science fiction

    The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, Translated by Ken Liu (Books 2015, 8)

    I feel that we should be rendering the author’s name in the Chinese way, with the family name first: Liu Cixin. That’s how he signs himself in the “Author’s Postscript”, and that’s how the translator renders all the characters’ names. But the above is how the publishers have done it, so we’ll stick with that for now.

    As a work in translation, The Three-Body Problem fits well within the parameters of The Tempest Challenge, which, as I told you, I’m taking this year. It’s also this year’s Hugo winner, so I was keen to read it for that reason.

    Right at the start I felt a mild sense of annoyance, because it was only then that I realised it is part of an incomplete trilogy.1 I’m not keen on starting unfinished serieses (it is so a word).

    I finished it last night with a sense of surprise. According to my Kindle I was only at 85%; more importantly it didn’t exactly feel like the end, though to be fair I wasn’t quite sure where it could go from that point. I knew there were notes from the author and the translator, but they surely couldn’t be that long?

    They couldn’t. But it turns out that the digital copy contains an extract from the next book in the series. I’m not sure how I feel about this trend in general. I don’t think I’ve ever read one of them. But I do think they’re getting too damn big: this one was fully 10% of the file, according to the Kindle. One tenth of a novel is not in fact that novel, but an extract from the next one? I don’t think that’s a great trend. But to the content. What did I actually think of the work? Umm… mixed. I enjoyed it overall, am glad I read it, and will probably read the sequels. But it has problems that I don’t think are just caused by my cultural expectations. Though they might be: the translator, Ken Liu, in his postscript says:

    But there are more subtle issues involving literary devices and narration techniques. The Chinese literary tradition shaped and was shaped by its readers, giving rise to different emphases and preferences in fiction compared to what American readers expect. In some cases, I tried to adjust the narrative techniques to ones that American readers are more familiar with. In other cases I've left them alone, believing that it's better to retain the flavour of the original.

    Which is fair enough, and for “American” it’s safe to read “British”, as well. But perhaps the most important literary technique – or at least, the admonition most often drummed into beginning writers – is “show, don’t tell”. As I have argued myself, it’s not a rule that can or should be set in stone; but there are times when violating it comes across as clumsy at best.

    There are many such times in The Three-Body Problem. Long sections of characters' lives are told to us as a history. Similarly with the sections that take place in the “Three Body” game.

    There are some great ideas here; in particular the best use of monomolecular fibres since – was it “Johnny Mnemonic”? One of William Gibson’s shorts, anyway. It’s also worth reading for the historical parts: the terror of living through China’s Cultural Revolution is well evoked. But the aliens are hard to believe in.

    And part of the initial setup: scientists are killing themselves because things seem to have gone fundmentally wrong with physics. I found that unconvincing. If as a scientist you find things not behaving as you expect – even seemingly randomly – you don’t give up on science and life; you try to find a new theory to fit the facts.

    Lastly, I don’t think we ever found out what’s supposed to happen at the end of the countdown.

    But I don’t mean to do a hatchet job. I did enjoy it, and as I say, I’ll probably read the sequels. Would it have won the Hugo in a less puppy-infested year? Maybe. You can never tell.

    1. Incomplete in English, at least; the third part is due to be published next year, so it may well be finished in Chinese. ↩︎

    Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (Books 2014, 13)

    This is the one that's won them all: BSFA (jointly), Clarke, Nebula, and more recently, the Hugo Award. Never before has a single book had such a sweeping effect on the world of SF awards.

    And does it deserve them all? Does it live up to the effusive reaction of the community?

    Err, well… no, not really.

    Which is not to say it’s bad. In a sense, nothing could live up that level of praise.

    However, my personal problem with it – at least at first – was this: I like my super-intelligent spaceship minds to be the good guys. To be part of, and defending, Utopia. In short, I want The Culture. And I guess I hoped that Ann Leckie might sort of take Banksie’s place.

    Obviously there wasn’t much chance of that, and it isn’t fair to judge the book on those terms.

    So, back to its own terms. In any case, these super-intelligent spaceship minds aren’t necessarily bad guys; but they’re in the service of a pretty unpleasant empire. Though things get ambiguous. And interesting. And of course, there’s the gender-blindness of the viewpoint character, which is great. So yeah, it was fun, I enjoyed it, it goes to some interesting places, and it sets things up nicely for a series.

    Oh, god, a series. Does nobody write books in ones any more? I was just looking at the current crop of so-called “Black Friday” deals on Kindle. There were quite a lot of books for crazy-cheap prices. Except… there weren’t really that many if you count a series as one.

    C’mon, folks, write a book that doesn’t have a sequel, hey?

    But I digress. Go read about Ancillary Justice: you’ll find reviews of it all over the place. Then go and read it. It’s great.

    From Easter to Volcano Days

    I don't get round to these things quickly, but this is, at least in part, a report on my family's visit to Eastercon. This year the British National Science Fiction Convention was practically on our doorstep, just the other side of London, at Heathrow.

    As with two years ago, my son wanted to come. And since my daughter did as well, my beloved bit the bullet and came along too. SF isn’t totally her thing, but I think she may have enjoyed the weekend more than any of us.

    The telling detail was this: there are lots of things to do.

    I tend to use cons as a way of seeing friends that I haven’t seen for a while – often not since the last con I was at. So I mainly hang out in the bar. Or that, at least, is the impression I gave – give – to people who don’t go to cons.

    In fact, I have always gone to programme items. I guess I just never made a big thing of them when I got home.

    This con – Odyssey 2010 – had a particularly good set of programme items for kids. There were hands-on science workshops, making Dalek cakes, and building string-propelled robots (my son won a prize for the best ramp-mounting attempt). And not least, a thrilling battle between various knights of the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA).

    The programme was full of fascinating and fun things, many of which I wanted to see, but didn’t manage to, as ever.

    And of course, I saw a lot of old friends, and had a good time hanging out in the bar with them.

    We only stayed for the Friday and Saturday nights, to keep costs down. But after going home on the Sunday (and watching the new Doctor Who again), we went back on the Monday, and spent most of the day back at the Radisson Radisson.

    Travelling all across London was a bit of drag, but it was a lot shorter than many people’s journeys. And of course, there was absolutely no chance of [ash-induced delays] volcano.

    Am I a bad person because I found all the volcanic disruption kind of amusing and quite fun, really? The cloudless and contrail-free blue skies over London were gorgeous, and it was interesting to follow people’s tweets of how they were striving to get home. And a world with a lot fewer flights is something we’re probably going to have to face in the future.

    What annoyed me about it all were the idiots who blamed the government. Marginally more sensible than blaming ‘god’, I suppose1, but even if anything other than sending in the Navy had been the government’s decision, can you imagine the fuss if flights had been allowed to go ahead, and there had been a disaster?

    Plus, the idea of getting a trip home on the Ark Royal is pretty cool.

    1. As somebody said, if that's an act of god, then it's a pretty limited kind of omnipotent deity.

    A Dream of Wessex, by Christopher Priest (Books 2008, 9)

    This is the motherlode of all brains-in-jars/life-is-a-computer-simulation-type stories. Gibson's and the Wachowskis' Matrixes can both trace their origins back to here - or at least, they should be able to. I'm not aware of anything older than this that quite deals with this idea.

    At Maiden Castle in Dorchester in the near future (of the time the book was written; it’s now our near past) a scientific research project has been under way for several years. It involves ‘projection’, in which the particpants, their bodies unconscious, enter into a shared, simulated fantasy world. This consensus hallucination was intended to examine a possible future, with a view to suggesting answers to some of the problems of today.

    But one of the participants has been stuck in the projection for two years (when the normal period is measured in weeks or a few months at the most); the trustees are getting worried about the costs; and a new participant is about to arrive and change everything.

    It is excellent, and (of course) leaves you wondering how many levels of fantasy there are to reality - both the book’s, and ours.

    British Summer Time, by Paul Cornell (Books 2008, 4)

    Paul Cornell wrote some of my favourite episodes of Doctor Who's recent years: 'Father's Day', and the 'Human Nature'/'Family of Blood' two-parter. After the latter, I downloaded and read the ebook of his original novel (on which the episodes were based). So I came to this with some knowledge of his writing.

    But not with so much knowledge of his religious beliefs. I had some sense – from reading his blog, presumably – that he was religious, at least in a vague, Church-of-Englandy sort of way; but I didn’t expect, on picking this up, that it would have such a religious heart (or maybe ‘soul’ would be more appropriate).

    Though I’m not sure that the Archbishop of Canterbury would quite approve – and I’m absolutely sure the Pope would not – of the theology.

    It’s a fine story of a woman who can read the patterns of the world around her, a space pilot from the future (but is it ‘our’ future?), a disembodied head, and four mysterious ‘golden men’, who might be angels, might be the biblical four horsemen of the apocalypse, or might be something else. It’s an easy read, and I recommend it.

    But does the religion get in the way of the story? No, not really; though it was something of a distraction at times for this atheist. It’s by no means preachy; indeed, you could argue that the religious interpretation of the events in the story is a misinterpretation. Though since that interpretation is the author’s, that would depend on where you stand on the whole postmodern thing about the author being irrelevant, and the reader entering into a dialogue with the text.

    The question for me on a personal note is, would I have approached it differently - or read it at all - if I had known about the religious content before I started it?

    The answer is, I would have approached it differently. And, if I hadn’t known the author’s work, I probably wouldn’t have picked it up at all.

    By saying that, I’m convicting myself of being likely to prejudge religiously-inspired fiction; well, yes, guilty as charged. Just as I’m likely to prejudge romantic fiction, literary fiction, heroic fantasy, and so on. We don’t approach anything in a vacuum, after all. Our past experiences, our expectations, colour our understanding and appreciation of any art. And we all have our preferences.

    Still, if I had known, and rejected this, I’d have missed out on something worthwhile. So that’s worth bearing in mind.

    Matter, by Iain M Banks (Books 2008, 1)

    So, the latest Banksie. Always a treat, of course, and especially so when it's a novel of The Culture. This one, though, is slightly disappointing.

    It’s not actually bad – certainly not badly written (though he does overuse the phrases “appeared to be”, and “looked like”, when describing things; I was told off years ago (by Lisa Tuttle, no less) for using “seemed” when describing something: “it either is, or it isn’t.” I’ve been painfully aware of that word, and phrases that take its place, ever since). It’s just not as good as we’ve come to expect, which is a disappointment.

    The main fault is that he describes too much of the scenery, to the point where it all starts to get a bit much. He didn’t always do that, I don’t think. Or maybe he did, but it was better executed, and so not so noticeable.

    It’s the tale of some of the inhabitants of a level on a ShellWorld, and how they come into contact with The Culture, and why, and what follows. All good stuff, with plenty of fabulous tech.

    But you know what was the most annoying thing about it? The cover. It shows a human figure in silhouette, walking away from (or it could be toward) our PoV. On the horizon a city is burning. Overhead there are stars. It’s not annoying because no scene remotely like it happens in the book (well, there is one scene a bit like it, but she isn’t on foot).

    It’s annoying because of the shadows.

    The figure’s shadow shoots out to its left, implying that there’s a strong light source to the right; a rising or setting star. But the burning city is giving off lot of light, too. Enough, it seems to me, that she (if it is a she) should have a secondary shadow, also to her left, but coming towards our PoV.

    It’s a small thing, I know, and I don’t usually comment on the covers of books, but I noticed it when I was about two-thirds of the way through, and it bugged me every time I looked at it thereafter.

    Still, you know what they say about books and covers.

    The only 'Transformer' I really like is an album by Lou Reed

    Took the kids to see the Transformers movie tonight. It's not a franchise that I grew up with, of course, but my two older nephews were into them when they were kids, and so I was aware of them even before my son started watching the more recent cartoons a few years ago.

    But I gather that there is a whole generation of twenty-somethings – maybe even thirty-somethings – who went to see the movie with a sense of worry, even trepidation, that it would stamp a great big metal foot all over their memories. And I gather that, largely, for them, it did not. I had heard quite good things about it (or I thought I had); and the trailer looked great.

    So I was mostly disappointed. I didn’t hate it all the way through; nothing as extreme as that. I was just disappointed at how weak and overlong it was; and mainly by the American-military porn. A great deal of it was showing the fantasticness and coolness of American military technology. I’m not sure that’s really what I want to see in a film I take my kids to (though as it also revealed that all human technology came from reverse-engineering the frozen Megatron, they may have been sending mixed signals).

    Also, since it starts with a US military base in the Middle East being attacked (by a giant alien fighting robot, and in Qatar, admittedly, but still), you might reasonably expect there to be some political point. But there wasn’t.

    Unless, perhaps, it was this. The grunts (actually Special Forces, so I’m not sure we should call them grunts) were shown as cool, professional, skillful and competent. The secret government agency in charge of crashed alien artifacts, and the FBI, were shown as feeble, useless and pathetic; easily outwitted by a couple of teenagers and, err, a group of giant alien fighting robots. So, soldiers good, government bad, or something.

    Also, one bit that really surprised me was when Megatron and Optimus Prime were fighting: Megatron turned into a plane, Optimus Prime grabbed him, and together they crashed into the side of a tower block and slo-mo’d all the way through it and out the other side. 9/11 can’t be as raw a wound in the American psyche as I had thought.

    We could have done without the whole teen romance thing, but it’s an American summer blockbuster, so what can you expect? And we could have done without at least half an hour of the start.

    It’s also incredibly visually noisy, and the Transformers themselves, especially the Decepticons (the baddies) are so similar when they’re in robot mode that it was really hard to tell what was going on at times.

    But then, what was going on didn’t really matter that much.

    The kids enjoyed it though, and it was a nice treat to end the summer holidays with; but since we started them with Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and middled them with The Simpsons, I don’t think it really stands up.

    Still, it’s definitely been ‘The Summer of Film’, as they were calling it in the trailers a while back.

    The Steep Approach to Literary Acceptance

    A couple of articles (Times, Indy) on Banksie's new novel refer to it being five years since his last one. Err, no: The Algebraist came out in 2004 (which is longer ago than I thought, but still less than three years).

    Oh, wait, no, of course: that wasn’t a novel; that was just sci-fi.


    Book Notes 18: Radio Free Albemuth, by Philip K Dick

    Ah, how we love the paranoid fantasies of our Phil. As does Hollywood, considering how many of his works have been made into films.

    Not much chance of that ever happening to this one, mind you (though they’ve done A Scanner Darkly now, so you never can tell).

    This is kind of a prequel or counterpart to Valis, which I read a good number of years ago. In a similar way, Dick himself is one of the central characters, though it is not him who believes that an alien intelligence – the Vast Active Living Intelligence System – is communicating with him.

    We are in an alternative America: instead of Nixon becoming President in 1968, an even more authoritarian, fascist figure called Ferris F Freemont does. His regime quickly takes on an extreme McCarthyite nature.

    Valis sends a message of hope from beyond the stars. Or is it from another dimension? Or is it God? Nicholas Brady does not know, and neither do we. A significant portion of the book consists of him and his writer friend, Phil, discussing possibilities for what it could be that contacts him in dreams, and sometimes lends him lifesaving information and even healing powers. But no real conclusion is reached.

    It’s an OK read, but is largely unresolved by the end: though not without hope.

    Book Notes 14: Viriconium, by M John Harrison

    This is a reissue in the Fantasy Masterworks series, of all - or nearly all - of Harrison's 'Viriconium' stories. Four of the collected works are novels (though short ones) and the rest short stories. I had read only one of them before, the last-written and last presented here: 'A Young Man's Journey to Viriconium' appeared in Interzone a long time ago. I don't think I understood it then, though: it doesn't really make much sense out of context.

    Though as it happens, the context of that one story is different from that of all the others. The others are all set in Viriconium, or in the lands that surround it. This final one is set in our world; it tells the tale of some people who dream of Viriconium, who believe that it is real, who believe that they might be able to reach it one day.

    Whether anyone would actually want to get to Viriconium if they could is another matter. It is a sort of dream city at the end of time. It has a constant feeling that the world has run down, that time is running out. Humanity has fallen from the great technological highs of the ‘Afternoon Cultures’, and now survives on scavenged technology - machines so advanced that they are still running after millennia - and on traditional crafts.

    So most of the weaponry, for example, consists of swords, but there are a few prized energy blades, or baans. People travel on horseback, or walk, to get around, especially after the last few aircars are destroyed in the War of the Two Queens, which is part of the subject matter of ‘The Pastel City’.

    Did I mention that this doesn’t belong in the Fantasy Masterworks line? Just because people fight with swords, and the technology is advanced beyond their understanding into Clarke’s (Third) Law territory, doesn’t make a book sword & sorcery. This is science fiction, where the science is breaking down; or at least, the knowledge of it is.

    Despite all the stories having been published before, there are copyright dates for only a few of them, and previous-publication details for none. Which to my mind detracts slightly from the collection.

    Also, the first story is listed as ‘Viriconium Knights’ in the contents and on its own title page, but as Viriconium Nights" (which is the title I recall having heard of before) on the copyright page. This could, of course, be deliberate, as I have a vague recollection of having heard that this is not a simple collection and republication, but that there has also been some reworking.

    It is not easy reading: it is a 500-page book, and it took me over a month to read it. Now, I’m not that fast a reader these days, but that is slow. But at no point was I thinking, “This is heavy going,” or, “I can’t be bothered with this.” Rather, it’s just that some prose styles are denser than others, and Harrison’s is dense. In a good way. Highly recommended.