The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

I’m not sure how I stumbled on The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu and translated by Ken Liu. I saw it on Goodreads but it also came up on an email list serve, I believe. Somehow multiple mentions pinged my brain and I decided to pick it up to see what all the fuss was about. I was able to get a copy from the library and set out to read what I hoped was the first in a promising series.

The Three-Body Problem Book Cover
The Three-Body Problem Remembrance of Earth’s Past Science Fiction Tor Books Hardback 400 pages Library

A secret military group sends signals into space in hopes of establishing contact with aliens―and succeeds.

Picking up their signal is an alien civilization on the brink of destruction who now readies to invade Earth.

News of the coming invasion divides humanity like never before. Some want to help the superior beings take over a world they see as corrupt. Others prepare to fight the invasion at all cost.

The Three Body Problem begins a ground-breaking saga of enormous scope and vision.

Quick Verdict: Alas, I was not as wowed by this as others. Perhaps because I don’t read a lot of science fiction or find complex science hurts my head.

I was mostly interested in the connection to the Cultural Revolution in China and it was this part that kept me going for most of the book. It starts right off with the brutal reality of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960’s. I wanted to see how the characters impacted by these events were involved in the story forty years later. And I enjoyed this thread.

I liked the characters, despite some awkwardness from translation and cultural differences, and the set-up of the game as connection to an alien species, but it moved a little slow in parts. Whenever it delved into the physics and science aspects, I started to tune out. I’m not what you would call a math and science guy… :-) But I did enjoy trying to figure out how it all connected to some degree.

Continue reading

Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi

Now that I have an extended commute I am always on the lookout for good audiobooks. Fuzzy Nation came up on Audible at a steep discount and so I grabbed it.

In John Scalzi’s re-imagining of H. Beam Piper’s 1962 sci-fi classic Little Fuzzy, written with the full cooperation of the Piper Estate, Jack Holloway works alone for reasons he doesn’t care to talk about. On the distant planet Zarathustra, Jack is content as an independent contractor for ZaraCorp, prospecting and surveying at his own pace. As for his past, that’s not up for discussion.

Then, in the wake of an accidental cliff collapse, Jack discovers a seam of unimaginably valuable jewels, to which he manages to lay legal claim just as ZaraCorp is cancelling their contract with him for his part in causing the collapse. Briefly in the catbird seat, legally speaking, Jack pressures ZaraCorp into recognizing his claim, and cuts them in as partners to help extract the wealth.

But there’s another wrinkle to ZaraCorp’s relationship with the planet Zarathustra. Their entire legal right to exploit the verdant Earth-like planet, the basis of the wealth they derive from extracting its resources, is based on being able to certify to the authorities on Earth that Zarathustra is home to no sentient species. Then a small furry biped – trusting, appealing, and ridiculously cute – shows up at Jack’s outback home. Followed by its family.

As it dawns on Jack that despite their stature, these are people, he begins to suspect that ZaraCorp’s claim to a planet’s worth of wealth is very flimsy indeed and that ZaraCorp may stop at nothing to eliminate the fuzzys before their existence becomes more widely known.

It turned out to be an entertaining listen. It took me a while to get used to a protagonist who is a first class jerk. But the futuristic set-up, supporting characters, and numerous plot twists kept me listening and held my interest.

I know nothing of the book this is based on and/or an update to but this is the third audiobook from Scalzi that I have enjoyed. Will Wheaton does a nice job with the narration which may or may not add to the fun depending on your opinions and/or interests.

The politics seems to me a little too easy in some ways, giant greedy corporation that doesn’t care about the environment or anyone who gets in the way of profits, lawyers as soulless tools of that corporation, wealthy jerk about to become head of said corporation, etc.

But that doesn’t really get in the way of enjoying the story. As I say, he sets up the futuristic scenario in a believable and entertaining way and the plot has enough twists and turns to keep you guessing. The lead character may be a serious jerk but he is an interesting one.

Scalzi may bring me back to science fiction.

Artemis by Andy Weir

I stumbled on Artemis when searching for reading material for my Kindle.  As is so often the case, I had purchased and borrowed a number of non-fiction books but found that my appetite did not match my ability to read “serious” books; particularly when busy and stressed.

I was able to grab Artemis for three bucks and decided to dive in.  I had heard of the movie, The Martian, but not read the book. Oh, well.

Jazz Bashara is a criminal.

Well, sort of. Life on Artemis, the first and only city on the moon, is tough if you’re not a rich tourist or an eccentric billionaire. So smuggling in the occasional harmless bit of contraband barely counts, right? Not when you’ve got debts to pay and your job as a porter barely covers the rent.

Everything changes when Jazz sees the chance to commit the perfect crime, with a reward too lucrative to turn down. But pulling off the impossible is just the start of her problems, as she learns that she’s stepped square into a conspiracy for control of Artemis itself—and that now, her only chance at survival lies in a gambit even riskier than the first.

What I liked:

  • The world building and conceptualization of life on the moon; the politics, the economics, the culture, etc.  It was entertaining to think about how this might all work.
  • And the characters were interesting as well.  Jazz and her father, her friends, coworkers, and various Artemis leaders were plausible and brought something to what is essentially a heist plot. 

Not so much:

  • Weir had a tendency to get into the technical details of things like welding and engineering a bit much; slowed the plot down at times.
  • Jazz and other character’s snarky attitude and general immaturity seemed a bit over-the-top after a while.  The one liners and sophomoric humor starts out OK but just gets old at some point.  Could be this is just not my style.

Bottom line:

All in all, it served its purpose in that it kept me entertained while not requiring much deep thought on my part.  But I have to say it didn’t make me want to run out and buy The Martian.

The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells

One of the odd behaviors of a book addict is that they regularly stop at bookstores and browse even though they have dozens of books at home which they purchased but have yet to read.  They go to the library and check out books even though they have piles of books in the TBR stack and books they promised to review for publishers. Like a drunk hanging around the local watering hole they can’t seem to stay away.

This does however pay off sometimes.  Like recently, I stumbled upon Artificial Condition by Martha Wells at the local library.  I soon realized it was part of a series and tracked down the first book, All Systems Red.  I read them each practically in one sitting.

I had stumbled upon a gem of a series: The Murderbot Diaries.  I don’t read a lot of science fiction but this was quirky and funny and a quick read. Just what I needed.

I tracked down Rogue Protocol and furiously read it on a plane both happy to have such a great diversion during the flight and feeling a pang of regret knowing it would be over soon and I would have to wait for the final entry Exit Strategy.

Here is Publishers Weekly on All Systems Red:

SecUnit, aka Murderbot, is a semi-organic corporate profit center, genderless and constructed of cheap parts to perform contract bodyguard services for clients who mostly don’t want them. SecUnit can choose its attitude because it has hacked its governor (a hat-tip to Susan R. Matthews), blocking the functions that would punish it for anything but robotic obedience. Disgusted by humans and secretly addicted to a video serial called Sanctuary Moon, SecUnit is simply enduring another assignment until something completely outside of its data parameters tries to kill its humans. Nebula finalist Wells (Edge of Worlds) gives depth to a rousing but basically familiar action plot by turning it into the vehicle by which SecUnit engages with its own rigorously denied humanity. The creepy panopticon of SecUnit’s multiple interfaces allows a hybrid first-person/omniscient perspective that contextualizes its experience without ever giving center stage to the humans.

Just so.  This all comes together in a perfect mix of humor, action and suspense.  Plus, it is an interesting way to look at our self-awareness particularly for introverts.  Each book moves the story forward in some way and adds another layer of detail but contains the same great ingredients.  Just thoroughly enjoyable novellas.

Whether you are a sci-fi fan or not, I highly recommend this series

The Space Between the Stars by Anne Corlett

I was intrigued by The Space Between the Stars mostly because of the interesting concept/hook: virus threatens human existence so how do the few survivors react, order and civilization versus utopia and anarchy, etc. After reading it, I felt it had some promise but plenty of weaknesses.  For example, I felt like the lead character was prickly and angst ridden to the point of annoyance. On the other hand, give Corlett credit for creating a character whose personality and backstory are consistent and likely realistic. I also felt like the faith/religious element was odd, nebulous and hard to follow.

It was interesting enough that I kept reading but just didn’t quite grab me. Perhaps it is not quite my genre; a little too much romance and family drama for my tastes. Plus. lots of interesting philosophical questions bouncing around but not a lot of answers and at the expense of the plot and character development.

A few critics had very different reactions as well.

Marilyn Dahl at Shelf Awareness was full of praise:

Anne Corlett has taken the themes of apocalypse, people attempting to create Utopia but unleashing Armageddon, population engineering and breeding programs, and put her particular stamp on the familiar. The Space Between the Stars is a sci-fi story laced with homey details like e-readers and jigsaw puzzles–there are no esoteric descriptions of warp drives or biodomes or aliens. But there is adventure, there is romance, there is self-discovery. Jamie looks at a blue sky, which “felt like a lie, after so much time spent up above it, in the black of space. It was just something to hide beneath, to avoid seeing how wrenched and scattered among the stars they all really were.” But she finds, in this intriguing and wise story, what can fill the space between the stars.

Kirkus? Uh, not so much:

In the hands of someone with more literary skill, this story could have been something akin to Station Eleven in space, but it isn’t even close. The prose is insipid, with some eye-rollingly trite sentences, such as, “Home’s what’s left over when you’ve figured out all the places you don’t want to be.” Protagonist Jamie is staggeringly unlikable. For instance, she bemoans a past miscarriage, then reveals she abhorred her unborn child. Further flashbacks reveal that she’d only gotten pregnant because Daniel—the same man she’s desperately seeking—wanted a child. Worse, there’s virtually no science in this science fiction. The aforementioned virus, which inexplicably turns human bodies into dust, laughably calls to mind Daffy Duck being disintegrated by Marvin the Martian—although the science fiction of Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century is arguably better than anything here. The worldbuilding is dropped into the story in steaming piles of infodump that raise more questions than they answer. And after Jamie uncovers the absurdly obvious origins of the deadly virus (which had been telegraphed from the very beginning), the entire story is tied up in a big, banal bow.

Terrible science and even worse fiction.

I didn’t love it like Shelf Awareness but I didn’t hate it quite like Kirkus.  To me it didn’t live up to its promise but get some credit for the concept.

Review: The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

Not sure when, how or why I stumbled on The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter but at some point I put it on the wish list.  Anticipating some long car trips for work, I recently downloaded it via Overdrive and listened to it on audio book while traveling around Ohio.

Gut reaction: interesting but sort of meandering; a giant thought experiment with some intriguing characters and a good hook but that never quite gets beyond a desultory pace or energy. Despite the “bombshell” at the end, not sure I have the energy to tackle the second book.

I should perhaps offer the caveat that I don’t believe I had read any of the author’s previous works and that science fiction is not something I read a lot of or seek out.  I enjoy imaginative and speculative fiction, however, and felt like this was in that ballpark.

FWIW, Adam Roberts seems to think there is more Baxter than Pratchett:

The Long Earth reads much more like a Baxter novel than a Pratchett one. It’s not very funny, for one thing – discounting some wry dialogue and one not-very-successful stab at a comic character (a deceased Tibetan monk who has been reincarnated as a superintelligent drinks dispenser). Instead our hero, Joshua, explores stepwise for a million earths or so, the whole journey rendered with a characteristically Baxteresque mix of big-scale imagination and scientific rigour. The resulting novel is a surprisingly gentle piece of work. Something Wicked, or at least Something Worrying, is sweeping in from the further reaches of the long earth, driving frightened steppers before it like refugees; but it’s a long time before we become aware of this, and not much is made of it. Otherwise human settlement upon the alternate earths is rural and low-tech (steppers cannot carry iron with them, for unexplained reasons) and almost entirely free of crime, rapine and nastiness. Lacking the pressures of overpopulation and with infinite natural resources to draw on, people just seem to get along with one another. Indeed, I’m tempted to call The Long Earth an exercise in utopian writing; an unfashionable mode nowadays, when grim-and-gritty dystopias rule the publishing roost.

I am not big on dystopian fiction so I too enjoyed the style.  The set-up and concept (Stepping, tech driven and “natural”, across worlds, etc.) was fascinating and sucked you in.  The philosophical questions raised are interesting to think about.

But once Joshua and Lobsang embark on their adventure it fell into a lot of dialog and slow moving plot.  Even the interesting bits about natural steppers and what might be causing the “trolls” and “elves” to flee too often get caught up in slow moving discussing between characters.  At the end the tension ratcheted up and things got interesting but I guess I just expected a little more heft or depth.

The AV Club review gets at this:

The story is filled with dozens of huge philosophical, scientific, and social questions, but it ends up short on answers. It lacks a strong plot, and asks, “What does it all mean?” and “What’s going to happen to humanity?” several times over its course, then ends with a promise of sequels. That promise is welcome, but The Long Earth suffers slightly from its own overpacked potential: It promises a satisfying meal, and delivers a tasty appetizer.

It was interesting but after over 11 hours of listening I thought I would be further along or come away with more.  Instead I was left wondering whether it would be worth continuing the series.

Review: The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

The Book of Strange New Things
I had The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber on my wish list for quite a while.  Genre defying story with a faith/religious thread? Sign me up.  I actually grabbed a hardback for a couple of bucks at a library sale but hadn’t made time to read it. So I decided to go the audio route and listen to it on my daily commute.

I am somewhat torn as to my reaction. I really enjoyed it for about 75% but then it felt like it was dragging a bit.

But no sooner had I begun to feel that, it cranked up the tension and I stayed up late to finish it.  I finished it in hardback, however, as I didn’t have the patience to wait for my next car trip once I got close to the ending.

In the same way, I am not sure what to make of the book’s approach to faith and Christianity. Most of the book reads like a rather fair and sympathetic perspective on the life of a missionary and perhaps a commentary on modern Western culture.

But the end seems to undercut that or at least call it into question. I am not sure I have the energy to read it again, so I will have to leave my reaction ambiguous.

Instead, I will offer a few quotes from other reviews.

Jason Sheehan at NPR offers this praise:

And this is Faber’s great strength, trotted out right from the opening pages — this ability to write believable, lovely, flawed and inept characters. To animate his creations by exposing their great loves and human frailties, and to make us want, somehow, to follow along behind them as they traipse across the pages, the miles and, in short order, the light-years.

But then this:

Because for a book whose press goes to lengths to separate it from the genre it is allegedly defying (going so far as to never even use the phrase “science fiction” to describe it), it is 100 percent a science-fiction book — just not a terribly original one. It is a Missionary To The Aliens story, a path well-trod by Golden Age sci-fi writers (something which Faber lampshades in a couple of places by having Peter make mention of feeling like he’s living in a classic science-fiction story) and, more recently, done famously by Mary Doria Russell in The Sparrow or James Blish in A Case Of Conscience. And Faber brings little that’s new or original to the trope, save a masterful skill for sketching the slow accretion of dread and mistrust in the hearts of his characters.

M John Harrison at the Guardian:

This is a big novel – partly because it has to construct and explain its unhomely setting, partly because it has such a lot of religious, linguistic, philosophical and political freight to deliver – but the reader is pulled through it at some pace by the gothic sense of anxiety that pervades and taints every element.

Ron Charles at the Washington Post:

For all its galactic wonders, “The Book of Strange New Things” is a subtle, meditative novel that winds familiar space-alien tropes around terrestrial reflections on faith and devotion.

[…]

It takes a while to realize that, despite its bizarre setting and all the elements of an interplanetary opera, this is a novel of profound spiritual intimacy. Peter knows the Bible well, and if you do, too, you’ll see that he experiences everything through the fabric of its metaphors and parables. He prays like someone who actually believes, which in literary fiction is far more exotic than a space alien with a hamburger face.

Hannah McGill in the Independent:

Crucially for the sincerity of The Book of Strange New Things, Peter and his faith are presented without mockery, and the story of his mission as an experience befalling a real, feeling man, not – say – an allegory for what damage dogma and conversion have done in the world. So prevalent in the ranks of the verbose intelligentsia is the notion of all religion as a mere cover story for greed and wrongdoing that the depiction of a religious man as a sincere do-gooder feels discreetly radical, and permits Faber to ask profound questions not about the performance or misapplication of faith, but about the true condition thereof – and how that condition can be reconciled to a collective existence plagued by undeserved misfortune.

[…]

But this novel most potently concerns itself with matters at once more quotidian and more challenging than these. It is as much about the minor failures of communication that can erode marital intimacy as it is about contacting other beings, and as much about the existential terror inherent in putative parenthood as it is about travel to far-off worlds. As the once-inseparable Peter and Beatrice, now worlds apart, struggle to comprehend one another’s day-to-day lives, Faber lets a devastating possibility shuffle to the fore: every relationship is long-distance, and every person a strange new planet. The methods whereby we try to minimise difference, meanwhile, are themselves unstable – language most palpably so.

I guess I am more on the positive (some nearly gushing) reviews spectrum than I am on the negative. But, perhaps because I am not all that knowledgeable about science fiction or speculative fiction, I can’t quite see the profound and literary masterpiece some have found.

But it was different and I very much enjoyed the journey.

My Goodreads rating: 4 of 5 stars (View all my reviews)

The God Engines by John Scalzi

The God Engines by John Scalzi is not my normal read, or listen, as I rarely tackle science fiction or fantasy of this sort. But the audio was for sale at Half Price Books for a couple of bucks so I grabbed it for the commute. Plus, I am always interested in fiction that explores faith.

Captain Ean Tephe is a man of faith, whose allegiance to his lord and to his ship is uncontested. The Bishopry Militant knows this—and so, when it needs a ship and crew to undertake a secret, sacred mission to a hidden land, Tephe is the captain to whom the task is given.

Tephe knows from the start that his mission will be a test of his skill as a leader of men and as a devout follower of his god. It’s what he doesn’t know that matters: to what ends his faith and his ship will ultimately be put—and that the tests he will face will come not only from his god and the Bishopry Militant, but from another, more malevolent source entirely…

Recently, it took its turn as my entertainment for the drive to and from work. It turned out to be interesting and enjoyable but, as so many reviewers have noted, felt a little too short and underdeveloped.

I started out wondering what I had purchased because it was so different than anything I had read recently. And the voices and personalities as they come through on audio heightened that strangeness. But the story picked up and I started getting into it.

Just trying to conceptualizer and envision such a strange and different world was challenging and interesting. Trying to figure out what the different “angles” being played (the bishops, the gods, the captain, etc.) and to what ends keeps you intrigued. And of course, you can’t help but think what philosophical point Scalzi might be making in telling such a story about gods and faith and choice.

But then just as the tension builds and the complexity begins to intrigue the story ends. You are left thinking: “Huh, that was interesting but is that it?”

Still, it is creative and thought provoking and has some well done characters. Have to wonder what it could have been at standard novel length though … Or perhaps I am just not a connoisseur of fantasy novellas.