Cibola Burn: Fizzles out, my least favorite entry to date At the end of Abaddon's Gate, we know that the alien ring has opened up the universe and aCibola Burn: Fizzles out, my least favorite entry to date At the end of Abaddon's Gate, we know that the alien ring has opened up the universe and a thousand new suns for humanity to explore and colonize, so you might expect the series to open up in scale after the tight quarters and political maelstrom of the solar system and the conflict between Earthers, Martians, and Belters. Well, you'd be wrong. Instead, two-author duo James S.A. Corey decide to focus the entire fourth book on a single planet and the fight over a virgin planet between refugee squatters and an evil Earth corporation to control a rich lithium supply.
Little do they know the planet contains remains of an ancient and long-gone alien civilization, along with plenty of the usual dangers of settling and surviving on a new world, but the hardest thing they face is the venal rivalries and petty grudges of the two groups of settlers. It's certainly realistic for the author's to show that you can take humanity out of the solar system, but they still bring all their cultural baggage and biases and general inability to get along. So Avasarala decides to send Holden there as a neutral mediator to defuse a volatile situation. Predictably, things get very messy and there are plenty of gun battles, space battles, damaged ships and tense standoffs, along with the trademark wise-cracks of the crusty crew of the Rosinante: Holden, Naomi, Amos, and Alex.
This time we meet some new faces among the security forces and settlers, with fairly clear good guys and bad guys. However, I found the vast portion of the book a fairly dull slog, as I just didn't care who prevailed, and the little hints of alien civilization didn't add up to much of anything, even the continued mystery of the Miller construct. The whole book felt like treading water after the authors signed a control for 5 more books, so they are pacing themselves for the long haul, which is pretty disappointing considering all the large-canvas potential of a mad rush to colonize a thousand star systems. It was like looking at just a few threats in a huge tapestry without enough sneak peaks to keep the reader engaged.
I already have the fifth book in the series, Nemesis Games, on audiobook so I'll give it a listen so it isn't wasted, but I fairly doubtful I'll go the distance with so many other series clamoring for attention....more
Abandon's Gate: My least favorite installment due to annoying new characters The Expanse has been a pleasure to discover, thanks to its well-craftedAbandon's Gate: My least favorite installment due to annoying new characters The Expanse has been a pleasure to discover, thanks to its well-crafted blend of gritty, sarcastic, idealistic, and ruthless characters, lots of meticulous world-building and technical details to describe a smaller-scale solar-system stage rather than the usual galaxy-wide canvas of space opera, and very convoluted military and political scheming plots. It's a lot of work for the two-headed team that writes under the pseudonym James S.A. Corey. I've also been watching the Sy-Fy TV series (now available on Amazon Prime) through the first three seasons, and this is the last book that has a TV equivalent to compare to.
So despite having the same great core cast of crew members on the Rocinante, namely James Holden, Naomi Nagata, Amos Burton, and Alex Kamal, the biggest problems I had with this installment were:
1) Really annoying new characters There are two major new characters introduced this time around. A) The first is Clarissa Mao, younger sister of Julie Mao and daughter of Jules-Pierre Mao. Since Holden dismantled the massive corporation of her father since it was bent on weaponizing the proto-molecule for profit, she is hell-bent for revenge at all costs, and since she still has a lot of money available as a war-chest, she then concocts the most elaborate revenge scheme to humiliate, discredit, and kill James Holden. B) Anna Volovodov is a Methodist pastor from Europa who joins a UN delegation of religious figures seeking to examine and understand the mysterious ring/gate built by the proto-molecule in the previous book.
2) Difficult to believe motivations I found the motivations of the above two female characters very difficult to believe in, particularly Clarissa Mao. While we often see stories of totally obsessed characters bent on revenge at all costs, it's just hard to buy the lengths she goes to carefully trap Holden into her revenge fantasy. There are just too many implausible elements, and frankly I find it hard to believe that someone born into wealth and privilege can become a ruthless killer and determined assassin so quick (then again, Osama Bin Laden fits that bill). The depths of her hatred seem far to deep for someone who really hasn't suffered as much as many of the other characters.
Pastor Anna is, like most religious characters in SF novels and (sometimes) in real life, very sanctimonious, unbothered by contradictions, and irritatingly self-assured in her morality while at the same time brushing away moral conundrums with the typical vapid idea that mere humans cannot understand the will of God, which can cover all manner of sins and misfortune. So pretty much every scene with her grated on my serves, though I am certainly biased in this respect. I also really do wonder how believers in the current set of archaic, outdated, and Earth-centric religions would actually react to a bona-fide alien presence. Could they really do the mental-gymnastics required to accept an alien intelligence not mentioned at all in the holy scriptures? Or would it expose their beliefs as wrong? Hard to say, but I've found the religious mentality can incorporate all kinds of nonsense since it's not based on reason, but rather on faith.
So I have two more books in the series on Audiobook, Cybola Burn and Babylon's Ashes, which do not have TV series available yet to compare with, so I'll have to create my own mental pictures this time. The series is still well worth following, I just didn't gel with the new characters this time around....more
Caliban's War: Exciting New Plotlines in Second Installment I'm now well on my way with The Expanse, having watched the first three seasons of theCaliban's War: Exciting New Plotlines in Second Installment I'm now well on my way with The Expanse, having watched the first three seasons of the Sy-Fy series before starting on the audiobooks. Although initially hesitant, I've come to like the characters on the Rocinante, each with their quirks and moments of greatness amid the action and intrigue. Holden the idealist captain, Naomi the super-competent engineer, Amos the tough, no-bullshit mechanic, and Alex the cowboy pilot, now share the stage with three new major characters, Avasarala the elderly Indian politician with a brilliant scheming intellect and sailor's mouth, Bobby Draper the Polynesian space marine who has to go outside her comfort zone of fighting to the messy world of politics, and botanist Prax Meng who is desperately searching for his lost daughter Mei.
These characters get caught up in the complex ongoing tapestry of interplanetary military conflict between Earthers, Martians, and Belters, along with the sinister and deadly proto-molecule, which behaves at times like a bio-weapon and at other times like an alien proto-intelligence with unknown designs on humanity. Then there is the Machiavellian plots and schemes that Avasarala is deeply entwined with as she tries to defuse the every-increasing tensions between the three main power groups, as this gets stirred up by the brilliant opening set-piece on Ganymede where Bobby Draper and her Martian marine squad face a mysterious attack that ignites events beyond her understanding.
Having seen the series before listening to the audiobooks, the book characters of course mirrored the appearance of the actors in the show, so it was very easy to picture them as I listened to the story. They are depicted well in the TV series, and gain additional depth thanks to the audiobooks, so it's a nice synergy to experience the story from different media. In the last few years I've enjoyed this approach, whether it is Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, Man in the High Castle, Altered Carbon, etc. Much of the pleasure derives from comparing how the stories and characters and images differ between the book and film/TV versions. As I'm enjoyed The Expanse in both media, it's on to Abandon's Gate next....more
The Temporal Void: An Action-Packed, Mind-Bending Final Volume Much like the Commonwealth Saga,this is a very long, detailed, imaginative, andThe Temporal Void: An Action-Packed, Mind-Bending Final Volume Much like the Commonwealth Saga,this is a very long, detailed, imaginative, and sprawling epic space opera that involves dozens of characters, plots, advanced technologies, alien races, ancient galactic mysteries, nefarious plots and counterplots, all told in an engaging narrative that doesn't get bogged down in exposition like a lot of other hard SF stories. It's far more entertaining than the more grim future vision of Alastair Reynolds, to which Peter Hamilton is often compared to. The human characters here remain far more human than the cold post-humans of Reynolds, which sometimes strains credulity, as they regularly make contemporary cultural references and seem not so different from us, despite being set in a galactic society set in the 31st century, but that largely lies in how you would imagine future humans will be like.
The story is split into two main storylines, a fantasy-like coming of age story about Edeard, a young man coming into his own powerful telepathic powers in a medieval society, and another far more complex future narrative about the search for a Second Dreamer broadcasting dreams of a utopian world within the Void, a giant black hole that is steadily consuming the galaxy from the center outward.
Fortunately, this book makes up for the self-indulgent and juvenile power fantasies of the middle book with a vengeance, packing enough action, mind-bending speculation, and galaxy-busting events that I decided to give the overall series a 4-star rating for the wealth of ideas even if it lacked a tight focus and much of the characterization was a bit two-dimensional, as he seems to go for cramming as many characters and storylines into his epic, though he does go in-depth on his main protagonists. Overall, it's a very ambitious and entertaining series if you can forgive some of its excesses....more
The Temporal Void: A Draggy Middle Book that Indulges in Tedium Much like the Commonwealth Saga,this is a very long, detailed, imaginative, andThe Temporal Void: A Draggy Middle Book that Indulges in Tedium Much like the Commonwealth Saga,this is a very long, detailed, imaginative, and sprawling epic space opera that involves dozens of characters, plots, advanced technologies, alien races, ancient galactic mysteries, nefarious plots and counterplots, all told in an engaging narrative that doesn't get bogged down in exposition like a lot of other hard SF stories. It's far more entertaining than the more grim future vision of Alastair Reynolds, to which Peter Hamilton is often compared to. The human characters here remain far more human than the cold post-humans of Reynolds, which sometimes strains credulity, as they regularly make contemporary cultural references and seem not so different from us, despite being set in a galactic society set in the 31st century, but that largely lies in how you would imagine future humans will be like.
The story is split into two main storylines, a fantasy-like coming of age story about Edeard, a young man coming into his own powerful telepathic powers in a medieval society, and another far more complex future narrative about the search for a Second Dreamer broadcasting dreams of a utopian world within the Void, a giant black hole that is steadily consuming the galaxy from the center outward.
Unfortunately, this book spends much of its length dallying in the tedious romantic misadventures of of its increasingly powerful psychic Edeard, and really indulges in some self-indulgent and juvenile power fantasies that really takes away from the other storyline. It certainly feels like he had a contract for a trilogy and was treading water and filling pages in order to set the stage for the third book, when he could have cut this out and done better with two big volumes like the Commonwealth Saga....more
The Android’s Dream: More like The Fifth Element than Bladerunner Originally published at Fantasy Literature
The Android’s Dream (2006) is one of JohnThe Android’s Dream: More like The Fifth Element than Bladerunner Originally published at Fantasy Literature
The Android’s Dream (2006) is one of John Scalzi’s earlier books, and a stand-alone rather than part of a series, so I couldn’t resist given the obvious Philip K. Dick reference in the title. I decided to go into this one without knowing anything about the plot or reading any reviews at all. I know Scalzi’s humor and style from the OLD MAN’S WAR series, Redshirts and Lock In, and I love the audio narration of Wil Wheaton, so I figured I’d give it a try. I was also surprised that this hadn’t already been reviewed on FanLit, which has covered pretty much all of Scalzi’s prolific output.
Initially I was a bit nonplussed by the opening sequence, essentially the most elaborate “fart joke” in a tense human-alien diplomatic meeting in the history of the genre (tiny niche, I know). It suggests we’re in for something more along the lines of The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy or The Fifth Element than the profound and melancholic ruminations on what separates humans from replicants in PDK’s classic Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep that I had expected from the title. But the story certainly throws out enough ideas, computer hackers, AIs, mercenaries, phony religious cults, secret government agencies, intense action sequences, and humorous quips sprinkled throughout, to provide the entertainment that Scalzi has become famous and very successful for delivering.
The plot involves a major diplomatic incident between the UNE (United Nations of Earth) and the Nidu, a more powerful alien race that is the ostensible ally of humanity, a new junior member of the Consolidated Confederation of Worlds, in which the Earth is sitting at the “loser’s table in high school”, as Scalzi puts it so succinctly. So it is up to ex-military State Department “Xenosapient Facilitator” Harry Creek to track down an a rare species of blue sheep called Android’s Dream that holds the key to a major power struggle for succession on the Nidu homeworld. What follows is a madcap, zany, action-packed, whirlwind adventure, from shopping mall shootouts to some pretty cool computer hacking by AIs, and leading up to a grand finale on the Nidu homeworld at the coronation ceremony, with the fate of the Earth and intergalactic war hanging in the balance.
As typical for Scalzi, The Android’s Dream produces dozens of eminently quotable quips about this future society, our own human foibles, etc. However, as the story frequently veers from snarky humor to intense action sequences, sometimes I felt like Scalzi was not quite in control of the tone of the story. It’s much like a Luc Besson movie, with frenetic action, slapstick humor, and then random moments of seriousness. I also think the author was still finding his voice, though his debut novel Old Man’s War was a near-perfect pastiche of Heinlein that updated and improved on Starship Troopers. So I don’t think it really hung together in the end, despite being filled with promising elements. Still, if you are a fan of zany SF thrillers, you probably won’t be disappointed....more
Paper Girls: Four 80s Teens get Entangled in Serious Weirdness Originally posted at Fantasy Literature
If you are a fan of Brian K. Vaughan’s amazingPaper Girls: Four 80s Teens get Entangled in Serious Weirdness Originally posted at Fantasy Literature
If you are a fan of Brian K. Vaughan’s amazing Saga comic series, you are likely to want to check out some of his other series as well. In addition to writing many stories for Marvel and DC comics’s well-known franchises, he has also written a number of original series, including Y: The Last Man, Ex Machine, Runaways, and Paper Girls. For Paper Girls, I rally liked the cover artwork by Cliff Chiang, coloring by Matt Wilson, and lettering by Jared Fletcher.
Paper Girls has been likened to a female version of Stranger Things, and while there is some superficial resemblance as they both center around a group of suburban kids growing up in the 1980s who start to encounter strange and occult happenings in their town and have to take things into their own hands, with copious 80s pop references, Paper Girls goes into far weirder and most outlandish territory, and while things start out out on a small scale about four 12-year old girls doing a paper route in Cleveland, Ohio, things don’t stay that way for long.
During her early-morning paper delivery route, Erin Tieng is accosted by some bullying teen boys who are chased off by three other female paper girls, Mac, Tiffany, and KJ. Mac is a tough-talking, cigarette-smoking tomboy who doesn’t back down from anyone while Tiffany and KJ are a bit more typical kids. Erin is the new girl, but gets thrust into their group when they get jumped by some mysterious cloaked individuals and have their walkie-talkie stolen.
The early morning pre-dawn blue colors and artwork are done really well, as are the 80s period details of clothing, hairstyles, manner of speech, and pop-culture references. However, these girls are a bit more street-saavy than their male Stranger Things counterparts, and when they discover a mysterious device in an under-construction house, you know things are going to get weird. If you’d rather discover the rest for yourself, stop reading and get yourself a copy right now!
Anyway, the girls get transported to a different version of their sleepy suburb of Stony Streams, and run into the mysterious cloaked figures, who speak a mystery language depicted with alien-looking lettering. They acquire a tiny device with an apple symbol on it, try to figure out what is going on, and very soon we’ve got winged pteradactyls with futuristic armored riders with power lances, weird light formations in the sky, and then things get very chaotic.
The girls end up with the mysterious hooded characters, people get injured, and they end up on the run from some very bizarre alien constructs, and get conflicting details and snippets of information just enough to confuse and tantalize us. Again, it’s not clear what’s going on and where the story is going, but compared to all the stories out there that are painfully predictable, I found this refreshing.
Vaughan throws in a steady flood of new plot elements and characters without letting either the reader or the characters know who are the good guys or the bad guys, so if you like your stories crystal-clear from the outset you may find it frustrating. I myself enjoy the disorientation of a new stories where nothing is yet clear, so I don’t mind. If you trust the creators of the story, you’ll be willing to go along for the ride. Much like in Saga, he likes to have smaller panels lead to larger reveal panels that build anticipation in the story. It’s a good visual technique and gets you trained to look ahead to the next one, very Pavlovian!
Because the events of Volume 1 are still so preliminary and confusing, I read the first three volumes before even attempting to write a review, but I can honestly say that while I’ve got a more detailed view of the larger plot and more details, I remain in the dark about where this story is going, but it remains very entertaining....more
The Invicible: Early classic encounter with a swarm intelligence Originally posted at Fantasy Literature
Stanislaw Lem was a Polish SF author, one ofThe Invicible: Early classic encounter with a swarm intelligence Originally posted at Fantasy Literature
Stanislaw Lem was a Polish SF author, one of the most famous and successful writers outside the English language world, selling over 45 million copies in 40+ languages over five decades from the 1950s, but mainly in Eastern European communist bloc countries such as Poland, Germany, and the Soviet Union. However, despite his success he had a rocky relationship with the United States SF community, having a fairly low opinion of American SF fiction writers other than Philip K Dick’s works, and having his honorary membership with the SFWA taken away when he became eligible to become a regular member, which may have been intended as a slight and which he took as one. He refused to join.
Lem even translated PDK’s UBIK into Polish in 1972, but as PDK was already pretty eccentric as he neared his own personal 1974 religious experience, he wrote to the FBI saying that Stanislaw Lem was a name used as a cover for the Communist Party to influence Western public opinion (just a wee paranoid, I’d say). Basically he felt he got stiffed for payment for the translation and blamed Lem for this. So there was a lot of misunderstanding with Lem and the Western SF world. However, as time has passed there have been many more English translations of his works, including a number of retranslations and audiobook versions, which has brought his work to the attention of newer readers again.
His most famous book is Solaris written in 1961 in Polish (see my review of the book as well as the 1972 Tarkovsky film and 2002 Soderbergh film versions), which was not translated into English until 1970 (from the French edition, rather than the original Polish). It finally received a direct Polish-to-English translation from Bill Johnston and an audiobook version in 2011. Similarly, The Invincible was first published in Polish in 1964, then translated to German in 1967, but only received an English translation of the German version in 1973. Finally it received a proper Polish-to-English translation by Bill Johnston in 2015, so we have him to thank for bringing Lem’s works more skillfully and faithfully to English language readers. The audiobook has just become available from Tantor Audio, narrated by Peter Berkrot and based on the Bill Johnston translation, so it was a perfect opportunity to rediscover a classic Lem story.
Turning to The Invincible itself, it is a classic take of alien contact and rumination on the nature of human and non-human (in this case non-organic) intelligence, and the possible futility of trying to communicate with a truly alien intelligence at all. Rather than the simplistic and anthropomorphic aliens popularized by American SF pulps and films and TV shows like the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises, Lem’s thoughts on alien consciousness or machine intelligence was way ahead of its time. He was a pioneer when he wrote about encountering a sentient ocean in Solaris in 1961, and an artificial machine-based micro-bot swarm intelligence in The Invincible in 1964, almost a half century ago. One wonders how much more influence he might have had on the Western SF scene if his works had been translated more quickly and accurately than they were.
In any case, The Invincible is the story of an heavily-armed exploration ship that sets out to discover what happened to The Condor, a similar ship that landed on the uninhabited and desolate planet Regis III before losing contact without warning. The first half of the book focuses on the crew’s efforts to discover what happened to The Condor and its crew, and they soon discover a mysterious artificial city, which seems to have been abandoned long ago. They then discover The Condor, still intact and largely undamaged, hundreds of kilometers from the city. Then they have their first encounter with an ominous and metallic cloud that emits a strong electromagnetic field and interferes with their communications. Things quickly spiral downward as they realize they are dealing with an artificial machine intelligence that does not possess higher consciousness, but is perfectly capable of destroying human technology and mental functions, and even the mighty anti-matter weaponry of the Invincible.
There are various arguments among the crew, particularly the captain and the first navigator, Rohan, who is the main character in the story, about how to confront this implacable alien swarm intelligence, one that hardly seems aware of the pitiful human presence on the planet. However, unlike Kris Kelvin in Solaris, we really don’t get to know the human characters in The Invincible, as they seem largely lost in the face of an impossible situation. Ostensibly they are there to discover the crew of The Condor, but their whole mission comes into question, and by extension the whole justification for human exploration of strange and hostile worlds is also put under the microscope. Do humans really have a moral imperative to explore and conquer, and when they encounter an inorganic swarm intelligence that is perfectly adapted to its environment, but also perfectly uninterested in organic life, what possible gain can be had by trying to “communicate?”
Like many SF novels of the 1960s and 1970s, the ideas in Lem’s books take precedence over excessive characterization and plotting, which accounts for their welcome brevity (under 200 pages vs. the doorstoppers produced by Peter F. Hamilton or Alastair Reynolds), but Lem is very much a modern philosopher, ruthlessly stripping away the pretensions of the Western idea that humanity has a Manifest Destiny to explore and conquer the universe. The themes he prefers to explore are what intelligence and consciousness are, and what their role is in a large and uncaring universe. It is often a chilling vision, and may well have been influenced by his long exposure to the Soviet Union’s dominance over the communist bloc countries, including his homeland of Poland. Rather than the naive optimism of American SF, he painted an often bleak canvas of the limitations of human ambition.
Given that perspective, it is quite fascinating how popular his works became. I’ve only touched the surface of his books, and look forward to reading some with a more satirical slant, such as the stories of "Ijon Tichy: Space Pilot" (The Star Diaries, The Futurological Congress), along with his fable-like short stories exploring artificial intelligence (The Cyberiad, Mortal Engines). There is a depth of intellectual rigor and refusal to provide escapism in his books that appeals to me, and I hope he will find more readers thanks to the new translations and audiobook versions....more
Saga, Vol. 8: Unafraid to mix space adventure with difficult topics Originally posted at Fantasy Literature It’s been six months since I read Vol 7 of Saga, Vol. 8: Unafraid to mix space adventure with difficult topics Originally posted at Fantasy Literature It’s been six months since I read Vol 7 of SAGA, and after moving to London last summer we recently popped into Forbidden Planet in Soho, and that store is an absolute treasure trove of SF comics, books, and other fan goodies. There are so many enticing comics on offer there, you could spend your entire salary in one wild shopping spree. When I saw Vol 8 of SAGA with Wild West cover art among the new releases, I knew I had to have it.
SAGA is my favorite comic series, because it is always pushing the envelope in terms of content, themes, gorgeously assured and sometimes shocking artwork, and characters so charming, honest and flawed that you can’t help but cheer for them. If you like intelligent, snarky, sometimes profane space opera with a vast cast of star-crossed lovers, bounty-hunters, humanoid robots, tabloid reporters, terrifying monsters, and oddball creatures all caught up in a galactic war between the technology-based Wings and magic-wielding Horns of Wreath and Landfall, this series is guaranteed to captivate.
In Vol 8, Marko, Alana, Hazel, Prince Robot, and Petrichor find themselves on a remote Wild West planet. The traumatic events on planet Phang are still lingering, and they are in desperate need of an emergency medical procedure (any more details would be a spoiler). Once again writer Vaughan is unafraid to tackle a sensitive subject with the opening panel. And while I thought this time the story sometimes felt like it was purely a vehicle for political debate and hurt the story’s momentum, I applaud his willingness to put his characters in contentious moral situations. It’s a trademark of the entire series, love it or hate it.
While Petrichor encounters some Wild West outlaws, Alana, Marko, and Hazel hitch a ride on a train and meet up a very unexpected new character that quickly bonds with Hazel. In fact, Alana has discovered some surprising new powers that may be connected to this. Finally Alana and Marko reach their destination and the doctor they’ve been seeking. The dialogue sounds like something from a TV talk show debate, but then that’s what Vaughan wants to talk about, so that’s what we get. I thought this part of Vol 8 dragged, as the characters debate the merits of their actions. Likewise, Petrichor and Prince Robot are another odd partnership and have many arguments over gender, war, and politics. I liked the story of Hazel and her new friend Kurti better. There were a number of poignant moments as they innocently discuss the world of adults, and this section will appeal to parents, siblings, and those aspiring to become one. Again, this part is very well-written and didn’t feel as forced as their earlier parts.
In the next chapter, we once again see what The Will has been up to, and he’s not in a good place. Seems that one of the many individuals he’s casually killed during his illustrious freelance bounty hunter career had a loved one who has tracked him down to exact revenge. This person has decided to really torture him by going through his old memories. We get to see some scenes from The Will’s childhood and early days as a bounty hunter with The Stalk. Artist Fiona Staples treats us to the ultra-violent action that the series generally features. I’m sometimes unsure if Vaughan & Staples show gruesome violence for the vicarious thrills, or as a technique to highlight that killing is not clean and anonymous like storm-troopers in Star Wars. Considering that his old sins are now catching up with The Will, I would hazard a guess its’ the latter. Eventually, his tormentor unearths a very valuable secret from his memories, though it’s no secret to readers.
In the final chapter, we rejoin Upsher, the gay tabloid journalist, Ghus the little prairie-dog warrior with a sense of justice, and the innocent young son of Prince Robot, Squire. They have an adventure in the forest, seeking the fearsome Dread Naught, and Ghus and the young robot have some interesting discussions about what situations justify fighting and killing to protect yourself. Vol 8 ends on an upbeat note, quite the opposite of the dark final panels of Vol 7.
Now that the series has reached 48 episodes and eight volumes, it has settled down to a more thoughtful pace, and while I think it does lack the intensity of the first four volumes and over-indulges in overt political themes that didn’t really carry the story forward much, I think Vaughan feels that he’s earned the loyalty of readers enough to be able to explore such themes with less propulsive action and more discourse. Again, I really appreciate that SAGA is not about escapism, its about our messy world, war, injustice, intolerance, innocence and cruelty, and most importantly the decisions we must make each day to get to the next day. That’s what keeps the series relevant and fresh – it’s real and funny and heartbreaking, often in rapid succession. Give it a try if you haven’t yet....more
All These Worlds: The action-packed Bobiverse finale Originally posted at Fantasy Literature
Dennis E. Taylor’s BOBIVERSE series has turned out to be aAll These Worlds: The action-packed Bobiverse finale Originally posted at Fantasy Literature
Dennis E. Taylor’s BOBIVERSE series has turned out to be a real winner, starting with We Are Legion (We Are Bob) in September 2016 and continuing with For We Are Many in May 2017. Usually I tend to read fairly serious, literary, and ambitious SFF books, but after going through not one, but two long episodes dealing with a debilitating herniated disc this year and being confined to lying on my back for weeks, I badly needed a comic break, and the BOBIVERSE series is a perfect place to get an action-packed, science-literate, hilarious, and even moving story in under 8 hours of audiobook bliss. It would not be an exaggeration to say that narrator Ray Porter is brilliant and absolutely perfect for this series. His delivery is so in tune with the snarky tone of the book that Dennis E. Taylor really should buy him a round or two if he hasn’t already.
If you’re looking for an ultra-fast-paced SF adventure featuring multiple AIs originating from the same individual, Von Neumann probes exploring the galaxy, the moral dilemmas of whether to assist a primitive race as a mechanical god, trying to combat the misguided policies of a human government on a new ocean colony, and battling to save the entire human race AND Bobiverse from an implacable alien race that consumes planetary systems and sentient species as a light snack, these are the books for you.
In All These Worlds, the third and final installment in the Bobiverse, Bob and his other fellow AIs remain engaged in dozens of different situations, mainly exploration and terraforming of planets to create new homes for the surviving remnants of humanity. This is not an easy business, and Taylor devotes a lot of time explaining the science and technology of it, but in a very understandable and reader-friendly way. This time he focuses on the various technologies involved in terraforming, starship engine drive back-engineering, and finding the optimum balance of producing enough technology and equipment to support terraforming while at the same time building enough weaponry to defend humanity from the rapacious Others, who simply have zero interest in sitting down for a cup of tea and discussing their differences like a civilized species.
The terraforming story on Poseidon involves a lot of political machinations between Marcus, one of the Bobs, and the local governing body of this water planet that seems to disagree on EVERY SINGLE POINT of managing the colonies’ development, and this rapidly develops from tense discussions, to embargoes, and finally open warfare. It’s all very frustrating for Marcus, as he is only trying to help them out, but they just won’t see common sense (at least from an immortal AI perspective).
There is also again a bittersweet love story for one of the Bob AIs, Howard, as he is in love with a mortal woman biologist, who is a perfect personality match for him but refuses to consider the idea of being digitally stored and made immortal. Howard, who has seen so many “ephemerals” come and go, cannot idly watch as she ages while he does not, and finds himself in a nasty fight with her children over her last wishes. Once again, this adds an element of thoughtful speculation on what it might mean to live forever, and whether most people really would take this option.
Finally, we have the Others, the implacable advanced alien race that likes to turn star systems into raw materials, and treats sentient beings as food. This time the Others plan to annihilate humanity wherever it has settled in the galaxy, and are racing to Earth to destroy it completely, so it is up to a group of “younger” Bobs to find a way to stop the Others to save both humanity and all the other sentient races that will be callously wiped out if they can’t find a last-ditch solution. Once again, it reminded me of a more light-hearted version of the unstoppable aliens of Alastair Reynolds’ REVELATION SPACE series.
All These Worlds’ story just flies along at near light speed — there are 76 chapters in only 281 pages, which translates to 3.6 pages per chapter. If anything, I think Taylor could slow things down a little and flesh out some of the side story elements, but then again part of the charm of the BOBIVERSE is that it never rests, unlike so many of the bloated series that jam the shelves of bookstores. All the Bobs are relentless workaholics, so the story never stops for very long, despite the wealth of ideas that could get more in-depth treatment in a longer book.
Finally, I must again say that the Kindle versions of all the books are only $4.99 each on Amazon.com and adding Audible narration is only an extra $1.99 if you are an Audible member. That is a ridiculously good deal, and one of the reasons I gave it a try in the first place, so take a trip to the Bobiverse!...more
For We Are Many: More adventures in the Bobiverse Originally posted in Fantasy Literature I really enjoyed Dennis E. Taylor’s We Are Legion (We Are Bob)For We Are Many: More adventures in the Bobiverse Originally posted in Fantasy Literature I really enjoyed Dennis E. Taylor’s We Are Legion (We Are Bob) last December after discovering it by accident as Audible’s Best SF of 2016. I generally tend to read fairly serious, literary, and ambitious SFF books and realized I needed a light break and For We Are Many was the perfect change of pace. The BOBIVERSE series really is a fun place to spend some time, and it is the narrative voice that makes the books worth reading. In fact, I think the audiobook narrator Ray Porter is absolutely perfect for this series, his delivery is so perfectly in tune with the breezy, snarky tone of the book that his performance deserves a star all its own.
If you’re looking for a fun SF adventure featuring multiple AIs originating from the same individual (Bob, of course), Von Neumann probes exploring the galaxy, the moral dilemmas of whether to assist a primitive race as a mechanical god, encountering an implacable alien race that considers planetary systems and sentient species as raw materials and food, then you’ve come to the right place. After listening to the melancholy, deadly-serious, artistic, and brooding Viriconium by M. John Harrison, handled by the skillful British narrator Simon Vance, Ray Porter’s light, matter-of-fact, and sardonic delivery was a welcome relief.
In For We Are Many (2017), the second installment in the Bobiverse, Bob and his other AI counterparts are now scattered throughout the nearby star systems, most intent on exploration and terraforming in order to create new homes for the surviving remnants of humanity. The original Bob took a special interest in looking after a primitive but sentient race of Deltas in the Delta Pavonis system, and he spends a lot of time making sure they are not killed off by the local gorrilloids. When a new and more formidable predator shows up, he is faced with the Prime Directive dilemma popularized in Star Trek — how much do you intercede in the affairs of another sentient race, just because you like them? Is it ok to play God and take sides? Well, Bob is as human as you or I, and a very reasonable and humane person to boot, so he sets aside philosophical questions in favor of helping out his beloved Deltans, particularly the family of Archimedes, a Deltan who is especially intelligent and ambitious.
Terraforming new worlds to establish human colonies is not an easy business, and the author devotes quite a lot of time to describing the science and technology of it, but in a very understandable and reader-friendly way. Perhaps because Dennis E. Taylor is a computer programmer by trade, he knows how to describe things clearly, but I found his technical explanations not only logical, but actually interesting, and I am a liberal arts type. I’ve had to slog through many a page of technical exposition in other books (I’m thinking of Alastair Reynolds at the moment), but Taylor pitched his material at exactly the right level for me.
Meanwhile, in one of the only story elements in For We Are Many that I took strong exception to, there is a radical environmental terrorist group called VEHEMENT whose basic attitude is that the Earth would be better off without human beings, so why not just help the process by hatching various plots to kill off humanity. Of course SF is about extrapolation of current world trends, but SERIOUSLY, how many of us think that radical environmental terrorists are going to be the biggest concern in the coming decades? We have plenty of other unpleasant political trends that are happening around the world right now and I refuse to get into that debate, but I’d say there are far worse threats to humanity in some of the world’s current leaders and politics than tree huggers gone wild. So I’d have to voice my displeasure with Taylor’s choice of villains here, and the satire is so exaggerated as to lack any conviction. Okay, stepping off soap-box now.
The terraforming story on Vulcan involves a bit of a love story for one of the Bob AIs, something I wasn’t expecting. It’s not overdone, and it is a natural issue to arise when immortal AI personalities interact with humans, though some dismissively label them “ephemerals.” I actually found this storyline quite moving, which was an added bonus from a book where I was mostly expecting light-hearted space adventure.
Finally, we have the implacable advanced alien race that likes to turn star systems into raw materials, and treats sentient beings as food. Having read Alastair Reynolds’ REVELATION SPACE series just last year, this reminded me of that series’ unstoppable alien machine race, so much so that I wondered if Taylor wasn’t making a bit of fun of it, but since he treats them as a serious threat, I don’t think that was his intention. In any case, these aliens are indeed bad-asses and painfully lacking in any sense of humor, so fighting them to save humanity is no mean feat. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that we will have to wait for the next installment to find out what happens with them. Finally, did I mention that the Audible version of For We Are Many is only $4.99 on Amazon and adding the Audible narration is only an extra $1.99? That is incredible value for the money, so go out and get it before they decide to hike the price!...more
Death’s End: Truly epic finale to the THREE-BODY trilogy NEW INTERVIEW WITH TRANSLATOR KEN LIU: GIVEAWAY OF THREE-BODY TRILOGY AUDIO CD SET! ListeningDeath’s End: Truly epic finale to the THREE-BODY trilogy NEW INTERVIEW WITH TRANSLATOR KEN LIU: GIVEAWAY OF THREE-BODY TRILOGY AUDIO CD SET! Listening to Cixin Liu’s THREE-BODY trilogy reminds me of those graphics on cosmology that illustrate our relative scale in the universe. It starts with the microscopic world of individual atoms and molecules (or even subatomic particles like quarks and neutrinos), expands outward to individual cells, organisms, and larger creatures, then jumps out further to continents and the planet Earth, zooming back to encompass our solar system, the Milky Way galaxy, and then pulling out further to an endless sea of galaxies that make up our universe. But Liu doesn’t stop there. He’s just gotten started, really. After all, there are more universes out there, and we’ve only mentioned three dimensions so far.
The first book, The Three-Body Problem, focused mainly on the Earth and communications with the first alien race encountered by humanity, the Trisolarans. This book featured ‘sophons,’ protons unfolded into two dimensions and then etched with circuitry via mesons, creating super-powerful computers that occupy almost no space in three dimensions, allowing them to spy on human activities and interfere with scientific development.
The second book, The Dark Forest, introduced a new phase in Earth-Trisolaran relations, the Crisis Era, in which humanity had 400 years to prepare for an invasion by the Trisolarans after being coldly told “You’re bugs.” Humanity reacted in various ways, with some treating the Trisolarans as vengeful gods or saviors of mankind, or descending into hedonism and despair, but the most important project is the Wallfacer Project, in which the Planetary Defense Council selects four important individuals with the power to formulate different strategies to handle the impending invasion.
The catch is that the Trisolarans can monitor every move of humanity, so the only way to defeat them is to use subterfuge, trickery, and misdirection. It’s a very unusual take on the alien invasion theme, and the concept of a Wallfacer is one more familiar to Chinese readers, who recognize it from classic Chinese literature. The final part of the book has a climactic encounter between the human and Trisolaran fleets, and the brilliant stratagem that Luo Ji uses to prevent humanity’s annihilation by the enemy.
The third book, Death’s End, begins by detailing the birth of the Staircase project, another response to the Tri-Solaran Crisis. It introduces the main character of the book, Cheng Xin, a highly intelligent young female aerospace engineer. Despite her lack of experience, her innovative ideas about creating propulsion systems that approach light speed gain the attention of her superiors. When the project head demands lighter payloads to launch an individual human envoy toward the approaching Trisolaran fleet, she comes up with an innovation that will require the ultimate sacrifice, and finds the perfect person for the mission.
Thanks to Luo Ji’s genius, humanity and the Trisolarans have entered a stalemate known as the Deterrence Era. Luo Ji is the Swordbearer, ready to push a button that will almost certainly lead to the destruction of both Earth and Trisolaris at the hands of unseen but powerful aliens by revealing the locations of Earth and Trisolaris to the galaxy. This is an extension of the Dark Forest concept, which likens the universe to a dark forest filled with different species. Nobody knows if the others are hostile, but if they naively assume they are friendly they will likely be destroyed first, so the only logical response from a game-theory perspective is to strike first and destroy your opponent, whether they appear friendly or hostile. It is an interesting metaphor for the Cold War on a galactic scale, and a pessimistic solution to Fermi’s Paradox.
Eventually, when Luo Ji gets too old to remain the Swordbearer, it is decided that Cheng Xin will take over his duties. To reveal the following events would constitute major spoilers, but suffice to say that the Deterrence Era rapidly transitions to the Broadcast Era and then the Bunker Era due to a series of dramatic double-crosses, brinksmanship, and momentous decisions. This portion of Death’s End is very exciting and fast-paced, fulfilling the build-up of the first third of the book.
The Bunker Era makes up the bulk of the remaining half of Death’s End. Humanity remains under constant threat of destruction at the hands of unseen, more advanced species, the proverbial “Dark Forest Strike.” So they take refuge behind the larger planets of the solar system, in case a strike targeting the sun destroys it and the surrounding planets. But there are other factions that would prefer a different approach, such as the “Black Domain” strategy of using black holes to slow down the speed of light in the solar system, thereby blocking external strikes but isolating humanity from the rest of the galaxy. There is also the “Curvature-Propulsion” strategy, which seeks to create light-speed capable ships by manipulating the curvature of space. However, those that wish to avoid the attention of other alien species are concerned that light-speed ships will invite a “Dark Forest Strike.” So once again humanity struggles with itself, facing choices that may determine the survival of the species.
The final portion of Death’s End has so many mind-boggling set-pieces and events that describing them will certainly ruin your enjoyment of the book. Liu’s descriptions of multi-dimensional space and massive galactic events are incredible and even beautiful at times, as is the translation job done by Ken Liu. Kudos also go to the audiobook narrator P.J. Ochlan, who gives the characters the requisite attention amid the events that threaten to engulf them. The Dark Forest concept takes front and center in the closing movements, as we finally see humanity from the perspective of aliens so advanced that we indeed seem little more than bugs. What those aliens have in store for humanity is stunning, humbling, and deeply tragic.
Which brings us to the Galactic Era, as the remnants of humanity learn exactly where they stand in the galactic pecking order (hint: pretty far down, in case you didn’t guess already). The characters theorize what the most advanced alien races are like, and what their plans for the universe are, including multi-dimensional warfare, trying to outlive the heat-death of the universe, creating mini-universes outside of time, and the Big Crunch that awaits all sentient life at the end. It’s mind-expanding and terrifying in its implications.
In my interview with Cixin Liu after the publishing of The Dark Forest, he indicated that his favorite SF authors include Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, and Jules Verne, and their influence can be clearly seen, especially Clarke. He is also deeply influenced by George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and the dark tone of much of the THREE-BODY trilogy is certainly dystopian, in a galactic sense, though there are elements of hope in the ending of Death’s End and the story centers on the heroes that valiantly strive to save humanity. The overwhelming impression is not of a cold, uncaring universe, but rather an actively-hostile one in which humanity are indeed bugs scurrying across the floor, hoping to avoid getting stomped on....more
Camouflage: Species meets The Abyss - not in a good way Originally posted at Fantasy Literature How did Joe Haldeman’s Camouflage beat Susanna Clarke’sCamouflage: Species meets The Abyss - not in a good way Originally posted at Fantasy Literature How did Joe Haldeman’s Camouflage beat Susanna Clarke’s monumental work Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell for the Nebula Award in 2005? Granted, I haven’t read that book, but I have read many glowing reviews from my fellow FanLit reviewers and Goodreads friends. It was also made into a major BBC miniseries and received many accolades. Clarke’s book is incredibly long and filled with dense footnotes that show the depth of research and creative energy, perhaps too much for some readers but showing great effort on the author’s part. It is a major literary work of speculative fiction, and won the Hugo, World Fantasy, Locus, and Mythopoeic awards, and was even nominated for the Man Booker Prize and Guardian Award.
In contrast, who remembers Camouflage now? How many people recommend it to friends as a great science-fiction book? I breezed through the audiobook of Camouflage in just 8 hours, and while it was fast-paced and action-packed, it left almost no impression at all. It is the story of two shapeshifting aliens who have lived on the Earth for millennia: one interested in studying humanity, the other a vicious hunter that thrives on human misery and killing. We have two alternating timelines, showing how these shapeshifters have moved throughout human history, often causing legends of resurrection like Jesus Christ to arise, but always adopting new bodies to remain camouflaged, simply mimicking human behaviors to preserve anonymity.
In the future period set in 2019, Dr. Russell Sutton runs a small engineering firm that handles deep undersea projects. One day Admiral Jack Halliburton walks in with an intriguing proposal — recover a military sub that has gone down in the Tonga trench near Samoa, a project that is code-named Poseidon. But Jack’s real aim is a mysterious ultra-dense metal capsule buried even deeper that he has discovered. And before you can say “deadly shapeshifting aliens” and “deep underseas alien artifacts,” we have a typical techno-thriller, exactly what you can pick up at the racks of your nearest airport bookstore.
It’s not that I don’t like fast-paced entertainment — if this was a book by an unknown author that I picked up in the $1 bargain bin and read on vacation near the ocean sipping a cocktail and enjoying the tropical breezes, I wouldn’t have any complaints. It has lots of interesting details about how the two shapeshifters take different approaches to interacting with humanity. The Changeling is the “good” one that is fascinated by human psychology and academic study, and acquires more scientific degrees than Donald Trump has failed real estate ventures. Meanwhile, the Chameleon can’t get enough of human misery, and gravitates to monsters like Nazi scientist Joseph Mengele. We are never really told why the Chameleon is such a one-dimensional sadist — I guess some shapeshifting aliens just are that way.
As the Changeling moves closer to the present timeline it starts to wonder about its own alien origins and SETI projects, etc., so the Poseidon project has an irresistible allure. Meanwhile, the Chameleon cares little for humanity other than to thrive on killing, death, and misery. Probably the most visceral and emotionally intense part of Camouflage relives the Bataan Death March from the eyes of the Changeling. We see the depravity and inhumanity of man against man. We also get plenty of thriller action as the story converges in American Samoa, where scientists have raised the alien artifact and are trying their damnedest to break through the impossibly hard exterior. Why is it that humans just want to break into things they should probably leave alone? Haven’t they seen all those science-fiction movies about messing with alien artifacts?
But I’ve almost forgotten to mention the gender-bending love story, which I must conclude is the only possible reason that Camouflage also won the James Tiptree Jr. Award, which is dedicated to science-fiction works that explore gender, and that year‘s jurors included Ursula K. LeGuin and Cecilia Tan, whose Circlet Press is devoted to erotic science-fiction and fantasy. I would hate to question their judgement, but I thought the treatment of gender in Camouflage was fairly superficial and mainly an excuse for explicit sexual encounters between the Changeling and regular humans.
I guess it’s notable that while the vicious Chameleon remains exclusively male throughout its many incarnations, frequently as a soldier, the Changeling starts as a male but as it learns more of humanity elects to become female. So is Haldeman suggesting that of the two genders women are less aggressive and more thoughtful? If so, he didn’t really go beyond the surface, though he did seem to relish the Changeling taking on different female personae to seduce Dr. Sutton, who we are told is well known to be a pushover for attractive women.
In the end, if Camouflage were a first novel written by an unknown author and not by Joe Haldeman, renowned SFWA Grand Master, Science Fiction Hall of Fame member, and multiple Hugo and Nebula Award winner, not only would it not have won the Nebula Award, it may well have made the rounds of publisher rejections as so many books do. There are far better books in the science-fiction genre more deserving of the Nebula Award than this....more
Roadside Picnic: Russian SF classic with parallels to Vandermeer’s Area X Originally posted at Fantasy Literature Roadside Picnic (1972) is a Russian SFRoadside Picnic: Russian SF classic with parallels to Vandermeer’s Area X Originally posted at Fantasy Literature Roadside Picnic (1972) is a Russian SF novel written by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky. This was back when authors and publishers were subject to government review and censorship. Since it didn’t follow the Communist Party line, it didn’t get published in uncensored book form in Russia until the 1990s despite first appearing in a Russian literary magazine in 1972. So its first book publication was in the US in 1977. Since then Roadside Picnic has been published in dozens of editions and languages over the years, and inspired the 1979 Andrei Tarkovsky film Stalker, which the Strugatsky brothers wrote the screenplay for.
The story is set after the Visitation, when aliens briefly stopped on the Earth and left six Zones where strange alien technology and physical phenomenon exist. Residents of these areas never saw the aliens, but the alien artifacts have mysterious powers that can sometimes be harnessed by humans without understanding the underlying technology. The title refers to the simple analogy of a group of people going for a picnic in the countryside, having a good time, dumping various trash, and heading on. For the forest animals, the actions of these mysterious beings are incomprehensible, as are they objects they leave behind. So we are those helpless forest creatures.
Since the visitation, the Zones have been closed off by the UN and various governments to civilians, but the lure of the alien artifacts creates a robust illegal trade in them by “stalkers” who know how to avoid the numerous strange and frequently deadly traps that would kill the unwary. The protagonist of the story is Redrick “Red” Schuhart, a veteran stalker who has made dozens of successful trips to the Zone and emerged with enough artifacts to support himself and his girlfriend. This existence is quite precarious, so he also takes a job as an assistant in a lab that studies the Zone. However, he frequently finds himself in the local bar, especially when he makes another illegal score.
When Red ventures into the Zone with another stalker named Burbridge, they encounter “witch’s jelly,” a substance that dissolves Burbridge’s legs. Red saves him, but has to evade the authorities upon his return. Meanwhile, his girlfriend Guta gives birth to a girl with a full body of hair (who gains the moniker “Monkey”), since many children born near the Zone or exposed to people like stalkers end up with strange mutations.
After various scrapes with shady artifact buyers, underground organizations, and a stint in prison, Red finds himself at home once again. Sadly, his daughter has lost the ability to speak. Finally, he is lured into “one last job” to retrieve a legendary object called the “Golden Sphere”, which is rumored to grant the wishes of its owner. He enters the Zone with Burbridge’s son, but they must first get past the “Meatgrinder.” The ending of the story is fairly abrupt and ambiguous, so I will leave it to the reader to decipher.
So was Roadside Picnic good? I thought the central concept was excellent, but I’d be hard-pressed to say I enjoyed the book. It spent a lot of time with Red drunk in the bar, commiserating with various others in the strange subculture that develops around the Zones, which are generally desolate and sparsely populated. The various shady buyers and their schemes to get artifacts weren’t as interesting as I hoped, and the actual time within the Zones was frequently anticlimactic. His family life with his wife and mutant daughter was more promising, but didn’t really develop enough dramatic depth. And the ending… I had to go back and re-listen twice just to make sure I hadn’t skipped a final chapter by mistake.
The most interesting thing about Roadside Picnic is the parallels it has with Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation (2011), which it predates by about 40 years. That book is about a strange area known as Area X, where bizarre physical phenomena occur and many expeditions have gone in but have never returned. Of course it is not revealed whether Area X was due to aliens or other more occult sources, and the novel is stylistically much closer to Lovecraft’s Cthulhu and the New Weird school of fiction. Vandermeer loves to mix genres, injecting lots of horror and mystery elements, and has some fantastic descriptive writing. But Annihilation and Roadside Picnic do share the same DNA: a refusal to disclose their mysteries to the reader. They show the limitations of human knowledge, and our powerlessness when faced with a superior and mysterious force. The characters of Annihilation are more unreliable narrators than Red, and less easy to relate to. In the end, it wasn’t my favorite book, but it is still worth reading if you are interested in classic Russian SF.
Film Version: Stalker (1979) directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
Roadside Picnic did inspire a very loosely-based adaptation by Andrei Tarkovsky, who also directed the film version of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris in 1972. He was intrigued by the book and went to a lot of troubles (including having to completely reshoot the entire film after the first film stock was unusable) to achieve “classical Aristotelian unity” and create a very artistic, intellectual, and STUNNINGLY BORING film version. I had already seen Solaris and knew I was facing long, uninterrupted and static shots, minimal dialogue, inscrutable snippets of philosophical debate, and above all ambiguity and a lack of action. Sound like a promising way to spend 2 hours and 40 minutes?
I was shocked to find the film available at my local Japanese video store. What were they thinking? This film is exactly the type of pretentious art-house film that is highly praised, being picked #29 by the British Film Institute of the “50 Greatest Films of All Time” and getting a 100% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, while being completely unwatchable. I started the film determined to give it my undivided attention, but it punished me unrelentingly. I dare anyone to watch this film to the end without wanting to stick a fork in their eye.
The story has been changed quite dramatically from the book. The entire backstory about the visitation, black market for alien artifacts, and various organizations’ schemes are mainly left out, leaving us with… I’m not sure what. Instead, we have the Stalker, the Writer, and the Professor (much like the 4 main characters of Vandermeer’s Annihilation), the latter two seeking either inspiration or fame by discovering a Room in the Zone that will grant the entrant’s deepest wish.
We are then subjected to over two hours where almost nothing happens at all. My wife and daughter started to ridicule the film and we decided to wait to see if anything happened at all, and burst into laughter at Tarkovsky’s insistence on lovingly filming desolate, abandoned industrial scenes with no events of any kind. There were quite a few completely incomprehensible discussions among the three characters about the meaning of life, ambition, and their true motivations for seeking the room. The ending is almost comically obtuse, as every time there is any possibility of action, the characters elect instead to sit or lie on the dirt floor and mumble about drivel. I have a feeling that Tarkovsky and I would not get along at a cocktail party.
I guess Tarkovsky saw the film as a means of exploring the inner psychology of his characters, and the Zone as merely a framing device for this. I don’t think that was the original intention of the Strugatsky brothers (though they wrote the screenplay), since Roadside Picnic was, for me at least, more about how humans react to a superior and unknowable alien presence. So frankly the intent of Stalker was completely lost on me. There is one telling anecdote I read about. When a government official complained that the film was slow-moving, Tarkovsky supposedly retorted “the film needs to be slower and duller at the start so that the viewers who walked into the wrong theatre have time to leave before the main action starts.” Pretty contemptuous of the viewer, if you ask me. Why bother making the film at all? I would grant this film zero stars — steer clear of it....more
Radio Free Albemuth: Divine messages via a pink laser from space Originally posted at Fantasy Literature Radio Free Albemuth was written in 1976 butRadio Free Albemuth: Divine messages via a pink laser from space Originally posted at Fantasy Literature Radio Free Albemuth was written in 1976 but only published posthumously in 1985. Even for Philip K Dick, this is a bizarre and partly deranged book. It’s a deeply personal autobiographical attempt for him to make sense of a series of bizarre religious experiences he collectively referred to as “2-3-74”. So if you are only a casual fan of PKD’s books or movies, this is probably not for you. However, if you love his novels and know something of his troubled life, it will provide an absolutely fascinating picture of a man struggling to extract meaning from it all, using every resource his powerful, wide-ranging and increasingly unstable mind can muster. It may be a confounding mess for many, but what a gloriously courageous attempt he makes. For me this book and his later complete rewrite VALIS (1981) provide a window into PKD’s mind that no other books can (other than the massive and unreadable Exegesis of Philip K Dick), and is a moving and profound experience if you go along with it.
The story starts out quite simply. Part one is narrated by none other than Philip K Dick, a struggling science fiction writer and friend of Nicholas Brady, a Berkeley dropout who works at local record store. It is the late 1960s, and the book humorously depicts the growing counter-culture in Berkeley, with its legions of anti-establishment intellectuals roaming the streets and coffee houses on Telegraph Ave. It turns out that this is an alternate history United States where despotic right-winger Ferris F. Freemont has become President after Lyndon B. Johnson (think a sinister amalgam of Richard Nixon and Joseph McCarthy). He is determined to crush liberals, free speech, and communist conspiracies. There is also a citizens militia of sorts called “Friends of the American People”, which serve to investigate anti-government groups including a (perhaps fictitious) organization called Aramchek dedicated to overthrowing Fremont’s government.
Nick’s career at the record store is going nowhere, though he has an encyclopedic knowledge of music. He begins to receive strange visions that he believes are signals from VALIS, a Vast Active Living Intelligence System. These signals come to him at 3am at night, delivered by a near-earth satellite firing a focused pink laser beam (I’m not joking here) straight to his brain. At first he is not sure what is happening, but gradually he understands that VALIS is a super rational alien collective mind that has chosen him (and a select few others) for a mission to overthrow the fascist dictatorship of President Freemont. This revelation is of course quite disturbing to his wife Rachel, but when VALIS warns him that his infant son Christopher has an inguinal hernia, something that did not show up in any medical exams, they rush him to the hospital and the doctors are shocked to discover his diagnosis was right, and do an emergency surgery to save his son (this actually happened to PKD in real life apparently). This causes their belief in VALIS to grow.
Eventually VALIS grants visions to Nick that he should move to LA and become a record producer for folk musicians. He moves his family to LA and very quickly finds success in his new job. VALIS then reveals that this is all part of his mission to embed secret anti-Fremont subliminal messages in the songs he produces, in order to overthrow the totalitarian regime and bring freedom to the masses, who do not realize they are trapped in the Black Iron Prison that is representative of the evil Roman Empire that persecuted early Christians and has never ended. We also learn that VALIS has made previous attempts to heal the world of its madness, including various early Christian Gnostics, Elijah from the Old Testament, Jesus, etc. However, the Empire has continued to prevail, but VALIS has not given up the struggle. PDK provides dozens of pages explaining the philosophy of VALIS and all the obscure historical clues as to why the world is ailing. He dives way down the rabbit hole into cosmogony and cosmology, explaining how the creator of the universe is irrational and separate from the Logos, or rational mind, that is the ultimate source of wisdom. VALIS has sent homoplasmates to bond with certain chosen humans and impart this secret wisdom. HAVE I LOST YOU YET? ONLY PKD COULD COME UP WITH THIS STUFF, AND HE ACTUALLLY BELIEVES IT TOO.
One day Nick has a vision of a folk singer named Sylvia, and soon after this she shows up at his office, asking for a clerical job. He hires her but convinces her she should be a songwriter instead, and they reveal to each other that they have been having similar dreams from VALIS. Having finally discovered a kindred spirit (which turns out to be part of the Aramchek movement), they seek to put VALIS’s plan into action, recording a hit song with the message “Join the party”, a subliminal appeal to revolution. His relationship with his wife is strained by his friendship with Sylvia (whose real last name turns out to be Aramchek). However, his good buddy Philip K Dick stays true to him despite being skeptical of this craziness. For some reason a lot of this weird 1960s conspiracy stuff and obscure underground societies reminded me of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (1966).
Nick and Sylvia think they have successfully produced the song that will launch their revolution, but the FAPers (Friends of the American People) have actually been spying on them the entire time, and seize both of them along with PKD and throw them into a secret confinement facility outside the justice system. The FAPers reveal that they know about the plot, and that it has been foiled. There are some final events I won’t spoil, but suffice to say that the real PKD was clearly VERY PARANOID about the Republican Party, the FBI and CIA, and right-wingers in general. As everyone knows, they really are out to get us all.
Whether or not you buy into any of PKDs paranoid fantasies or strange religious experiences, it’s undeniable that he wrote this book with searing honesty, pathos for the struggles of his characters (himself, really), and out of a genuine desire to understand what exactly was happening to him with all these visions and hallucinations. Perhaps the most fascinating part of this book and its successor VALIS is that PKD separates himself into two characters, Nicholas Brady and PKD in Radio Free Albemuth, and Horselover Fat and PKD in VALIS. This essentially allows him to have an extended dialog with himself, as the Nick and Horselover characters undergo the strange visions and hallucinations, while the PKD characters are separate from this and serve as devil’s advocate. I’ve never seen a clearer fictional depiction of schizophrenia, but the fact that PKD could control the process and explore his own mental breakdown in a fictional narrative is simply incredible and to me was quite moving, particularly in VALIS. You can feel his struggles with sanity, even if you don’t believe in his gonzo religious philosophy. It’s a unique literary experience for any hardcore PKD fan, though it may make no sense whatsoever to most readers.
Film Version (2010): I was surprised to discover a film version of Radio Free Albemuth had been made as a low budget indie production back in 2010 starring Jonanath Scarfe as Nicholas Brady, Katheryn Winnick as his wife Rachel, Shea Whigham as Philip K Dick, and Alanis Morisette as Slyvia Aramchek. With great trepidation but irresistible curiosity I watched it on Netflix. Basically all the dream sequences are laughably bad, and the actors struggle to deliver all of PKD’s bizarre dialog with straight faces, but that is really due to the source material itself. Frankly, I don’t think this book was ever meant to be filmed, and is almost impossible to make convincing. So I don’t blame the filmmakers, but I think this would be impossible to watch except for die-hard PKD fans like myself who’ve read the book already. It seems the producers also have the rights to VALIS as well, but I sincerely hope they don’t try that one. It makes Radio Free Albemuth seem downright conventional. I do give kudos to Shea Whigham for portraying PKD as a smart and somewhat cynical SF writer, but the real PKD was actually a combination of both Nick Brady and SF writer PKD, which makes for a much more complicated and unstable personality....more
Stories of Your Life and Others: Sadly I couldn’t connect with these stories Originally posted at Fantasy Literature This is one of books that Stories of Your Life and Others: Sadly I couldn’t connect with these stories Originally posted at Fantasy Literature This is one of books that receives such universal praise and accolades from readers, critics, and award committees that it represents a real risk for a book reviewer. After all, if you love the book, you’re merely contributing to the overwhelming chorus of praise and not really adding much to the discussion, but at least you are “on the same page” as everyone. The alternative is much more frightening. If you didn’t like or connect with a certain book, then you are either 1) too insensitive to recognize genius when it confronts you, 2) a perverse contrarian who takes pleasure in criticizing what everyone else likes, or 3) clueless and have no credibility as a reviewer.
Well, despite repeated listenings to the stories of Ted Chiang’s collection, I just didn’t get why they were so amazing and brilliant. I can certainly recognize their careful crafting, intellectual rigor, rationalism, and serious thought about religion and faith. But did I care about the characters or say “wow, amazing” at the end of each story? Not really. Instead, I found the heavy role of mathematics, theoretical physics, language theory, and cool rationalism to be an obstacle to developing an emotional connection to the characters.
This was particularly true of “Story of Your Life”, which is all about mathematics, quantum physics, alien linguistics, sequential vs. simultaneous time, but overlays this onto the very human story of a mother recounting the various events of her daughter’s life from a unique perspective. This should be EXACTLY the type of story that I love, given that I find all those topics fascinating. So in terms of story DNA, it should be a perfect story for me, but I’m afraid its like a painting I can appreciate for its technical brilliance and delicate structure, but it didn’t move me.
Since this story not only won awards but also served as the inspiration for the 2016 Academy Award-winning SF film Arrival, starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker, it is certainly a story that gained plenty of attention. I’ll have to watch the movie now, since many of the book reviewers also rave about it as “that rare creature, a SF film that relies on intellect rather than CG and space battles.” Again, usually exactly my cuppa tea, so I’m at a loss to understand why I didn’t care all that much for it.
“Understand” is my favorite story in the collection, very much in the “Flowers for Algernon” mold but much more intense, about a man who in the process of being treated for a terrible accident is granted super intelligence, and his growing understanding of what it means to be smarter than the rest of the human race. The ending is quite dramatic and memorable.
There are also several stories that examine religious faith, specifically Biblical themes like “Tower of Babylon” and a literal vision of a world in which Heaven and Hell are real, “Hell is the Absence of God”. Both of these stories take a famous religious idea like the Tower of Babel or Heaven/Hell and then treat it in the most literal and magic realist terms.
“Tower of Babylon” describes that famous structure reaching into the stratosphere, and the construction workers who toil for generations to built it and what happens when they finally reach the Dome of Heaven. It is clearly a story about faith, but the conclusion and message was opaque to me. I tend to not respond to stories with religious themes, not being a believer myself, but still, I just didn’t get the point.
“Hell is the Absence of God” was a much more pointed story about why people go to Heaven or Hell, whether God is just or capricious, and whether good deeds and thoughts go rewarded or not. It is actually a fairly interesting exploration of “why do bad things happen to good people, and vice versa”, but I have never heard a convincing explanation of this that involves divine will, the conclusion of this story only confirmed for me that rewards and punishments have no connection with belief or actions, though I don’t think that was the intended message. Again, I just am not wired to understand these things.
“Seventy Two Letters” was a strong story, a very steampunk story of an inventor who creates a Golum that forms the basis of an alternate Industrial Revolution in England, and also has some interesting parallels with computer programming. It also raises some questions about creating life and the responsibilities that come with that. I’d say this was one of the stronger stories of the collection.
“Liking What You See: A Documentary” is about our human obsession with physical appearances and what would happen if this could be removed via a medical procedure. What would happen if you no longer perceived others as “beautiful” or “ugly”? Would you then judge them for their character or actions, and would this create a more just society? Again, an interesting thought experiment that Chiang explores via a series of journalistic articles and snippets of college students’ opposing views of this procedure, much like a pro-anti type debate. It was a good idea, but I thought it dragged on far too long and I lost interest partway through.
Overall, I think this collection will probably please more readers than not based on all the rave reviews and awards, even though I didn’t like it all that much. The audiobook was ably narrated by Abby Crayden and Todd McLaren, who convey the cool, cerebral tone of the stories....more
The Dark Forest: Only 400 years to prepare for an alien invasion Originally posted at Fantasy Literature The Dark Forest is Cixin Liu’s follow-up to TheThe Dark Forest: Only 400 years to prepare for an alien invasion Originally posted at Fantasy Literature The Dark Forest is Cixin Liu’s follow-up to The Three-Body Problem (first published in English in 2014 and selected as a Hugo and Nebula Award Finalist), and is the second book in his THREE BODY apocalyptic SF trilogy (which was already published in China back in 2010). It took a while for the series to gain enough popularity in China to catch the attention of US publishers, but since the first book was released last year, major newspapers like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post have all published favorable feature articles because Chinese SF is a very rare and unknown commodity in the Western world.
The Three-Body Problem was an original blend of mystery, particle physics, global politics, virtual reality games, and alien contact. Its strengths were its ideas and extrapolation about alien contact, not characterization, and The Dark Forest follows this pattern. Now that humanity knows that aliens are coming and they are not friendly (their only statement to humanity was “You’re bugs”), they have 400 years to prepare before the alien warfleet arrives. This is an original concept in SF since most alien-contact stories start with the point of first contact and go from there. How would humanity respond when it has that much time to prepare, with most of the early generations knowing they won’t ever live to see the final confrontation with the alien Trisolarans? It’s an interesting contrast to Neal Stephenson’s latest book Seveneves, in which humanity has just 1-2 years to prepare an Ark to preserve human civilization from destruction by meteorites.
Liu postulates that humanity will struggle to put forth a united front against the aliens, even faced with annihilation in four centuries. This makes perfect sense from a psychological point of view: how many of us put off tomorrow what could be done today, like my daughter watching YouTube when she should be studying, or humanity using up fossil fuels and resources without concern for the next generation? Then imagine that 16 generations will go by before the Trisolarans will come to Earth and exterminate us like bugs. Why bother worrying at all? And certainly much of humanity does respond this way.
However, the Planetary Defense Council is not content to admit defeat. It decides to establish the Wallfacer Project (pretty badly named, which is what you get for putting it to a committee to decide), which vests four individuals with enormous powers; they are tasked to come up with secret strategies to defeat the alien invasion. Secrecy is needed because the Trisolarans have infiltrated the Earth with sophons, subatomic particles that contain super-powerful AIs capable of eavesdropping on all human communications around the world. Because of this, the only way to deceive the Trisolarans is to essentially keep all real plans unspoken, and to misdirect human society as well.
The first three Wallfacers selected are well-known political figures or scientists, but inexplicably the final member selected is Luo Ji, an unknown Chinese astronomer and sociologist. Thanks to a visit from Ye Wenjie (a major character from the previous book), he develops an interest in “cosmic sociology,” which postulates that there are only two major axioms that an intelligent species will follow: 1) the ultimate imperative is survival of your species, and 2) there is limited mass in the universe but life grows exponentially, so life must fight for space. Based on these principles, any species encountering another has only one logical choice: strike first and destroy the other before it happens to them. The concept of “chains of doubt” essentially ensures that an intelligent species cannot assume another is benign, so it must attack first to survive. It’s clear that the Trisolarans have taken this approach, especially since their own solar system is unstable and likely to destroy itself. By that calculus, it doesn't matter if mankind is friendly or not: we have a habitable planet and they do not. We’re “bugs,” and it’s not our business if they want to wipe us out.
Surprisingly, the Trisolarans still have some human supporters (i.e., those who oppose humanity) on Earth, and they establish a counter-strategy that assigns a Wallbreaker for each Wallfacer. As the story proceeds, the first two Wallfacers come up with wildly different schemes, only to be foiled by their Wallbreakers. With each defeat, humanity becomes increasingly convinced it stands no chance against the Trisolarans. However, Luo Ji takes a very unorthodox approach, seeming not to care and indulging in a hedonistic lifestyle. Though this is designed to throw the Trisolarans and their Wallbreakers off the scent, even his closest friends (and readers of The Dark Forest) are confused.
The story then leaps ahead by 200 years, as we find that Luo Ji and Da Shi (the gruff cop from the first book) have gone into cryogenic hibernation, hoping to see an age when humanity has made more scientific progress to meet the oncoming alien invasion. Initially, they are impressed by technological advances such as fusion-powered starships, powerful space weaponry, ubiquitous electric power, etc. However, they notice that humans in the future have gotten a bit too confident in their abilities, and are quite complacent in assuming their superiority to the Trisolaran fleet. They seem to have forgotten that earlier message, “You’re bugs.”
Up to this point I found the first two-thirds of The Dark Forest to have interesting ideas but was somewhat slow-going amid a lack of interesting events to forward the plot. This was much the same in The Three-Body Problem. But like that book, the third act really packs a punch, with so many earlier plot lines finally reaching fruition and making the overall storyline much clearer. The most impressive set-piece here is the encounter between the initial scout ship of the Trisolaran fleet, an unassuming tear-shaped “droplet” that is perfectly smooth and light-reflecting, and the big and powerful Space Fleet of humanity, all geared-up and spoiling for a fight. The ensuing battle is quite spectacular and humbling by turns.
In the aftermath, several surviving human ships (dubbed “Starship Earth”) seek to leave the Solar System and establish humanity in another part of space, out of range of the Trisolarans. However, severed from the ties of Mother Earth, they turn on each other in a savage enactment of the “cosmic sociology” axiom of survival at all costs.
Finally, reluctant hero Luo Ji again finds himself the only person on Earth able to clearly understand the Trisolaran’s thinking and come up with a suitable counter-strategy that will keep them from wiping out humanity. His solution is quite intricate and well-conceived, and provides a sinister explanation to Fermi’s Paradox, but this all happens in just a few densely-written pages, so you have to pay close attention to understand what happens. His actions also set the stage for the series’ final installment, Death’s End, due out in January 2016 from Tor, and from the publisher’s description, the relationship of humans and Trisolarans has changed completely from what we were led to expect previously.
As with The Three-Body Problem, I thought The Dark Forest was filled with neat ideas and clunky characterization, and the first two-thirds of the book were somewhat slow-going but the pyrotechnics of the final third made up for it. I listened to the audiobook narrated by P.J. Ochlan, and he did a good job including pronunciation of the Chinese names, though I still have trouble keeping them straight in my head without seeing them on the page. This book was translated by Joel Martinsen, and I believe he did a good job, as did Ken Liu for the first book. I don’t think the characters are wooden because of the translation — that lies with the author, and I think his strength is more in ideas and extrapolation, so I am willing to overlook that. In fact, what Western readers expect from characters may be different from Chinese readers, so it’s tough to say. In any case, I still am keen to see what he can do in the trilogy's finale, Death's End....more
The Three-Body Problem: Particle physics, the rise and fall of civilizations, and alien contact Originally published atFantasy Literature The Three-BodyThe Three-Body Problem: Particle physics, the rise and fall of civilizations, and alien contact Originally published atFantasy Literature The Three-Body Problem was first published in China back in 2008 and translated into English in 2014. It got a lot of attention and was put on the Hugo Award ballot this year when another author pulled out. Cixin Liu’s book has a lot going on and requires your full attention. So after listening to the audiobook during a trip to the East Coast I realized I couldn’t write a proper review, and decided to listen to it again. I’m glad I did, because this book is bursting with fascinating ideas about the rise and fall of civilizations, virtual-reality gaming, mind-blowing particle physics, the lonely life of scientists and intellectuals, the madness of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and alien contact as well.
This book is impossible to discuss without significant spoilers, so if you are interested in it since it was put on the Hugo ballot, or you like hard-SF alien contact stories, or you just want to see what the most popular Chinese SF book is about, then read no further and get the book. It is well worth your time. A detailed discussion of the plot (with unavoidable spoilers) has been placed at the end of this review.
The Three-Body Problem is split into three main narratives:
1) The backstory of scientist Ye Wenjie, who grew up during the madness of the Cultural Revolution and saw her father killed for his scientific ideas. She ends up grudgingly working at a secret military facility in the 1970s dedicated to making alien contact, but never has trust in humanity after suffering various betrayals.
2) The modern-day story of Wang Miao, a scientist studying nano-fibers, who is dragged into an investigation of a string of mysterious suicides among prominent particle physics researchers. His tale takes up the bulk of the book, and for much of the novel both he and the reader are in the dark as to what is going on. The further he gets involved with the secretive group The Frontiers of Science, the more he realizes that there are numerous conspiracies occurring, all involving scientists, alien contact, and a mysterious game called Three Body.
3) The virtual reality game called Three Body, in which players can observe and try to influence the course of an alien civilization in a far-off world that has three suns orbiting in a non-stable configuration. Because of the suns’ irregular behavior, the planet’s civilizations must struggle to advance during brief stable eras before the suns approach or recede and usher in chaotic eras, destroying all life. To survive this, the aliens develop the ability to dehydrate and wait until the next stable era. However, these eras are so unpredictable that 180 civilizations have already been destroyed, but still they try to advance their scientific knowledge in order to solve the Three-Body Problem.
Overall, I thought The Three-Body Problem was chock full of cool ideas about science but was fairly weak in characterization, particularly the main character Wang Miao, who is a fairly passive guy who serves to move the story forward. Ye Wenjie is much more complex, and her betrayal of humanity is believable considering what she has suffered. I liked the cynical and profane cop Shi Quang best, as he continually ridicules the milque-toast concerns of Wang Miao and the other scientists who seem very quick to commit suicide when their experimental results go haywire.
The most poorly executed part of the book was the virtual reality game Three Body, as it was so unclear about who was controlling the avatars, what the purpose of the game was, who created it, and whether the human participants were actually able to affect the outcome. Moreover, it was hard to believe that anyone would like to play such an esoteric and turgid game. Perhaps these mysteries have been left there deliberately to be revealed in the later books, but it was a bit confusing and took up a lot more pages than necessary.
The last 100 pages or so from the Trisolarans’ perspective was my favorite part of the book, since it dealt with mind-blowing particle physics and multiple dimensions. It was something of an info-dump, but cleared up so many earlier plot threads that I didn’t mind. Not to mention that the Trisolarans themselves are fascinating and their motivations for invasion are fairly believable, even if I question why they need bother if they have the power to create sophons.
I thought the translation by Ken Liu, author of The Grace of Kings in his own right, was done fairly well, although it’s basically impossible to judge unless you can also read Chinese fluently and can compare with the original. The writing sounded natural and the lack of embellished language is almost certainly the style of Cixin Liu, considering his interest in particle physics and admiration for Arthur C. Clarke. I imagine it’s a pretty tough novel to translate and I think Ken Liu did it justice. Notably, the second book is being translated by Joel Martinsen, so it will be interesting to see what he brings to the story. The third book, I’ve heard, will be done by Ken Liu, but that may not be accurate.
Finally, since I listened to the audiobook narrated by Luke Daniels, I have to give him full credit for handling the Chinese names well (as far as I could tell) and also for giving distinct voices to a number of characters who really wouldn’t have stood out at all otherwise. I noticed that the narrators for the next book are also different, so both translator and narrator are not the same.
I will definitely be looking forward to the next installment, The Dark Forest, which will be available on Audible on Aug 11, 2015. I also wouldn’t mind if The Three-Body Problem wins the Hugo Award this year, but I haven’t read the other contenders.
I wanted to discuss the plot in greater detail in a way that will spoil it, so if you’re interested in that, please read on: (view spoiler)[ The novel begins with the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, during which time Ye Wenjie’s physicist father is killed for “counter-revolutionary” ideas which basically amount to believing in the science of Western enemies of the revolution. Seeing this, Ye is forever after distrustful of other people, but her scientific ability makes her indispensible at the secret military facility called Red Coast, which initially hides the fact that they are seeking signs of alien life in the stars. One day Ye discovers the long-awaited alien message, but it’s not what was expected: it’s a warning not to respond or humanity will be hunted down and destroyed. Presented with an opportunity to strike back at the Communist authorities who destroyed her father and treated her as a traitor, she fatefully decides to send a message back anyway, essentially saying “humanity is corrupt, so it would benefit from an alien invasion.” She hides this act, but eventually various groups discover the alien contact, which has major repercussions in the modern-day narrative.
Meanwhile, Wang Miao is pressured by Chinese authorities, including a gruff and cynical police officer named Shi Quang, to infiltrate the Frontiers of Science to find out why so many prominent scientists have been committing suicide. He discovers that they have been encountering strange and impossible results in their study of fundamental particles, and when he is suddenly faced with seeing a ghostly countdown showing up in photos he takes but which are visible to nobody else, he starts to doubt his own sanity. Meanwhile, in the course of his investigations, he finds out that many of the scientists are playing the Three Body game, so he also goes down the proverbial rabbit hole to find out what is happening.
The Three Body game itself is supposedly a massive multi-player online game, but each time Wang plays it he only encounters a few other avatars, mainly famous scientists from the past like Isaac Newton, John Von Neumann, and Albert Einstein. These scientists are trying to use their theories to solve the Three Body Problem that plagues the kingdom of the game, and each time they come up with a solution, another chaotic era wipes out the kingdom and civilization again.
This part of the story occupies a lot of the book, but it is also the most unclearly described and least believable. It’s hard to see how any but the most scientific-minded players could become so interested in coming up with solutions to save the kingdom, there are hardly any other players, and it’s not clear who is controlling them. The rise and fall of the kingdoms is more of a metaphor for the rise and fall of civilizations and societies that mankind has undergone (in fact, some Chinese readers apparently have seen a parallel with the rise and fall of Internet companies in the cut-throat business world of today).
We then shift back to the story of Wang, as he discovers a group called the Adventists who, if I understood this correctly, sympathize with the aliens and welcome their invasion of earth as saviors to cure corrupt humanity. The government officials who contacted Wang are trying to combat this group of pro-alien, anti-humanity fanatics. The Adventists have apparently gotten hold of much more data from the aliens, and have formed a quasi-cult dedicated to welcoming them. Much later in the book, we learn that Ye Wenjie is allied with them, and is probably the source of this info, though it wasn’t entirely clear to me. Meanwhile, there is also the rise of various anti-scientific and environmental terrorist groups that seem determined to undermine scientific progress. This also was fairly muddled, and I wouldn’t blame the translation but rather the author instead. When the military group finally makes a decisive move against the Adventists, it’s not entirely clear what’s at stake.
Finally, The Three-Body Problem switches perspective to the aliens themselves, and this is where the book got really interesting, and where Cixin Liu’s debt to his favorite author (Arthur C. Clarke) becomes most clear. The aliens are called Trisolarans, after the three suns of their system, and the game Three Body essentially describes their history. The book never spells out the relationship, but I think that the only possible way that the Three Body game could mirror Trisolaran society so closely is if the aliens had shared this information with humans, who then designed the game to introduce the Three Body Problem, either to crowd-source possible solutions to it, or to build sympathy among humans for the Trisolaran plight, as they continually struggle to survive every chaotic cycle.
As it turns out, the Trisolarans have been seeking for generations a way to either solve their Three Body Problem or to find another planetary system to escape to, so when they receive the initial signal from Red Coast, the first Trisolaran monitor realizes that if humans establish contact they will be tracked down and conquered. This is a nice parallel story to Ye Wenjie, who betrays humanity in favor of the aliens. So once the Trisolarans receive the message of Ye, they pinpoint the location of Earth and quickly assemble an invasion fleet. The reader might wonder why they are so aggressive, but the book suggests that the brutal conditions the Trisolarans have faced throughout their history precludes any form of cooperation in favor of conquest, that old chestnut of lebensraum used by the Nazis to justify their invasions.
The Trisolarans are not content just to send an invasion fleet, so instead they devote their resources to particle physics, namely unfolding protons to two dimensions in order to create a planet-sized mirror upon which they etch micro-circuitry using the strong nuclear force and mesons to conduct data. They then shrink this down to three dimensions and make a new construct called a sohpon, which is essentially a massive computer shrunk to the size of a proton, which can then be sent across space at the speed of light and is used to infiltrate the particle physics accelerators used by the researchers back on Earth. These sophons are then used to create all kinds of impossible experimental results to confound Earth’s scientists and drive them to suicide. I couldn’t help thinking that if the Trisolarans can manipulate multiple dimensions and create such powerful devices, why would they waste their time harassing scientists when they could simply infiltrate and destroy any technological device on Earth? It seems so implausible, but since The Three-Body Problem is a trilogy, I imagine dedicated readers will find out more as the story progresses.
Basically the novel ends with the military group foiling the Adventists plans, but the Trisolarans send a simple message to all of humanity that states bluntly, “You’re bugs.” As in, we’re coming to kick your ass and you can’t do anything to retaliate. However, it will take 450 years for the alien invasion fleet to arrive at Earth, which gives humanity quite a time span to prepare a defense. Strategically, if I were an alien invasion fleet I would probably have told Earth “We come in peace” to keep them complacent, but I guess the Trisolarans would prefer the intimidation route instead. But as we all know from many SF books and movies from War of the Worlds to Independence Day, humans are pretty feisty and won’t go down without a fight. (hide spoiler)]...more
Armada: A tribute to Last Starfighter, Ender's Game, and Star Wars Originally posted at Fantasy Literature Armada is the sophomore effort from ErnestArmada: A tribute to Last Starfighter, Ender's Game, and Star Wars Originally posted at Fantasy Literature Armada is the sophomore effort from Ernest Cline, who burst onto the SF scene with the wildly-popular Ready Player One, a fun-filled romp through 80s pop culture via a virtual reality game that managed to skillfully depict a dystopian future and also be a rollicking adventure and coming-of-age tale. The secret to Ready Player One’s success was that you could still enjoy it without catching every obscure geek reference, but many readers who grew up in the 80s absolutely loved it.
There’s an old adage about “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” so it makes perfect sense for Ernest Cline to go back to the well for another bucketful of nerdy 80s gamer trivia and ladle on generous helpings of references to every alien-invasion video game and movie you’ve ever heard of, plus all the other ones you didn’t know (but the author is happy to tell you about). This time the references are heavily weighted towards space combat games, so we get an endless stream of descriptions of different fighter types, mechs, particle beams, disruptors, droids, dreadnoughts, etc. If you like that stuff, you’re in the right place. If not, you may need to look elsewhere.
The storyline itself heavily echoes the successful formula of Ready Player One. Our young protagonist Zack Lightman is a gaming geek high-schooler close to graduation who doesn’t have any concrete career plans but currently works at the local video game store. He is one of the top 10 players of Armada, a space-alien invasion combat game, and plays constantly with his buddies. He has been raised by a single mom, since his 19-year-old father died in an explosion at a waste treatment plant. One day, while daydreaming at school, he looks out the window to see an alien fighter ship similar to those of The Last Starfighter zipping around outside. Of course, nobody else sees it but Zack is sure it’s real…
Similar to Ready Player One, our protagonist is a kick-ass gamer who suddenly discovers his seemingly-useless skills are suddenly needed, in this case to save the world from an impending alien invasion. He is a high school nerd but has some close friends. One of his rival gamers turn out to be a cute Tank Girl gamer-chick who has lots of wise cracks but they eventually connect through shared respect for each other’s game skills and geek knowledge.
Though Armada follows the same basic formula as its predecessor, there are two major differences. First, it is set in the current world, which is far less interesting than the resource-depleted dystopian future of Ready Player One. Second, it does not feature the massive virtual reality world of OASIS that dominates the storyline of Ready Player One. Instead, the vast majority of Armada’s pages are devoted to how Zack Lightman and other hot-shot gamers are recruited into the EDA (Earth Defense Alliance) to fight the alien invaders (based on Jupiter’s moon Europa, a reference to Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010: Odyssey Two), and their early training is a clear tribute to Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game.
Zack and his fellow trainees are thrown straight into real combat (though they control their ships remotely so they can survive to fight again if their ships are destroyed). They find themselves outnumbered by the enemy and the situation looks dire. But humanity is not such a pushover, and Earth mobilizes its defenses for a massive space and land battle to repel the alien invasion. Just when you think you know exactly how this will play out, there are some inexplicable anomalies in the aliens’ strategy that only Zack and another character recognize, and it’s up to them to prevent humanity from making a fatal mistake…
Overall, Armada is an entertaining story for anyone who likes video games, 80’s trivia, alien invasions, extensive space and ground combat sequences, a wise-cracking teenager protagonist, and plucky gamer buddies. However, as the plot is heavily weighted towards combat game trivia, I think the target readership is far narrower than for Ready Player One, since that story is fun to read for anyone who grew up in the 80s, whereas you had to be a hard-core gamer to really appreciate all the details of Armada.
I’m sure most fans know that Steven Spielberg is slated to direct the film version of Ready Player One, and that the screenplay has been completed by Zack Penn, but there will be a lot of hurdles getting the rights to use the hundreds of references to movies, music, games, books, etc. In addition, there is the added challenge of translating the virtual reality of OASIS to the screen without losing the human story. In many ways, Armada is a book that would translate to film much more easily, and could be the ultimate mashup of Star Wars, The Last Starfighter, Battlestar Galactica, Aliens, Ender’s Game, etc.
Finally, I have to give a shout out to fan favorite Wil Wheaton (who played Wesley Crusher in Star Trek: The Next Generation), since he does an excellent job with the audiobook narration for Armada (ditto for Ready Player One). He is simply the perfect voice for a teenage gamer geek (I mean that as a compliment) – he imbues his characters with the proper reverence for every reference in Cline’s copious arsenal. They are an excellent team, and I had no idea Wil Wheaton actually had a small part in The Last Starfighter back in 1984! Now that’s what I call serious geek credibility....more
The Last Colony is the third installment of the Old Man’s War series by John Scalzi, and will probably be my last visit to Scalzi world. I reallyThe Last Colony is the third installment of the Old Man’s War series by John Scalzi, and will probably be my last visit to Scalzi world. I really enjoyed Old Man’s War, as it had the perfect blend of a sympathetic and wise-cracking main character, intriguing concept (recruiting 75 year olds with the promise of powerful new military bodies to fight aliens threatening humanity), basic training with the new bodies, first combat, and an exciting finale.
However, with each successive book I’m learning just how weak Scalzi’s descriptive powers are, and while he certainly has a breezy narrative style and refreshing sense of humor, it is starting to wear thin on me since the stories lack the fresh ideas and precise pacing of the initial book. This problem was especially apparent in Redshirts, which had a great idea (what if you found yourself as one of those unfortunate redshirt-wearing ensigns destined for a horrible death in Star Trek) but got tiresome towards the end.
This time John Perry and Jane Sagan have retired to an ostensibly uneventful life on the colony Huckleberry as an ombudsman and head of security. Guess what, aparrently the Colonial Defense Forces are not done with them, or their adopted daughter Zoe Boutin. They get dragged into being in charge of a new colony made up of 10 planet’s representatives, which is like being a kindergarten cop. Then the CDF plays a switcheroo on the colonists, and they become pawns in a chess match between the CDF and the alien Conclave on a world called Roanoke.
It’s not worth detailing the remaining plot details, but suffice to say that Scalzi has to pull out increasingly unlikely scenarios from his hat to keep the action centered on this family. Is it really plausible that an entire Conclave of 412 hostile alien races cannot get their act together to beat into submission a single colony of 2,500 settlers who are basically unarmed civilians? And does it really make sense that the alien Obin would commit their race to protecting the daughter of the human traitor who granted them consciousness? Not to mention the dubious plot device of passing on military-grade combat strength and skills to someone by slipping something into their food? I wasn’t buying that one.
To sum up, John Scalzi has a pretty reliable formula for churning out entertaining military SF, and he tries to vary it from book to book, but I don't think I can gain anything further by reading more of his output, with so many other books clamoring to be read. Not to worry though, I’m sure he’ll do just fine without me....more
There are plenty of good reviews on GR of this sequel to Old Man's War, so I'll dispense with a plot description. It was a well-written, briskly-pacedThere are plenty of good reviews on GR of this sequel to Old Man's War, so I'll dispense with a plot description. It was a well-written, briskly-paced tale, but I didn't like it quite as much as Old Man's War. That earlier first-person narrative had the perfect blend of humor, future world-building, exciting military adventure, and likeable characters. Just the fact that The Ghost Brigades did not feature John Perry from the first book was a bit of a disappointment (though he does resurface in later books).
The Ghost Brigades has a lot of structural parallels to the first book, particularly in the Special Forces training, discussions of military strategy, initial mission, surprise setbacks, tension-filled confrontation with the enemy, and action-packed ending. There were some nice touches, like the surprise twist of the opening chapter, and the exploration of identities and consciousness, with convincing pseudo-science.
On the downside, the main villain Charles Boutin gives a somewhat ridiculous evil mastermind monologue straight out of James Bond or Austin Powers, complete with the main character being incapacitated and forced to listen, while his buddies have been conveniently left under automated weapon systems guard, so that they can make a heroic escape and start blowing stuff up just in time to save our hero from certain death...
Having now read three John Scalzi novels this year, I think I've figured out his formula. He has a clever, breezy approach to storytelling, and a good sense of humor even if sometimes he tries a bit too hard. His characters also tend to be fairly likeable but lacking in real complexity (even as the story explore identity and consciousness issues). I find his descriptions of alien races to be pretty threadbare, especially their physical descriptions, to the point of having no idea what they look like other than "bird-like" or "insect-like". Though they have some interesting behavior, they still lack depth as fully-fledged alien species (except for one Rhaey scientist).
I'd say I liked Old Man's War the most, thought The Ghost Brigades was good but not great, and felt like Redshirts was initially hilarious but ran out of substance fairly quickly. So while I recognize why John Scalzi is as popular (and self-promoting) as he is, I wouldn't say he makes it into my favorite authors' circle. Still, I'll give The Last Colony a try since I do like John Perry and Jane Sagan enough to continue with their story....more
Ancillary Sword: From Space Opera to Soap Opera - Pursuing social justice on a space station and tea plantation Originally posted at Fantasy LiteratureAncillary Sword: From Space Opera to Soap Opera - Pursuing social justice on a space station and tea plantation Originally posted at Fantasy Literature Ancillary Justice caused quite a splash, winning the Hugo, Nebula, Arthur C. Clarke, BSFA, and Locus awards for Best SF novel in 2013. So expectations were sky-high for the follow-up Ancillary Sword. In particular, readers were eager to see how the battle of opposed personalities of the Lord of the Radsch, Anaander Mianaai, would play out after the exciting events of the first book. Unfortunately, I found this book to be a major disappointment.
Although Leckie sprinkles some tantalizing clues about Ghost Gates, the alien Presger, and various plots and factions, this volume is largely concerned with economic and social oppression on the planet Athoek and its space station. The majority of its time is spent exploring the gap between Radchaai and non-Radchaai subjects, economic slavery in tea-growing plantations, and corruption, so you will learn next to nothing about the larger galactic struggle that was brewing at the end of Ancillary Justice. As a result, all of the delicious tension built up in the previous book suddenly dissipates, leaving us with a story of social manners, minor intrigues, and the increasingly grating cultural chauvinism of the Radchaai civilization.
In fact, it was quite frustrating to learn almost nothing of importance about Anaander Mianaai, who personality disorder could rip the Radchaai Empire to pieces, as her only presence in the book is quickly dispatched in the first 50 pages. That was one of the best parts of the first book! So now Breq is Fleet Captain of the warship Mercy of Kalr, but she spends much of the book stirring up discontent among the lower-floor dwellers of Athoek space station, uncovering inequalities and biases in their treatment, along with their resentment of the station’s administrators and station AI. There are plenty of intricacies to be explored here, but I couldn’t help feeling upset that the best parts of the story were basically put on hold. The same applied to the exploited workers on a tea plantation on the planet itself. Breq has turned into a social justice warrior, instead of a former fragment of a ship AI, exposing corruption and inequality, and then working to see that justice prevails.
It’s an admirable sentiment, to be sure, but just isn’t as propulsive and exciting as the larger-scale space opera of Ancillary Justice, especially the alternating storylines in different time periods. Moreover, the Radchaai emphasis on propriety, social status, and tea-drinking really was excessive. There wasn’t a single chapter that did not feature some discussion of tea, over tea, or relating to tea. Good grief, is there no other beverage in a giant galaxy-spanning empire??? And the parallels with British Colonialism became more transparent in this book, making the Radchaai less original than I had first thought. If we just had H.M.S. in front of ship names, their elaborate uniforms, military hierarchy, and insistence on cultural superiority struck me as so stereotypically British I couldn’t bear it. It seems like such a waste of a potentially fascinating far-future empire. And I think the Radchaai suffers from a lack of rival Empires nearby to clash with. There are the alien Presger, but all we get is a weirdly incoherent human translator for the Presger, and nothing much is revealed about them. We’ll have to wait for the third volume and hope the main storyline resumes.
Even the novelty of the distributed consciousness AIs has worn out since the first book, as has the all-female gender pronouns. Perhaps all new ideas lose some freshness with familiarity, but I felt like a lot of this book revisited the same ideas as the first book, but with less energy. In fact, the further I went, the more this book showed alarming signs of that most dreaded of ailments, Middle Book Syndrome. It’s undeniable (for me at least) that this book made no attempt to carry forward the main narrative of the first book, instead just dropping a few teasers in an otherwise unrelated storyline about oppressed tea-plantation workers, laying the groundwork for the final volume. Come on, this is supposed to be a galaxy-wide shakeup in the power structure! What happened? I’ll just have to keep my fingers crossed that book three will return to the promise of the first volume, since this one was a let-down....more
Ancillary Justice: An excellent debut about distributed AI minds, identity, colonization, and what it means to civilized Originally published at Ancillary Justice: An excellent debut about distributed AI minds, identity, colonization, and what it means to civilized Originally published at Fantasy Literature Sometimes debut novels just strike a chord and win a bunch of awards, and Ancillary Justice was a deserving recipient. It won the Hugo, Nebula, Arthur C. Clarke, BSFA, and Locus awards for Best SF novel in 2013. It’s a flashy and intricate space opera that is strongly reminiscent of Iain M. Banks’ CULTURE series, but also takes a new approach to gender that echoes Ursula K. LeGuin’s masterpiece The Left Hand of Darkness. It’s most interesting invention is a believable depiction of distributed consciousness, both for AIs and humans. It takes some getting used to, but that’s part of the fun of this exciting new epic.
There are hundreds of excellent reviews of Ancillary Justice on GR already, so I will just add my thoughts on the bold ideas this book introduces. The main character Breq is an ancillary, a human body whose mind has been wiped clean and has one fragment of the consciousness of a sentient ship (Justice of Toren) inserted. It takes the reader time to figure out exactly what Breq is in her solo form, and even more time to understand the complex hierarchy of the Justice of Toren ship with its mixed ancillary and human crew, and it’s mission on the planet Shis'urna, which is being annexed into the Radchaai Empire.
The intricate social and political structure of the Radchaai rivals Frank Herbert’s Dune, but in tone this Empire shares many parallels with the British Empire when it controlled a vast network of colonies. The Radchaai military relies on a rigid command hierarchy, with a Captain in charge but Ship’s intelligence is so pervasive that it’s unclear who has greater control. Social interactions among the Radchaai are also very formal and intricate. Much is implied and there is a constant battle beneath the surface for status, recognition, family honor, patronage, etc. In case it wasn’t obvious enough, the human members of the Empire crave tea and cakes as the highest form of civilized leisure. In fact, the term Radchaai is equivalent to civilization, and thus all members are citizens, and all humans outside the fold are therefore barbarians. It is okay for barbarians to be killed, enslaved, and otherwise absorbed into the Radchaai Empire, because this is a process of civilizing them, Manifest Destiny in a SF guise.
From the beginning we are shown the victims of this intricate and expansionist Empire, led by its immortal leader Anaander Mianaai, Lord of the Radsch. The moral questions that arise from the ruthless conquests of the Empire are not asked by its citizens, but instead by the barbarians whose resistance is futile, and even more interestingly, by the ancillary Breq, in the unique position of being a fragment of a ship AI. Because ship AIs themselves are subservient to their human Captains, despite superior intelligence, capabilities, and understanding. The status of AIs is an ambiguous one among the Radchaai, and yet there are heavily dependent on them for their military power and station administration. So as Breq’s independent personality develops over the course of the novel, we gain greater insight into Radchaai society. There is such an overwhelming sense of cultural superiority among the Radchaai towards barbarians that it started to really get on my nerves, which was Leckie’s intention I believe.
The Radchaai Empire presents some very interesting comparisons with Banks’ CULTURE. The former is extremely hierarchical and formalized, with an all-powerful human ruler (albeit with a consciousness spread among thousands of bodies), and AIs are there to serve human masters. In the Culture, the balance of power is firmly in favor of the artificial Minds, who have created a sprawling and decentralized galaxy-spanning Empire in which humans play a far smaller role. Instead, the Minds allow human beings to indulge in their own decadent interests and pursuits, thereby keeping them from interfering with their agendas. In fact, it is never exactly clear what the Minds of the Culture are really after, but they contact aliens and non-Culture human civilizations via Contact and Special Circumstances. That’s where most of Banks’ novels take place, in the interactions between the two. His ‘message’ in the series remains elusive, but in its refusal to provide obvious morals it allows readers to draw their own conclusions about the role of humans and AIs in a post-scarcity society.
Meanwhile, the more we learn of Radchaai civilization, the less palatable it becomes. Its casual cultural chauvinism towards other human cultures is quite odious at times, and the fact that thousands of barbarians are routinely rounded up and brain-wiped to provide bodies for ancillaries is never thought of by the Radchaai as anything other than the inalienable right of the superior civilization. They drink tea, after all! For those subject peoples who don’t submit quietly, death is frequently dealt out, but again, what else would you expect? It’s this same cavalier attitude of the British Empire towards its colonies that eventually led to its downfall, and it makes me wonder what is in store in future IMPERIAL RADSCH volumes.
There are also some tantalizing mentions of the alien Presger, who in some ways are more powerful than the Radchaii, and preyed on them until a treaty was formed to keep the two empires on peaceful terms. Part of the story here revolves around weapons made by the Presger that cannot be detected by Radchaai technology, and clearly these aliens will play a major role in the series going forward.
Ancillary Justice also garnered a lot of attention for its ambivalent approach to gender. In essence, gender exists in Radchaai society but really isn’t all that important. Therefore, there is no distinguishing of male and female in the Radchaai language, so they have trouble identifying it among barbarian civilizations. To demonstrate this, Leckie chooses to identify all characters as “she” and “her”, but occasionally throws in “sir” and “him” to confuse things. Radchaai do have males and females, and procreate like normal humans, but gender is just not a big factor. So by continuously using “she” and “her” instead of “he” and “him”, Leckie demonstrates how our own language betrays our built-in biases.
However, although this may superficially resemble the Gethenians in Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, that society consisted of genderless humans who only took on male and female traits during courtship periods, and could adopt either depending on the dynamics of the couple. Le Guin was conducting a thought-experiment of much greater subtlety, imagining what a society without male or female personalities would be like, how it would differ from our own gender-conscious world.
In contrast, Leckie’s Radchaai society has male and female, but doesn’t make a fuss about it. Being SF, it’s certainly a legitimate extrapolation to make, that after thousands of years human civilization would not be so hung up on whether we are male or female. The dominant and subservient roles would not be tied to gender anymore, but would arise due to individual personalities. However, I wasn’t entirely convinced by this, since the characters do make reference to sexual attraction and relationships, but only in passing. Is it really possible for sexual relations between men and women to NOT have any meaningful impact in their relative social status and influence?
Essentially it’s deliberately left underemphasized in the novel, but that alone does not make it convincing to me. If Leckie really wants to make a case for this, she’ll have to explore these relationships in more detail and demonstrate that they don’t really matter. Especially considering how status-conscious and hierarchical the Radchaai society is, it’s hard to believe that gender would not be one of the many areas in which status and power could be measured. Overall, I was really impressed by the complex world-building, challenging social ideas, and innovative and believable characters. Ancillary Justice doesn’t read like a first novel at all, thanks to its polished prose and intricate storyline. It also had a lot of humor driven by the strange social conventions of the Radchaai, which I wasn’t expecting (who would have thought how horribly uncouth bare hands could be)....more
Childhood’s End: The Overlords have a plan for us Originally posted at Fantasy Literature There's something very comforting in the SF novels of ArthurChildhood’s End: The Overlords have a plan for us Originally posted at Fantasy Literature There's something very comforting in the SF novels of Arthur C. Clarke, my favorite of the Big Three SF writers of the Golden Age (the other two being Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov). His stories are clearly-written, unembellished, precise, and focus on the science, ideas, and plot. Though some claim his characters are fairly wooden, I don’t see it that way. They tend to be fairly level-headed and logical, and focus on handling the situations on hand in an intelligent manner. In Clarke's world, the average protagonist is a smart and scientific-minded person, much like...the author himself. And I think his target audience is also readers who think scientific progress will steadily continue, bringing humans further and further along a path of enlightenment and shedding the foolish superstitions of the past (i.e. organized religions, antiquated political and social conventions).
And then we have Childhood's End. I won't bother describing the entire plot of this SF classic from 1953, beyond the basic conceit that super-advanced aliens (dubbed "Overlords") suddenly descend on Earth and, instead of bringing death and destruction like the Martians of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds, they immediately impose a benevolent rule over mankind and swiftly solve all of the political, social, racial, and religious problems plaguing the planet, not least of all imminent nuclear destruction (a reasonable fear considering the timing of the book). The only catch is that the Overlords refuse to explain the motivations for their altruistic intervention, indicating only that they are Supervisors in charge of helping mankind for some unknown ultimate goal.
So what is the catch then? Clarke builds the story slowly and reveals things at a very measured pace, and we don't find out what the Overlords are really up to until the final 50 pages or so. This is actually the biggest weakness of the story, because the small glimpses of the Overlord’s gradually grooming of the human race for SOMETHING BIG don’t really seem to connect very well with the final denouement. And since the final 50 pages are a fairly mind-blowing vision of the transformation of mankind, I would’ve preferred if Clarke devoted more pages to this and less to the lead-up. It’s like having to listen to the opening act for a full 90 minutes, and then having the headline band play an amazing set of just 3-4 songs and waltz off stage with the crowd crying out for more. Then again, sometimes the best books leave you hungry for more, and let your imagination fill in the details.
Arthur C. Clarke is without question a SF writer with a wealth of ideas, but I think he owes a huge debt to two of his British predecessors, both visionaries of enormous talent and ambition, H.G. Wells (The Time Machine in particular) and Olaf Stapledon's (Last and First Men, Star Maker). Although I think those other works are superior in their scopes and execution, I certainly enjoyed Childhood's End and think it deserves its position as a classic of the genre....more
There really wasn't any reason to write this book besides cashing in on its very well know predecessors 2001 and 2010, both of which are supported byThere really wasn't any reason to write this book besides cashing in on its very well know predecessors 2001 and 2010, both of which are supported by two very different but decent movie adaptations.
I dont' remember a single event from the book, but just remember getting it for Christmas and being excited by the cool cover. Fairly disappointing, really....more