to say so. Please?) Secret (Bennett meant secrete,) “none of them produce anything” (none produces anything; repeat instances of “none” with a plural verb,) “the figure’s head….. [is] oddly swollen as if their skull is far too large” (only one figure, therefore its, not their, skull. Bennett repeats this use of plural possessive pronouns relating to singular nouns several times,) routing (routeing,) Olvos’ (Olvos’s,) off of (just off, no “of” necessary, multiple instances,) Mulaghesh’js (Mulaghesh’s,) a gazing pool (is a usage I had not come across before; it seems to mean a pool which reflects light,) each of which resemble (each resembles,) “the surface of the waters are dotted with shapes, long and thin and curiously shaped” (the surface is dotted [and shapes/shaped is clumsy],) “the ship is shook” (shaken,) putting the lives … in incredible risk (it’s usually “at incredible risk”,) “he lunges at her piling riposte upon riposte as she just barely manages to parry” (a riposte is a return thrust, not an attack; barely also appeared two lines above,) “the endless line toil up” (a line toils.)

The Paper Menagerie and other stories by Ken Liu

Head of Zeus, 2016, 460 p. £14.99 Reviewed for Interzone 264, May-Jun 2016.

 The Paper Menagerie cover

In the preface to this collection Liu says he doesn’t pay much attention to the distinction between fantasy and science fiction – or, indeed, between genre and mainstream. For him fiction is about prizing the logic of metaphors over (an irreducibly random and senseless) reality; some stories simply literalise their metaphors a bit more explicitly. His position is borne out by this collection’s contents as many of the stories straddle those boundaries. Most are informed and coloured by the author’s Chinese heritage but the first few are more conventional fare.

The Bookmaking Habits of Selected Species is not about gambling but rather the ways in which different species (every sentient species it would seem) produce and consume books. In State Change Rina goes through life keeping her soul frozen in case she loses it – and her life with it. The Perfect Match reads a bit like a 1984 for the digital age. Tilly’s algorithm makes suggestions for you, finds partners for you, remembers for you. Its parent company Centillion’s mission statement is “to arrange the world’s information to ennoble the human race.” Tilly, however, doesn’t switch off.

The only story in the book with no real fantastical content is The Literomancer, who is a Mr Kan, and can tell fortunes via calligraphy. He befriends Lilly, the daughter of a US secret service operative. In 1950s Taiwan that turns out to be dangerous.

Good Hunting is set in late 19th century China, and comes over as a fantasy and steampunk cross wherein a werevixen and her former hunter’s lives become intermittently intertwined. The inventor of the titular technology in Simulacrum disgusts his daughter by using his invention in a debauched way. After their estrangement he keeps a copy of her childhood self, which despite her mother’s entreaties she still finds off-putting. The Regular sees us in gumshoe territory. Police investigators have software to inhibit their emotions and, to access their data for use in blackmail, a serial killer is targeting only those upmarket call-girls who have had security cameras built into their eyes. The police aren’t interested and (the rather programmatically named) ex-cop Ruth Law takes the case.

Multiple award winner The Paper Menagerie gains its title from the collection of origami animals the protagonist’s mother, a mail-order bride from China, made and breathed life into. As he grows, her lack of integration to life in the US embarrasses him so that he neglects his Chinese roots. Partly written in the second person An Advanced Reader’s Picture Book of Comparative Cognition deals with a project to use the gravitational lensing of the sun to search for extraterrestrial signals. This necessitates sending the receiver (and the humans to operate it, one of whom is “your” mother) to a point 550 AU away. The Waves is a strange beast wherein the occupants of a generation starship face a dilemma when life-prolonging technology becomes accessible. This on its own would have been enough for most authors but Liu goes further. When the ship reaches 61 Virginis the rest of humanity has got there before them and its members are so changed new choices must be made. The Japanese narrator of Mono No Aware (Japanese for the sense of the transience of all things) is faced with a threat to the solar sails of the generation starship carrying the last remnants of humanity fleeing from the destruction of Earth.

The longest story in the collection, All The Flavours, has little fantastical content bar the traditional Chinese tales with which it is interspersed in its account of the incoming of Chinese workers to 19th century Idaho and their (ultimately successful) attempts at fitting in. Boasting a Formosan narrator, A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel is an alternative history wherein Japan proposed the project in response to the 1930s Great Depression. This being mainly an endeavour of Shōwa era Japan, regrettable incidents occur during its construction.

The Litigation Master and the Monkey King features a peasant lawyer (or vexatious litigant according to taste) who can see and converse with the demon spirit Monkey King. His coming into knowledge of a suppressed book describing the atrocities of the Yangzhou massacre a century before constricts his options. In The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary the discovery of quantum-entangled Bohm-Kirino particles allows the past to be witnessed but the process of doing so destroys the evidence. Its inventor wants to demonstrate to the world the realities of Unit 731, the site of Japanese medical experiments on prisoners during World War 2 in Harbin province. Politics remains politics though.

Liu’s stories are never less than well-crafted, he has an excellent range, and a clear eye for the subtleties of human relationships. You will read worse.

The following remarks did not appear in the published review.

Pedant’s corner:- a team trace out (a team traces out,) “Eliot could not have written, and the world would have understood, Four Quartets without the scent of Eliot’s soul,” (either “not” is missing before “have understood” or the tense is awry – “nor the world understood” instead?) “so much of their lives are lived in..” (so much is lived in…,) over this shoulder (his shoulder,) to not ask (not to ask,) “the jade from which the cups were made had an inner glow to them” (the jade had an inner glow to it,) “all you’ve said simply show” (all you’ve said simply shows,) one of the older man (men,) of of (just “of”,) accused with murder (accused of murder,) Femal (Female? But this was in an extract of a poem in olde style language,) sprung (sprang,) “the flight of neutrons are determined” (the flight is,) “about ten years in age” (of age,) sheepherding (okay; shepherding has a different ring to it,) “a 120 miles per hour” (120 means one hundred and twenty; there is no need to preface it with “a”,) United Stat es (United States,) “more and more evidence … have come to life” (has come to life,) “reformed through ‘re-education’, They were released” (they.)

Interzone 268

TTA Press

Interzone 268 cover

Dave Senecal’s Editorial1 ponders the necessity of mystery to the creative impulse.Jonathan McCalmont’s column examines how SF got into its present sorry state and says it ought to return to preparing us for the future. If his example of Carl Neville’s Resolution Way is to be believed (not to mention the world’s political circumstances) that future may be hellish. Nina Allan’s Time Piece reflects on the different approaches required to writing fiction and non-fiction especially with regard to those recent political events. In the book reviews2 you’ll find mine of Ken Liu’s Invisible Planets, Maureen Kincaid Speller’s evaluation of Johana Sinisalo’s The Core of the Sun, Duncan Lunan’s review of Stephen Baxter’s H G Wells’s estate-approved War of the Worlds sequel The Massacre of Mankind and Shaun Green’s take on both Iraq +100 edited by Hassan Blasim and Adrian Selby’s Snakewood, while in 2016 Round Up3 Interzone’s regular book reviewers list their bests of the year. Despite not reading not much new fiction in 2015 Jo Lindsay Walton manages to produce an extended essay on the year’s fiction.

As to the stories, Everyone Gets a Happy Ending4 by Julie C Day features an unusual apocalypse. A plague of rabbits foisted on human wombs by Immaculate Conception.

The Noise & The Silence5 by Christien Gholson. In a world saturated by The Wall ceaselessly pounding out Orwellian slogans and musical pap, a resistance movement known as The Silence arose. It was put down but adherents hang on in the hidden places.

The Transmuted Child6 of Michael Reid’s story is Esmonde, thrown out by her family after her Erkess implant makes her drown her brother. Her new carer, Dao Nghiem, takes her to the Erkess home world to try to find a cure for her.

Mel Kassel’s Weavers in the Cellar are spiders kept in captivity to weave clothes and armour for their captors. Any thoughts of their species’ previous relationship are Unthinkable. But our narrator’s mother passed on knowledge of her heritage.

Freedom of Navigation7 by Val Nolan is set amidst a territorial dispute in the asteroid belt. Two of the narrator’s slaved AIs come to believe he is a traitor. For some reason I was reminded of the film Casablanca.

The Rhyme of Grievance8 by T R Napper follows the granting of human rights to the first AI. A woman who needed to finance a life-saving operation is recruited by those who see AIs as merely an extension of the powerful class to destroy it. I was reminded of Robert Heinlein’s The Roads Must Roll.

Pedant’s corner:- 1wont (won’t; but Sevecal’s an artist not a wordsmith.) 2refers throughout to England rather than Britain. Perhaps Baxter did this, I can’t remember if Wells did. 3practise (noun; therefore practice) “the emotional contortions forces onto us” (forced,) Roberts’ (Roberts’s,) an italicised Thing is which didn’t seem to be a title, superrare (super-rare,) The Triump of Mechanics (Triumph,) 4unphased (apparently phased is a legitimate US variant of fazed. I prefer there to be a distinction in the spellings.) 5”The vibrations … was said” (were said.) 6Erkess’ (Erkess’s.) “A bundle of ropy organs descend” (a bundle descends,) 7“Part of the sides of my feet were numb” (Parts were numb,) florescent (fluorescent,) “the Belt Republic is moving one of their asteroids” (its asteroids,) “there was nothing us pilots liked more than mischief” (we pilots,) ci-Martian space (cis-Martian space?) “subservice activity via seismic shivers” (subsurface makes more sense,) ordinance (ordnance – used previously.) 8“The audience were” (was,) colourful vegetable and fruit (vegetables,) to sooth (soothe,) “up to white porcelain sink” (to the white porcelain sink.)

Interzones 269 and 270

 The Stars Are Legion cover
Interzone 269 cover

Interzone 269 arrived today.

It contains my review of The Mountains of Parnassus by Czesław Miłosz.

A few days ago I received The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley.

That review is due soon for Interzone 270.

Latest from Interzone

 The Mountains of Parnassus cover

Interzone 268 has arrived. Amongst the fiction and the reviewers/contributors lists of best reads of 2016 there are of course book reviews. Mine was of Invisible Planets: 13 visions of the future from China, edited and translated by Ken Liu.

Also arrived from the same source is an unusual object, an SF novel by a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Czesław Miłosz. He is best known for his poetry and this was his only SF novel. My review is due for Interzone 269.

Occupy Me by Tricia Sullivan

Gollancz, 2016, 272 p. Reviewed for Interzone 262, Jan-Feb 2016.

 Occupy Me cover

While it’s always good to review a novel featuring those exotic, for SF, locations of Edinburgh and Queensferry – North or South sadly not specified, but likely North as there’s a crossing of the Forth (Road) Bridge interrupted by a shooting incident – and which comes to its climax on an oil rig in the North Sea, Occupy Me starts even more interestingly with a second person narration, raising the possibility of something along the lines of Keith Roberts’s Molly Zero; but the tonal qualities are quite different and in any case, before this there is an appendix to instructions for something called a waveform launcher and we soon move on. The second person concerned is the viewpoint of Dr Kisi Sorle, who hears whispers from the past and whose body has occasionally been taken over by another being which is possibly an AI, coming to himself again to find he is in possession of an unusual briefcase. Dr Sorle has been hired by Austen Stevens, once of Pace Industries but now of Invest in Futures Foundation, to palliate his last days. Stevens in turn has been building up funds in the expectation that they will be used to prevent him dying. After two chapters there is an interpolated advert for flight attendants. The ad was placed by the Resistance, an organisation which we later find tries to improve humanity by having its agents commit small acts of kindness. Said flight attendant and Resistance operative Pearl Jones narrates in the first person and, fittingly, has wings which in her Earthly form she has to hide. Pearl has access to higher dimensions, HD, which comes in handy when she recognises a passenger as the person who stole part of her and in a struggle she, him, and his briefcase tear through the aeroplane’s fuselage and plummet to the sea. Just as she is about to rescue him the briefcase opens and a pterosaur (a quetzalcoatlus) emerges. Pearl’s backstory from when she became aware of herself in a bullet riddled refrigerator in Dubowski’s scrap yard, where she hides out, makes small repairs and leaves the fixed objects, like a cat to its owner, for the caretaker to find, is told to us in flashbacks as she tries to come to terms with who – or what – she is. In these it is revealed she loves to push against things with her muscles. The narration alternates irregularly between these two viewpoints until much later in the book when there are third person chapters featuring an Edinburgh vet called Alison.

The briefcase. Yes. While normal in appearance, battered looking even, its weight alters from time to time and it resists Pearl’s attempts to open it despite it belonging to her. The AI controlling Dr Sorle has locked it to his body pattern. It contains a Post-event Adjacent Reality Launcher, capable not only of time travel back to the Cretaceous but to Pearl’s creators. She is not a real person, has been built by bird mothers, scavengers of waveforms, who call themselves waveform artists. “We make new beings from old. You are a recycled piece of junk from a dying civilisation. We can store materials in HD but the Immanence left us behind.”

The Immanence? “The Immanence is an intelligence far beyond any of us. It rose out of a hypercivilisation and was a great ordering in the universe that came about because entropy favours higher order.” Sullivan seems keen to stress this point; we are told elsewhere that “the funny thing about entropy is that it loves order.”

The Immanence, however, is entirely incidental to the surface plot which is concerned with much more mundane considerations to do with Austen Stevens’s funds, which will somehow allow the Resistance, “Love’s what the Resistance is really made of, internally,” to come into being. A woman called Bethany and her husband Liam have embezzled these funds so threatening the Resistance’s existence. But the Resistance is already in operation. This not being a time paradox novel that last fact does tend to undermine a tad any sense of jeopardy surrounding it.

No matter. Things roll along; fellow Resistance operative Marquita tells Pearl, “Don’t accept the axe of either/or; there’s always a third way,” Alison treats not only Bethany’s cat (poisoned by eating part of a giant Cretaceous frog) but also the quetzalcoatlus, on Salisbury Crags no less, we discover Pearl’s wing feathers contain a strange oil and the feathers are a repository of stored information, “a sophisticated HD structure” which is also in the trees back in the Cretaceous. And Pearl’s pushing is useful in the final scene.

Occupy Me takes a while to get there though and goes round several houses on the way.

The following remarks did not appear in the published review.

Pedant’s corner:- I read an uncorrected proof copy; the usual caveats therefore apply to these. [line space] appeared quite often as did underlinings, Stevens’ (Stevens’s,) Two Phones’ (Two Phones’s,) shrunk (shrank,) fusilage (fuselage – which does appear later,) miniscule (minuscule,) there receipts (there are receipts,) “made ‘poorly’ made sound like Pearly” (remove the second “made”,) “because it we had another lead” (no “it”,) “switched on large screen” (the large screen,) one instance of qzetzalcoatlus, the Haymarket (it’s just Haymarket, no “the”,) Abernathy biscuit (Abernethy,) “like a waves leave on the sand” (like waves leave,) “had set put out a hit on me” (had put out,) veterinarian (this was from Sorle’s viewpoint though, he is Ghanaian,) at one point Alison says “airplane” (that would be aeroplane, then,) as loathe as I may feel (loth,) crude oil probably dating to the late Cretaceous (oil does not “date from” the Cretaceous; its starting materials may do so but the oil that comes from them takes millions of years to form,) Queens Street (Queen Street,) strapped to the Kelly (I can’t find a dictionary definition of Kelly as a noun,) all chapter titles were in bold, save one.

Interzone 267 Sep-Oct 2016

TTA Press

Interzone 266 cover

The Editorial is by Martin McGrath and discusses the continuing importance of the James White Award, whose latest winner* is published in this issue, Jonathan McCalmont’s column1 bemoans the recent trend towards magical policemen solving crimes in old London town as having a reactionary effect while Nina Allan praises Scottish Science Fiction’s engagement with political themes. In the Book Zone I review Dave Hutchinson’s Winter in Europe and there are interviews with Tade Thompson and Chris Beckett.

Alts2 by Harmony Neal is a tale of humans genetically modified by StateCorp into a kind of slavery.
The narrator of Ryan Row’s Dogfights in Olympus and Other Absences3 is a mercenary pilot involved in a multi-party conflict over a planet called Olympus which has a desirable hyper potential energy dense matter core. The relativistic aspects of his 0.2 light year separation from his family affect the relationship.
The Hunger of Auntie Tiger by Sarah Brook is set on a planet where people of Chinese origin, left more or less to their own devices by “the Company” relive myths.
Rich Larson’s You Make Payata4 suggests there is really only a small number of tales that can be written as this one of an attempted scam has a familiar template but is nevertheless well executed and full of Science-fictional gloss.
*Rock, Paper, Scissors5 by David Cleden literalises the game alluded to in its title vinto a contest between the bodily-transformed representatives of two tribes for the annual rights to the hunting grounds.
In My Generations Shall Praise6 by Samantha Henderson a woman on death row is persuaded to have her mind overwritten so that someone else can use her body.

Pedant’s corner:- 1Morris’ (Morris’s,) use of they and them as pronouns for an individual. 2Written in USian. “She wasn’t sure the exact details of his alteration” (of the exact details,) “everyone holding their breath (their; so breaths,) sunk (sank.) 3 Written in USian. “Curealian and silver beams” (Cerulean?) “where his family makes their home” (“makes” is the singular; so “makes its home”,) “above him the naked stars lay out in the dark” (lie out; the narration is present tense,) dying her hair (dyeing.) 4 Written in USian, pretenses (pretences,) “‘when you get the hotel’” (to the hotel,) florescent (is this USian? – fluorescent.) A collection were (a collection was.) 5mold (mould,) vocal chords x 2 (cords,) “growing soft and downy my back” (on my back?) “the Tribe grow quiet” (grows; several more instances of Tribe as plural,) “‘Your foe will keep their distance’” (his distance; his is used later,) “‘when they tire’” (when he tires,) “‘though they beg you’” (though he begs you,) the attack is borne of frustration (born of.) 6Written in USian. “‘Will they let her in short notice?’” (At short notice? On short notice? With short notice?)

Interzone 266 Sep-Oct 2016

TTA Press

Interzone 266 cover

Stephen Theaker’s Editorial muses on awards; their disadvantages and their necessity. Jonathan McCalmont’s column1 discusses Emma Geen’s The Many Selves of Katharine North favourably while Nina Allan reflects on the connections between classical and folk music on the one hand and the weird/faery on the other.
In the Book Zone I review Alastair Reynolds’s Revenger (recommended.) Also gaining approval are Paul Kearney’s The Wolf in the Attic (even if it does require a sequel,) Peter S Beagle’s Summerlong and Gaie Sebold’s Sparrow Falling.
In the fiction, Tade Thompson’s The Apologists is set in the aftermath of an invasion of Earth by aliens who hadn’t realised it was inhabited. Discovering their oversight, they keep six remnants alive on a simulated world.
Extraterrestrial Folk Metal Fusion2 by Georgina Bruce is a tongue-in-cheek tale of the discovery of a signal from outer space which is soon parlayed into opportunities for profit, either personal or monetary.
Narrated by the best friend of the test pilot (who tells him what happened in a disturbing first flight) Ray Cluley’s Sideways3 is an excellent, affecting story about a 1950s rocket propelled prototype craft that can go sideways. That word is deployed strategically throughout the story to underline its strangeness.
In Three Love Letters From an Unrepeatable Garden by Aliva Whiteley the titular letters are to the lover of a gardener protecting a unique but dying flower.
One by one in The End of Hope Street4 by Malcolm Devlin, the houses in the street become unliveable. If you are in them when they do then you die. A tale of neighbourliness in adversity but told in an oddly distanced way.

Pedant’s corner:- 1octopi (it’s not Latin!! The Greek plural is octopodes but octopuses is perfectly good English,) the real meat… lays in (lies in.) 2maw (it was a black hole so I suppose could be interpreted as a stomach.) 3sliver mirror (silver,) 4he was stuck with a … sense of horror (struck?) inside of (inside x2; ditto outside of,) the community prided themselves (itself,) there had been only few major incidents (there had been few, or, only a few,) everyone was on their feet (was, so everyone is singular; so how then, their feet? Avoid such a construction,) the neighbourhood fought to free themselves (ditto, neighbourhood is singular,) to examine it closer (more closely.)

The Three-Body Problem and The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu

The Three-Body Problem, Head of Zeus, 2015, 400 p, translated from the Chinese 三體, Chongqing Publishing Group 2006, by Ken Liu. The Dark Forest, Head of Zeus, 2015, 512 p, translated from the Chinese 黑暗森林, Chongqing Publishing Group 2008, by Joel Martinsen. Reviewed for Interzone 261, Nov-Dec 2016.

 The Three-Body Problem cover

Barring Verne and the genre’s very beginnings, non-Anglophone SF has historically had a low profile in its heartlands. Some Eastern European SF did manage to filter across the language barrier during the Iron Curtain days but was usually a niche commodity. That situation has recently begun to change markedly with SF emanating from outwith the usual source countries. Though not all from non-Anglophone sources, in the past few years I have been able to sample SF originating from Japan, Finland, Israel, South Africa, Nigeria and other former colonial states. Now, aided by Puppygate and its unintended consequence of a best novel Hugo Award for Cixin Liu, his Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy looks set to raise the profile of Chinese Science Fiction; which on this evidence comprises hard SF, red in tooth and claw (though arguably not red in political terms.)

The first book, The Three-Body Problem, begins during the Cultural Revolution when Ye Wenjie witnesses the death of her father, a physicist unwilling to bend to the doctrine that the theories which underpin his subject are reactionary, at the hands of Red Guards. Ye herself is sent to a labour camp and further blots her copybook when she reads Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and pens a letter to the authorities about the environmental depredations resulting from the work of her labour corps but due to her capabilities as a physicist she is assigned to Red Coast Base, an apparently military endeavour.

There is then a jump of forty years in the narrative and we are plunged into a world where nanomaterials researcher Wang Miao is co-opted into a Battle Command Centre – a committee whose members comprise not only Chinese but also NATO generals plus the unorthodox but effective cop Shi Qiang. The world faces a threat (at this point unspecified) related to the fact that physicists are killing themselves as their experimental results are not consistent, leading them to the conclusion that physics varies from place to place and so does not exist. Shi Qiang warns Wang always to look behind the surfaces of things to find the deeper connections.

Strange things begin to happen to Wang; he sees a countdown on his photographs and then on his eyes. This stops when he ceases his research. His wider investigations lead him to an online game at www.3body.net, the playing of which requires a haptic feedback suit, and which is set on a curious world with unreliable sunrises and sunsets, Stable and Chaotic Eras, mysterious flying stars and inhabitants who can dehydrate and rehydrate according to the conditions. Each time he logs into it the game’s history has moved on. He works out the planet has three suns whose orbits form an inherently chaotic configuration. This is Trisolaris. In one of the novel’s structural problems the relevance of this game to the ongoing threat is not revealed till later.

We subsequently find Red Coast was actually a site for SETI investigations and Ye Wenjie had used its antenna – via the sun as a signal amplifier – to send a message to the universe. A reply containing a warning of invasion if Earth responds came from only four light years away and therefore must have originated on Alpha Centauri. The disillusioned Ye, convinced that humanity’s relationship to evil is like the iceberg to the ocean (made of the same material) ignores the warning. Meanwhile a secretive Earth Trisolaran Organisation, ETO, has recruited devotees via 3-body and communicated with the Trisolarans who have developed Project Sophon, the unfolding of protons into different dimensions, to shoot a quantum entangled pair at Earth to completely ruin scientific research and seal off the progress of human science. The Alpha Centauri system of course contains three suns.

The trouble is we are told a lot of this via the medium of 3-body and transcripts of Trisolaran transmissions – most of which content is dry as dust. Human interactions are sidelined, the main instigator of ETO, Mike Evans, advocate of Pan-Species Communism, barely appears in the novel and the chronology of the events is disjointed. While Wang’s nanomaterials background comes in useful in obtaining the Trisolaran transcripts the incident concerned is really the only one which occurs in the novel’s here-and-now.

In his translator’s afterword Ken Liu refers to Chinese fiction having different emphases and preferences “compared to what American readers expect”. Whether this explains the oddness of The Three-Body Problem’s structure the non-Chinese reader cannot tell. And nothing is resolved, the whole is merely a prologue.

 The Dark Forest cover

In The Dark Forest the narrative is much more linear. Earth has 450 years to prepare for the Trisolaran invasion but is now riddled with sophons, making all transactions transparent to Trisolaris. The UN has set up a Planetary Defence Council which initiates the Wallfacer Project whereby four individuals are given more or less absolute power to command resources to further the anti-Trisolaran plans devised in their own minds, (the sophons cannot read thoughts). One character muses, “I wonder whether we could find a form of communication that only humans can comprehend, but which the sophons never will. That way, humanity can be free of sophon monitoring…… A gaze or a smile can transmit so much information!”

The first part of the book follows the progress of the Wallfacers’ plans, the setting up and development of Earth’s space forces and the societal changes which take place under the Trisolaran threat. “Behind them was the Golden Age, the good times that began in the 1980s and ended with the Crisis. Ahead of them, humanity’s arduous years were about to unfold.”

The disparity in force between Earth and Trisolaris is the biggest in human history, defeatism the worst enemy – especially in the space forces. Escapism, the thought of leaving Earth for the wide blue yonder, appeals to some but is soon made illegal as who goes and who remains involves basic human values no matter who gets to leave – elites, the rich, or ordinary people. So long as some will be left behind, it means the collapse of humanity’s ethical value system. One character says, “The fundamental axiom of economics is the human mercenary instinct. Without that assumption, the entire field would collapse. There isn’t any fundamental axiom for sociology yet, but it might be even darker than economics. A small number of people could fly off into space, but if we knew it would come to that, why would we have bothered in the first place?”

There are still occasional forays into 3-body where we find Trisolaris has designated a Wallbreaker to each Wallfacer, to frustrate or reveal their plans.

Curiously – or is this an endemic Chinese habit? – smoking seems to be commonplace in this future even when we have again jumped in time to year 205 of the Crisis Era, after a minor Dark Age called the Great Ravine has more than halved Earth’s population. Most cities are now underground.

The narrative contains a few potential sense of wonder moments. Giant space telescopes, the seeding of space with oil film, “mined” from Neptune’s rings, to reveal the tracks of Trisolaran probes, a space battle which came over eerily like an updated version of E E ‘Doc’ Smith, and other Science Fictional concepts such as the technology to fix beliefs in the human brain. However, there are times when the info dumping can be intrusive and strange interludes such as when Liu allows his characters to discourse on the writing process, “The highest level of literary creation is when the characters in a novel possess life in the mind of the writer. The writer is unable to control them. But today’s practitioners of literature have lost that creativity,” and the nature of the object of love, “not the man or woman of reality, but what he or she is like in their imagination.”

Key to the book are two maxims, “Survival is the primary need of civilization” and, “Civilization continuously grows and expands, but the total matter in the universe remains constant,” plus the related concepts of chains of suspicion and technology explosion.

The Dark Forest bristles with SF ideas while remixing the tropes of First Contact, Generation Starship and disaster tale but these elements sometimes sit uneasily with the stories of the humans involved. Its title’s metaphor encapsulates a bleak explanation for the Fermi Paradox.

Both these novels contain footnotes, mostly to explain specifically Chinese references. Footnotes can be a delight but SF readers are used to neologisms – sometimes unexplained. Their necessity in either book is therefore arguable – and in the cases of Kuiper Belt, Oort Cloud, tokamaks, the strong nuclear interaction and Lagrange point, surely superfluous.

However, together they both suggest Chinese SF has been neglected in the wider world for far too long.

The following did not appear in the published review.

Pedant’s corner:- ahold (a hold,) meet-up (meeting,) to not have heard(not to have heard,) we get tori (correct for the plural of torus) but tetrahedrons instead of tetrahedra, in a 3body argument with “Liebniz”, “Newton” is heard to refer to calculus (Isaac Newton called his system fluxions, calculus was Liebniz’s name for these mathematical functions,) sunken (sunk,) Wallfacers (Wallfacer, singular,) widow (window,) in The Dark Forest the base is called Red Shore (in The Three-Body Problem it was Red Coast,) gasses (gases,) “you only would have” (you would only have,) automatons (automata,) Jupiter is referred to as a liquid planet – it’s a gas giant, impassible (impassable,) shape of sword (shape of a sword,) 120gs (a measurement unit’s abbreviation subsumes its plural so 120g,) miniscule (minuscule,) become (became,) torturous (the context implies tortuous,) off of, use to (used to, x 3.)

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