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 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.

The Great Game by Lavie Tidhar

In “The Bookman Histories”, Angry Robot, 2012, 303 p. Originally published 2012.

 The Great Game cover
 The Bookman Histories cover

This is the third in Tidhar’s Bookman Histories wherein Les Lézards were roused from their Caribbean island by Vespucci’s trip to the New World and subsequently became monarchs of Great Britain. See my reviews here and here. It is again to Tidhar’s credit that familiarity with either of the two previous books is not necessary to follow events in this one as it stands alone quite easily.

It’s all a very readable romp, a steampunk/altered history mash-up but Tidhar again goes over the top with his references. One of the joys of altered history is seeing familiar names in situations for which they are not best known but he really does take it too far with this one – among the characters from literature we have Mycroft Holmes (and his brother, retired to the village of St Mary Mead [where a busybody twitches her curtains] not to mention Irene Adler) we have a hunchback named Q who lives in Notre Dame cathedral, a scientist called Moreau exiled to a Pacific island, Van Helsing, a Miss Havisham, a thiefmaster called Fagin and his pickpocket protégé Oliver Twist, a Doctor Victor Frankenstein, Harry Flashman. And at the novel’s climax tripods begin to devastate – okay it wasn’t London – Paris. Real life intruders into the story include the Mechanical Turk, Karl May, Harry Houdini, Bram Stoker, Jack London, Charles Babbage and Friedrich Alfred Krupp.. Of a Dickens’ book in three volumes an unnamed character observes, “You should never write a third volume.” Perhaps Tidhar was commenting on his own situation as in his afterword he says publisher Angry Robot asked him for two more novels after accepting The Bookman.

Hokum, but entertaining, a plot summary would be fatuous, as well as sounding mad.

A quibble. The first lizard-king was Henry VII, followed by another Henry, an Edward, and later the great Gloriana. How come then they ended up in the timeline of the novel with a lizard Queen Victoria? Our Queen Victoria was descended primarily from Hanoverians, not Tudors. Why would the naming of lizard-monarchs follow that of the real world?

Pedant’s corner:- In Tidhar’s introduction to the omnibus volume; “I wanted to tribute the wuxia tropes” (pay tribute to.) Elsewhere; “eThe last one” (typo; The,) Market Blandings’ (Market Blandings’s,) “who often said a ‘Honesty is a gun’” (said a ‘Honesty’? surely “said ‘Honesty is a gun.’”) “There are a number” (There is a number,) not to be found on the British Isles (“in the British Isles” is the more usual formulation,) “that only now he was beginning to identify” (that only now was he beginning to identify is more common syntax,) automatons (many occurrences – it’s an acceptable spelling but stick to it; there were also at least four instances of automata,) snuck (a London street boy of the time would have said sneaked,) her team were outnumbered (her team was outnumbered,) mortician (USian, we British say undertaker,) “Something to scare children by” (“to scare children with” makes more sense.) “They sat and sipped their drink,” (drinks, I think. They weren’t sharing the one cup,) then the one in Europe (than the one in Europe,) “one… being…. who had made it their life’s ambition” (a singular being; so, its life’s ambition,) Paris’ (Paris’s,) had showed up (shown up,) “undistinguished from his cover story” (indistinguishable from his cover story,) “like that persistent feel that she was being followed” (okay, the author uses feeling two lines later and maybe wanted to avoid complete repetition but it’s still awkward.) “But no one was going to act until the airship had landed, safely. Weren’t they?” (should be “Were they?”) as for the recipe (as to,) “in a rather quite threatening manner” (choose from ‘in rather a’, ‘in quite a’ or ’in a quite’ not ‘a rather quite’,) sat (sitting, or seated,) “running down a narrow mountain pass that led upwards” (???) “the sound of motors sounded” (use another verb?) Vlad epe ? (remove gap before the question mark,) “moving, now that he knew to look for it, moving in a single direction” (second “moving” not necessary,) a vast antennae (antenna,) taking no mind (taking no heed; or, paying no mind,) “Van Helsing, rode shotgun” (no comma required,) all manners of (all manner of,) had indeed deducted the observer’s arrival (deduced,) Mr Spoons’ (Mr Spoons’s,) no full stop at the end of chapter forty-six, a simulacra (a simulacrum,) “he’d brought his own people in” (he’s brought.) “There was a string of miniature model cars strung together” (use a different verb, coupled?) “paid her no mind” (“no heed” sounds more natural,) there is much work to do (lots of work,) Victoria Rex (Victoria Regina.)

Interzone 266 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?)

Christmas Presents

One from each of my sons.

A slipcased and delightfully illustrated Folio Society edition of Frank Herbert’s Dune plus a Savile Rogue football scarf in the colours of the mighty Sons, Dumbarton FC.

Christmas Presents

Football Scarf

Folio Society Edition of Dune
Spine of Folio Society Edition of Dune

The Corporation Wars: Insurgence by Ken MacLeod

Orbit, 2016, 320 p. ISBN 9780356505015

 The Corporation Wars: Insurgence cover

The conflict between the Acceleration and the Reaction which resurrected itself in the first book of Macleod’s trilogy, The Corporation Wars: Dissidence is here being promulgated further. As in that previous instalment of MacLeod’s Corporation Wars trilogy much of the story here takes place inside sims, the “terraformed SH-0” being joined in this instance by one based on a fantasy role-playing game centred round magic. While in these environments philosophical and political issues are discussed by the characters there is still the problem of lack of jeopardy to be overcome. At least Carlos the Terrorist, having changed sides, is now in danger of his consciousness – or at least a large swath of his memories – being erased if he “dies” in the new sim. Meanwhile the robots which themselves achieved consciousness in Dissidence have declared themselves neutral.

One of the characters observes, “Racism had never been about biology in the first place. That had always been a pretext.” After all, what chance will Artificial Intelligences have of being considered worthy of respect, given autonomy, if some humans aren’t?

Pedant’s corner:- kerogene (kerogen?) medieval again, ambiance (ambience,) adz (adze,) “she might well have, followed Carlos’s example” (might well have followed Carlos’s,) “was down its last nanofacturing tube” (down to its last,) several instances of a plural pronoun used in conjunction with a singular antecedent (though in most cases it was for something of indeterminate sex and where “it” would not have been appropriate,) “might whip it way from beneath her” (away from.)

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Pan, 2015, 604 p. (The author’s surname is given as Czajkowski on the copyright page.)

This is this year’s Clarke Award winner. I read it for that reason.

 Children of Time cover

In the last days of the Old Empire it had set up terraforming projects on planets in other solar systems. The plans of the watcher over one of these to seed it with a virus that would exalt monkeys were frustrated by the adherents of Non Ultra Natura, the transfer ship, containing monkeys and virus both, going down in flames. Millenia later the last remnants of humanity, the successors to the old Empire, trying desperately to use its all but forgotten tech to preserve the species by leaving a devastated Earth on the starship Gilgamesh, make an approach to the system and the Sentry Pod housing the watcher, the persona of Avrana Kern. Meanwhile on the planet below, the virus has been doing its work; but on invertebrates. Giant spiders dominate, slowly evolving greater and greater intelligence and cooperation.

Kern’s mission causes her to spurn the remnant humans, warning them off and all but disabling their ship. After an abortive landing an agreement is reached for them to leave for the nearest terraformed planet and never come back. This is a forlorn journey as that planet’s environment turns out to be unsuitable and the commander of the Gilgamesh orders a return.

The chapters set on the Gilgamesh are seen from the viewpoint of Holsten Mason, a classicist (historian) revived from and put into suspended animation at frequent intervals throughout the novel. Those describing the spiders – to whom more or less each successive chapter is devoted – are in a distanced third person. Here sentences like, “Their planet’s oxygen levels are higher than Earth’s,” “Something more virulent than the Black Death,” and, “Hidden in this arachnid Alexandria are remarkable secrets,” are jarring as they relate to things beyond the spiders’ ken. They are there for us, as readers in the twenty-first century. This, I would submit, is poor writing. The use of the same names for the different spiders at various stages of the story (Portia, Bianca and Fabian reoccur frequently) is also somewhat odd, though there is a rationale in that the spiders retain memories of the existence and knowledge of their predecessors through their genetic inheritance.

Avrana Kern has been in communication with the spiders by radio but she is ignorant of the nature of the species which have been exalted until they at last manage to send her a picture. She nevertheless regards them as her children and the remnant humanity on the Gilgamesh as impostors.

That ship’s systems begin to deteriorate badly and Mason witnesses increasing degradation and conflict within the crew as time goes by. However so much of the novel is spent with the spiders that by the time of the final confrontation we have known is inevitable between the two species it is almost they who seem the more human and sympathetic. In this regard the disruptions within the Gilgamesh have rendered its inhabitants less sympathetic to the reader.

The initial chapters were turgid reading with far too much information dumping. While things improved a little later on I could never quite suspend my disbelief at the goings-on on the Gilgamesh. The chapters on the planet were more interesting but even they became overly programmatic (especially Tchaikovsky’s shoe-horning in of arachnid sexual politics.)

I can only conclude that this won the Clarke because of its unusual spidery protagonists. There were certainly at least two novels on this year’s Clarke Award short list that I would consider were better written (as well as one that was considerably worse.)

Pedant’s corner:- The Non Ultra Natura lobby were (the lobby was,) miniscule (x 3; it’s spelled minuscule,) there were a limited number of circumstances (there was a limited number,) species’ (in the singular sense, so species’s, x 2,) loathe (loth or loath, x 2. Loathe in its correct sense of revile is used later,) “it came out more as a plea than he had intended” (as more of a plea?) one antennae (one antenna,)” another handful of her kind are already here” (another handful is here,) “Less than half her infiltration force remain alive” (any fractional value counts as singular so; less than half remains.) “The exploration of Earth’s orbit” (the context implies the solar system not merely Earth’s orbit.) Tiny animicules (usually animalcules,) overlain (overlaid,) “it was as if the human race was unwilling to be freed from their confines” (its confines,) “the host of individual ants reach” (the host reaches,) a host of Paussid beetles are lined up (a host is lined up,) “none …. are familiar” (none is familiar,) “there are a handful” (there is a handful,) the balance are here (the balance is here,) the crew are preparing (the crew is,) some of the crew gather (gathers,) “there were a few” (was,) ditto “there were a handful”, “there were a lot” of looks, “Lain’s tribe have done a remarkable job” (Lain’s tribe has done,) by no ways (either “by no means” or else “in no way” but not “by no ways”,) chromatopores (x 2; chromatophores,) a colony of hundred million insects (of a hundred million,) “The vibrations of the enemy’s approach serves as forewarning (vibrations; therefore “serve”,) Portia’s band are able to set an ambush (Portia’s band is able.)

Asimov’s Oct-Nov 2016

Special Slightly Spooky Issue. Dell Magazines.

Asimov's Oct-Nov 2016 cover

Editorial: Our Slightly Spooky Issue Asimov’s1 by Sheila Williams reminisces about all the issues of Asimov’s tinged with the uncanny which she has published around Halloween time.
Reflections: Magical Thinking by Robert Silverberg considers Lynn Thorndike’s “magisterial” A History of Magic and Experimental Science “an extraordinary treasurehouse of human thought in all its folly and grandeur.”
On the NET: Welcome Our Robot Overlords!2 by James Patrick Kelly examines the state of AI development.
In an excellent On Books:3 Norman Spinrad, for the first time in his reviewing career at Asimov’s dealing with short story collections/anthologies, notes the tendency for works of fantasy to dominate SF awards (and outlets,) in effect the colonisation of SF by “literary” craftspeople looking for a market (all but the only market,) and the necessity for story and style to be combined to make any fictional work outstanding. He decries the necessity for an author to have a “voice” as the style a tale is told in ought to serve the story, not the ego of its author.

In the fiction, Alexander Jablokov’s The Forgotten Taste of Honey4 sees viewpoint character Tromvi have to take a corpse back to the land it came from in order to please the gods. A transfer of memories from the corpse to Tromvi via the honey from a hive inside the body thwarts the man who tries to prevent him.
In Eating Science with Ghosts by Octavia Cade our unnamed narrator goes about eating and drinking with the ghosts of scientists and explorers, ghosts only she can see.
The People in the Building5 by Sandra McDonald describes the occupants of said building – including the interplanetary rescue service on the third floor which has unwisely as it turns out revived an ancient god from a nearby swamp.
Wretched the Romantic by Michael Libling is narrated by Richard, a loser who takes up scattering ashes as a scam once he discovers he has taken on the attributes of the deceased after accidentally inhaling them.
Water Scorpions6 by Rich Larson is set in the aftermath of the crash of an alien spaceship in the Sahara. One of their offspring, genetically modified to make them more human-like, is taken into the family of an ethnobiologist.
In The Leaning Lincoln7 by Will Ludwigstein, said figure is a toy made from a lead ingot salvaged from the shore. It has baleful properties.
Lucite8 by Susan Palwick sees a visitor to an attraction based on Dante’s Inferno take home a dead person’s soul in a lucite box.
Project Entropy9 by Dominica Phetteplace is another in the author’s series on AIs in San Francisco. My heart has begun to sink when I see her name on Asimov’s cover.
When Grandfather Returns10 by S N Dyer is a tale of the appearance among the Navaho of Cabeza De Vaca and his followers and their displacement to the present day.
In Choose Poison, Choose Life11 by Michael Blumlein a woman who has an unfortunate taste in men is variously, and in various guises, saved from, or saves herself from, suicide.

Pedant’s corner:- 1Joel Richards’ (Richards’s.) 2easily your best source the very latest news (of the latest news,) 3Henry James’ (James’s,) a epiphany climax (an,) Gunther Grass’ (Grass’s,) “what the differences between the two, are and stronger “ (between the two are, and stronger.) 4an ewer (I suppose since ewer starts with a vowel this is technically correct, but… It is sounded as a consonant so “a ewer” would be fine by me,) “maw” used for part of a ruminant’s stomach (hurray!) 5new emotions arrives (arrive.) 6sked (seems to be a USian abbreviation for schedule. I was of course thoroughly confused as I pronounce schedule as “shed-yule”.) 7Tutankhamen, (Tutankhamun.) 8McManus’ (McManus’s.) 9negress (we’re back to using n-words now?) 10Thunder Cries’ (Thunder Cries’s,) Rabbit Smile’s (name was previously Rabbit Smiles: the later Rabbit Smiles’ should be Rabbit Smiles’s,) 11to portage the water (“portage”? What on Earth is wrong with “carry”?)

Among Others by Jo Walton

Corsair, 2013, 408 p.

 Among Others cover

How does a reviewer describe this odd but delightful concoction? A coming of age story? No; the critical event of the narrator’s life so far has occurred before the time at which all but the initial chapter is set. A tale of adolescent awakening? Yes to that one. A fairy story? That first chapter invites us to consider it so but it does not begin with “once upon a time” nor end with “they lived happily ever after” and is in any case written in a realistic register. Then again it does have fairies in it. An orphan’s tale? Not quite, the narrator has run away from her mother and ended up in the care of a father – and his overbearing three sisters – whom she had previously never known. A boarding school story? In part. (You could well lose count of the number of ways in which our narrator is “among others”.) A primer on Science Fiction and Fantasy? Undoubtedly. It is almost perfectly calibrated to appeal to those with a love for the genre, especially for those books of the 1960s and 1970s people of a certain age will remember with great affection. Yet it doesn’t neglect the wider world of letters either. In particular it shows the interest in Plato Walton would later indulge in her Thessaly trilogy.

As a novel the story is couched in the form of almost daily diary entries – covering the six months from September 1979 to February 1980 – by one Morganna Rachel Phelps Markova, many of which display her love of books and of SF/Fantasy in particular. She can also see and talk to fairies and practices magic – but only in a benign way. Morganna’s voice is pitch perfect. This is how we feel a sometimes confused but opinionated girl of fifteen might write about herself. With a gammy leg due to an incident in which her twin sister was killed while they thwarted an attempt by their witch mother to destroy the world in some (unspecified) way she has difficulty with mobility. In memoriam she seems to have taken her dead sister’s name, Morwenna. One of the diary entries is signed as Morganna, letting us know this.

Walton has some fun delineating the antipathies of the Welsh towards the English (and the condescension from the other direction,) the snobbery endemic in a boarding school, “Class is entirely intangible, and the way it affects things isn’t subject to scientific analysis, and it’s not supposed to be real but it’s pervasive and powerful. See; just like magic,” and the oddities of adolescent behaviours in general. Her injuries actually are an aid as her bookishness would have set her even further apart from her boarding school peers. As it is she is excused games and haunts the school library, “Interlibrary loans are a wonder of the world and a glory of civilisation.” Her mother is an intermittent looming menace throughout the book and this is the major weak point as all the confrontations with her mother are curiously muted and of course the major one took place outside the novel’s confines. The final confrontation is somewhat anti-climactic, and over too quickly.

Apart from that Among Others is, to use Morganna/Morwenna’s word, brill.

Pedant’s corner:- chemistry (as a school subject it’s Chemistry; ditto Biology for biology – both French and Latin were capitalised; however, Physics, Economics, History and Music were not,) who everyone loves (whom,) “I bought four honey buns to go” (Morganna is supposed to be Welsh, not USian; the British usage is “to take away”,) someone is described as a fly half for the house hockey team; fly half is [or was] a position in Rugby Union, not, as far as I know, in hockey,) Morganna quotes a song’s lyric as, “‘Over the hills to Abergavenny, hoping the weather’ll be fine.’” (The actual lyric is, ‘Taking a trip up to Abergavenny, Hoping the weather is fine’,) “where we brush our teeth, and our hair” (the comma is unnecessary. Or is it?) “How much more likely resurrection if the dead process through the valley” (likely is resurrection,) “to which it is intended” (“for which” is more usual,) fit as a past tense (is USian, a Welsh girl would write fitted,) “everyone one always talks at the top of their voice” (at the tops of their voices,) “an explosion at a paint factory” (it’s usually “an explosion in a paint factory”,) a whole scrum were milling about (a scrum was,) “I think he deserves the benefit of the doubt?” (is not a question,) “Though I think ‘Etruscan Sea’ scans better?” (ditto; there were four more instances of such non-questions appended with a question mark,) “I don’t have maths brain” (a maths brain; or, a brain for maths,) “Burnham Wood coming to Dunsinane” (Birnam Wood.)

Daughter of Eden by Chris Beckett

Corvus, 2016, 398 p

 Daughter of Eden cover

The narrator here is Angie Redlantern, childhood friend of Starlight, the protagonist of the previous novel in Beckett’s Dark Eden sequence, Mother of Eden, but long since struck out on her own from Knee Tree Grounds and living among the Davidfolk in Veeklehouse on the near side of Worldpool. Angie is a batface, one of the many such in Eden as a consequence of the inbreeding unavoidable in the scenario. She had for a long time been companion to Mary, a shadowspeaker faithful to the cult of Gela but was rejected by her after failing to hear Gela’s voice in the sacred Circle of Stones. The novel kicks off when Angie’s daughter, Candy, is the first to notice the men in metal masks coming across Worldpool in wave after wave of boats. Soon Angie’s family is heading out over Snowy Dark to Circle Valley to escape this invasion. There, in a strange left turn that falls outside the narrative pattern of the trilogy so far, the event that marks Angie’s life occurs. To reveal it would be a spoiler of sorts.

Beckett is of course examining origin myths and belief systems and here explicitly the question of what happens when evidence arises that directly contradicts the stories you have heard all your life, stories which that life revolves around, especially if they are stories on which your self-esteem and means of living depend. Well, belief is a stubborn beast. If you truly believe, you just rationalise that evidence away.

Beckett’s depiction of the evolution and entrenchment of social hierarchies is not an especially optimistic view of humanity. Perhaps all Edens are dark. Within it, however, while he shows us humans bickering and fighting, we also find loving and caring; so there is hope. Readable as always, Beckett involves us fully in Angie’s world, and presents us with characters who behave in the way we know they would. I’m still not sure about that life-marking event though.

Pedant’s corner:- sprung (sprang,) when when (this is not one of those instances where Eden folk use repetition of an adjective to express the comparative, a habit Beckett expands on later; just one “when” needed here,) me and her had fallen out (the English ought to be I and she or she and I but of course Angie is writing in Edenic,) me and Mary (I and Mary; Mary and I, ditto.) “Their bones, those that were left unpulverized, would be twice as old as the cave paintings at Lascaux” (twice as old as the cave paintings at Lascaux? Those cave paintings [being older than the bones] would themselves be three times as old as the ones referred to by the time concerned. “Twice as old as the cave paintings at Lascaux are now” would make more sense.) “Come Tree Road” (this corruption of the song Country Road is elsewhere “Come Tree Row”,) Johnfollk (Johnfolk,) a new kind of, story (kind of story.)

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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