The Three-Body Problem — Cixin Liu

Cover of The Three-Body Problem


The Three-Body Problem
Cixin Liu
Translation by Ken Liu
302 pages
published in 2008 (English 2014)

If it hadn’t been for Marko Kloos doing the honourable thing and withdrawing his nomination, The Three-Body Problem wouldn’t be on the ballot for this year’s Best Novel Hugo. And that would’ve been a shame, since The Three-Body Problem is the first translated novel to make the shortlist. The start of a trilogy, it originally came out in China in serialisation in 2006, with the novel version coming out in 2008. The English translation was done by Ken Liu, who has won a Hugo Award himself. The sequels will come out this year and next.

What makes The Three-Body Problem almost missing out on the Hugo shortlist deeply ironic, is that it’s exactly the kind of oldfashioned hard science fiction the people behind this year’s vote rigging were supposed to be all in favour of. It revolves around the mystery of why all those physicists are killing themselves, the answer to which seems to be that fundamental principles of physics are broken… There are some great moments of sense of wonder, of conceptual breakthrough in it, as well as some characters Asimov would think were a bit two-dimensional.

The Three-Body Problem starts in the middle of the Cultural Revolution, introducing Ye Wenjie, whose physicist father is killed by Red Guards, young, fanatic followers of Mao fighting against what they see as the counter revolution. Her younger sister is part of the Red Guards and is killed in a fight with the regular army. Ye Wenjie herself, because of her family background and intellectual tendencies is banished to the countryside, working in a “volunteer” labour battelion. It’s while she’s working on deforesting part of Inner Mongolia to remake the forest into farmland, that she comes into contact with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which will help provide the motivation for what she will do later. While under arrest for having the book on her, Ye Wenjie is recruited to help with the running of Red Coast, a secret PLA radio telescopy/listening post.

But just as her story seems to start, it moves to the present, with Ye Wenjie out of the picture until much later in the book. Instead we now follow Wang Miao, an academic working on nanotechnology, who is recruited by the socalled Battle Command Center, which turns out to be an international organisation, fighting a hidden war against an invisible enemy, a war fought against science. What the Battle Command Center in particular wants to know and needs him for is to understand why so many distinguished scientists and physicists have committed suicide.

In a scene that’s a direct homage to Isaac Asimov, a game of pool is used to first showcase the foundation of all physics/ We’ve discovered a great principle of nature: The laws of physics are invariant across space and time as one character puts it, before going on to explain that this is no longer the case:

“Imagine another set of results. The first time, the white ball drove the black ball into the pocket. The second time, the black ball bounced away. The third time, the black ball flew onto the ceiling. The fourth time, the black ball shot around the room like a frightened sparrow, finally taking refuge in your jacket pocket. The fifth time, the black ball flew away at nearly the speed of light, breaking the edge of the pool table, shooting through the wall, and leaving the Earth and the Solar System, just like Asimov once described.

That’s why scientists are committing suicide and what Wang Miao needs to figure out is who or what is behind it. This part of The Three-Body Problem reads like a techno thriller, as Wang Miao emerges himself in the conspiracy behind the suicides, getting cryptic hints from police captain Shi Qiang, rude and obnoxious but with a knack of saying just the right things to get Wang Miao to move forward.

It’s here that the central gimmick of the story is introduced, a virtual reality video game, Three Body in which Wang Miao is put in a world which vaguely resembles that of ancient China but with laws of physics that make no sense. His job and that of the other players is to figure these laws out and determine what’s going on.

Because I bought it as an ebook I read most of this in short snatches, frex waiting at the coffee machine at work. In retrospect, this hindered my comprehension of The Three-Body Problem‘s plot but helped my appreciation of the book as a whole. I would’ve seen most of the plot twists and shocking reveals coming, had I read it in a more sustained fashion, as Cixin Liu is far from subtle; indeed this has been one of the most common points of criticism leveled at The Three-Body Problem.

The Three-Body Problem of course refers to a classic physics problem and the virtual reality game has as its first goal to let its players figure out that the world they play in is subjected to this, a planet in a trinary solar system. Cixin Liu takes a while before he allows his protagonist to figure it out and perhaps it takes too long; a more observant reader would’ve gotten there much quicker.

Once that’s been figured out it’s a small step for characters and readers both to understand that the world of Three Body depicts an actual alien world and hence that aliens are behind the breakdown in physics. The rest of the novel revolves around understanding the history and gols of these aliens as well as what motivates their human collaborators. Which turns out to be an overwhelming sense of the failure of humanity to treat the world properly, so let somebody else try it, bringing the story back to Ye Wenjie, who turns out to have set everything in motion through her work at Red Coast.

In general The Three-Body Problem is an uneven book, oddly paced, with a build up in the first two parts that’s somewhat led down by its resolution in the third. What’s set up as a fundamental physicis problem basically turns into “aliens did it” with some technobabble about unfolding protons to make them into AIs. It’s a bit disappointing.

Also disappointing is the characterisation. The historical sections, telling Ye Wenjie’s story, are great, but every other character has to struggle to reach two dimensions. I don’t think this is a problem with the translation or differences between western and Chinese science fiction. Rather, there’s a reason Cixin Liu keeps reminding me of Isaac Asimov: he has a similar preferences for ideas over characterisation.

I didn’t read The Three-Body Problem in time to consider it for my Hugo ballot and I’m not sure I’d would’ve traded in one of my choices for this. The question now though, since it is on the Hugo shortlist, should I vote for it and if so, in which place? I won’t be upset if it does win the Best Novel Hugo, though I think I still prefer The Goblin Emperor over this.

Hero Complex — Sean O’Hara

Cover of Hero Complex


Hero Complex
Sean O’Hara
394 pages
published in 2014

Whether or not you’ll like Hero Complex can probably be determined by whether not the following passage intrigues or annoys you:

Ryder leaps onto the wall of an apartment building and runs straight up the side. She’s almost to the eaves when she jumps again, this time somersaulting high into the air, coming to apogee several yards above the monster. She flings her arms apart and the night is illuminated by stroboscopic beams from her—I’m not seeing that right. There’s no way she’s shooting lasers from her boobs.

“Of course not. That would be ridiculous,” Jensen says.

I thought as much, but given how many ridiculous things have occurred lately, I wanted to be sure.

Ryder snags a tree branch with an outstretched hand like it’s a trapeze and flips herself around.

“Everyone knows laser beams are invisible in clear air. Those are charged particle cannons,” Jensen says.

Needless to say I did find it intriguing and wanted to subscribe to its newsletter. Sean O’Hara is somebody I know from having hung around the same online spaces for years, which always helps when deciding whether or not to try a book.

As you might have guessed from the extract, Hero Complex isn’t an entirely serious novel, though there is a harder edge to it than is at first apparant. As such it reminded me of Seanan McGuire’s Velveteen series, which started out as lighthearted superhero fanfic but got dark quickly. The same is the case here. The protagonist, behind his first person smartarse persona, is suffering from an unhealed trauma, hiding a dark secret, something that will drive his actions through the story.

But it takes a while for that trauma to surface and at first Hero Complex looks like an affectionate parody of what you might call a harem anime, where you have the high school hero getting involved with a group of Strange Girls Who Are More Than They Seem. That’s what seems to happen to Erik when he’s recruited (or rather, pressganged) for his school’s drama club, after an unfortunate accident involving all its male members leaving.

Cue a bit of sexual tension between him and Jensen, the resident hardcase of the group, who makes it clear she doesn’t like him (nor he she), which, as any fule kno, is a sure sign of mutual sexual attraction, something that doesn’t go uncommented on by the other girls. That knowing commentary and genre savvy displayed by many of the characters, helps reinforce the fanfic feeling of the story, again like McGuire’s Velveteen.

It doesn’t take long for the plot to grow darker, as it turns out the drama club has a more important mission than amateur theatre and somebody isn’t happy Erik joined up with them. Before long he’s involved in running battles with this unknown enemy, which turns out also to mostly consist of high school girls. What in fact turns out to be the case is that both groups come from a fantasy world not unlike Zelazny’s Amber, a world with a higher order of reality and are waging their civil war on Earth. Like Amber, our world is a mere shadow of theirs.

Where it differs, and also where the story goes properly dark, is in how O’hara shows the consequences of these battles, showing how one battle completely destroys the all night restaurant Erik used to hang out at, killing everybody inside. Reality can reset itselfs once such a magical battle has ended, but it’s clear that this restoration isn’t complete. The people murdered may live again, but they’re not quite the same.

Hero Complex is the first in the My Dark and Fearsome Queen series; I’m not sure I’d want to read the next volume right now. Enjoyable as this was it was also somewhat uneven, with the mood swings between light and serious giving me a bit of whiplash. I’m not sure Erik’s tragic background works all that well with the rest of the story O’Hara wants to tell: it’s slightly too real for a story of school girl warbots armed with laser tits. Another small annoyance is that Erik’s dialogue wasn’t put in quote marks, which took some getting used to. Nevertheless, a good debut.

The Riddle of the Labyrinth — Margalit Fox

Cover of The Riddle of the Labyrinth


The Riddle of the Labyrinth
Margalit Fox
363 pages, including notes & index
published in 2013

Linear B is one of those ‘mysteries from history” I’d read about in the local library in the early eighties as a child, browsing through the stacks of occult, ancient astronaut and weird history books, listed along with better known examples like Schliemann’s quest for Troy. It’s one of those pieces of history I sort of, kind of knew about, of how tablets in an unknown language were found on Crete, providing evidence for the existence of a literate, “advanced” Bronze Age civilisation hundreds of years before the rise of the Classical Greek civilisations. But I never read much more about it because other subjects like Schliemann’s discovery of Troy looked much more interesting.

in The Riddle of the Labyrinth Margalit Fox sets out to prove me wrong by telling the real story of the decyphering of Linear B and Alice Kober, the largely forgotten woman at the heart of it, as well as of the archaeologist who found the tablets, Arthur J. Evans and the amateur linguist who finally decrypted them, Michael Ventris. In many ways this is a sad story: both Alice Kober and Michael Ventris died young, one dead of cancer, the other in a car accident, with Kober’s role in the decypherment for a long time remaining obscure because of her untimely death, while Ventris’ accident came at a time he was feeling depressed about what to do with the rest of his life… It’s also a detective story, as Fox tells the story of how the three of them each in turn helped the process of decyphering along.

Unlike the story of e.g. Rosalind Franklin — the uncredited woman behind the discovery of DNA, however — what this isn’t is yet another story about how a woman got swindled out of the credit for a major scientific discovery. It’s purely her illness and subsequent death that robbed her of her chance to decypher Linear B herself. Had those not interfered she might have done so years before Ventris had gotten the chance, the latter being careful to acknowledge his debt to her.

Fox starts her story with the discovery by Evans of the strange symbols on a Cretan sealstone given to him by a friend, symbols that he recognised as writing and his determined search to find more of it. Ultimately it led him, through the discovery of more such sealstones in Greek antiquaty shops to Knossos, which had been discovered in 1878 and where in 1900 Evans found his treasure trove of documents, fired clay tablets, part of the palace’s bookkeeping. More of the same would be found later at other Myceanean palaces.

The problem with Evans though was that he firmly believed Linear B was the alphabet for a hithero unknown Myceanean language, rather than Greek. He spent much of the rest of his life attempting to write the definitive treatment of the Minoean languages found on Crete, hoarding access to the existing Linear B tables to safeguard his project. It was this attitude as much as anything that delayed decyphering the language.

It’s at this point that Alice Kober enters the story, getting gripped by the Linear B bug in the 1930ties. Somewhat of a language geek, she spent her free time studying the language systematically as much as she could, ignoring the wild theorising that had sprung up about it in favour of an analytic approach. Her work was both helped and hindered when she gained the acquaintance of one of Evans disciplines and agreed to help him proofread Evan’s masterwork in return for access to his stack of Linear B tablets. What she discovered was that Linear B represented an inflected language being written in a syllabic script, something that had helped mislead earlier investigators.

Sadly though she died of cancer before she could’ve done more than lay the foundations for a sustained assault on the language and it was left to the architect and amateur linguist Michael Ventris to complete her work. Ventris had gotten intrigued by the language when he’d met Evans as a child and was told it was still undecyphered. that’s when Linear B got in his blood and what kept him working on it throughout his life, not helped by his somewhat diffident personality. At times he completely withdraw from the research, sinking into depression. In fact, Fox speculates that perhaps, once the initial euphoria about finally cracking the language had left him, his inner melancholy overwhelmed him and the car accident he died in might not have been entirely accidental…

Remains the language itself, interesting, but apparantly only used to hold inventories and help the palace bureaucracy; no stories had been written in it, no national epics discovered in it. A bit of a anticlimax perhaps, but the story as told by Fox is intriguing nonetheless.

Sterrensplinters — Eddy C. Bertin

Cover of Sterrensplinters


Sterrensplinters
Eddy C. Bertin
222 pages
published in 2013

Eddy C. Bertin was an important author in my personal Golden Age of science fiction. A Flemish author, he was one of the few science fiction writers writing in Dutch back in the late seventies & eighties. Dutch language science fiction has never been particularly abundant and most that was published was not very good. Bertin was one of the few exceptions, an author who could’ve found an audience in English as well (and indeed, has had a couple of stories published in English). Still active, Bertin has written everything from hard science fiction to dark fantasy and horror, often mixing genres and with a tendency towards the Lovecraftian end of horror.

Sterrensplinters (Star Splinters) is a 2013 anthology collecting some of his best stories taken from his 1970s and 1980s collections. These are all long out of print, so a new collection of them is very welcome. The short introduction doesn’t tell much about why exactly these stories were chosen, or why the collection had to be divided into two parts: Membranen and Splinters, other than that the first set of stories takes place in a shared universe, while the remainder are standalone. That second set of stories feels as an afterthought, even if it includeds one of Bertin’s most famous stories.

No, the real meat of the collection is in that first section, showcasing some of the key stories from his Membrane future history. This is a very seventies sort of future history, in that the coming psychic and psychadelic revolution lead to the liberation of the mind through a new class of drugs, freeing the long hidden ultracentre within the brain, that enabled jumps through ultraspace and the conquest of the universe. Fortunately however Bertin was enough of a cynic to not make this into a hippy-drippy cosmic love sort of universe, but instead the monopoly on those ultrapsych drugs was held by powerful companies like Afrostellar and LBL, underpinning an imperialistic, capitalistic, expansionist world order that looked forward to cyberpunk.

There’s also more than a hint of Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe about the Membrane universe, unknown dangers lurking in the depths of ultraspace, attracted to the splashes human ships make in it, while in the real universe humanity despite its belief in its own propaganda, may not be a match for more cunning, more aggressive species. There’s a barely controlled chaos behind the gleaming facade of the setting, a sense of moving towards a predestined doom for the entire universe. In fact, the Membrane stories were originally collected in three books: Eenzame Bloedvogel (1976), De Sluimerende Stranden van de Geest (1981) and Het Blinde Doofstomme Beest op de Kale Berg (1983), with that third featuring that ultimate doom, The Blind, Deaf-Mute Beast on the Bald Mountain that waits in the Membranes at the end of the universe…

Membranen:

  • “Een Stuk van je Gezicht” (A Part of Your Face, 1976)
    This hasn’t aged well, the story of an ultranaut that is fleeing something in his own past, stuck in an endless loop in ultraspace and with something having taken the role of his dead partner. It hasn’t aged well because the story’s conflict is rooted in the idea that it would be acceptable for a male-female partnership to be sent out to explore an alien planet while the woman also has to satisfy her partner’s sex drive, but refuses to.
  • “De Droom is een Dood” (The Dream is a Death, 1981)
    A short vignette about some of the other uses the Ultrapsych drug can be used for, like capturing the last dreams of a dying man…
  • “Voor de Liefde van Virginia Clemm” (For the Love of Virginia Clemm, 1977)
    One of Bertin’s best stories, in which his own personal obsession with Edgar Allan Poe comes to the fore, as an Ultraspace explorer gets stuck in Poe’s brain and watches him self destruct. It’s an incredibly seventies story, which is what makes it so charming.
  • “Berlijn, Ze Branden Je Muren Neer” (Berlin, They Burn Your Walls Down, 1978)
    Did I say the previous story was seventies? This was even more so, an ode to the rock and roll obsessions of the baby boom generation growing older. In New Berlin, for his greatest concert ever, the greatest membrane rock star ever ponders his dark secret, the passenger he picked up traversing the ultraspace membranes, a passenger that will kill one of his audience as they merge membranes with him… Featuring robot doubles of Marilyn Monroe and John F. Kennedy as part of the stage act, just to date this even more. Great story though, for all its surface silliness.
  • “Als Ik Doodga voor Ik Wakker Word” (If I Die before I Wake, 1994)
    The only new story in the collection for me, written long after the bulk of Bertin’s Membrane stories had been written. An experiment to create a fractal human able to exists in the ultraspace Membranes unaided, lures something from the depths of ultraspace towards it, something both alive and not, something hungry…
  • “Rode Hemel met Stalen Bloemen” (Red Sky with Steel Flowers, 1983)
    The mutated survivors of a Terran-Cappellan battle on a small, unimportant planet sustain themselves on the fruit of the steel flowers that fall down from the sky at regular times. Only the reader realises that these are in fact the cryochambers of the survivors of the space battle that destroyed their planet twohundred years before…

Splinters:

Most of these stories are pure O’ Henry type shockers, with a bizarre scenario set up and the truth behind it revealed at the end of the story. Even when first published these were somewhat old fashioned, which reveals somewhat of the level of sophistication Dutch language science fiction operated (and still operates). These aren’t bad stories, just the kind of story you’d see as filler in some monthly magazine.

  • “Deuren 1 tot en met 5″ (Doors 1 to 5, 1982)
    An astronaut lands on a strange planet, empty and barred save for one door. When the door turns out to talk, what follows is a test: but who’s testing who?
  • “Alle Schaduwen van de Angst” (All Shadows of Fear, 1971)
    The sole survivor of a alien invasion lives in the shadows of their presence, in fear of discovery. But do the aliens really exist, or do they mask a much more frightening reality he’s trying to ignore?
  • “In de Stervende Stad” (In the Dying City, 1971)
    It’s only when he discovers he’s a mutant and has to flee the city, that the protagonist realises that the oppressive authoritarian regime ruling it is doomed, as is the city itself, despite its technological prowess.
  • “De Achtjaarlijkse God” (the Eight Yearly God, 1969)
    On a post-apocalyptic Earth, God is closer than ever and shows his wrath every eight years.
  • “Tijdstorm” (Time Storm, 1971)
    Due to an unforeseen time storm Harvey Lonestall accidently enters the far future headquarters of conspiracy to force Earth’s history into a dark path. He now has the opportunity to bring Earth’s history back to the path it should’ve taken — but is this really the right choice?

Bone Gap — Laura Ruby

Cover of Bone Gap


Bone Gap
Laura Ruby
345 pages
published in 2015

This is a book I wouldn’t have read if not for Tiemen tweet offering it as a review copy from ABC. I put my hand up because the cover looked interesting and I’m happy I did so. It’s always a risk committing to a book when you neither known what the book will about nor the author herself. I didn’t even realise this was supposed to be a Young Adult book, not that you could tell from the cover unless you already knew Balzer + Bray is a HarperCollins YA imprint.

Bone Gap is an old story, of a girl coming in the life of two brothers, then disappearing again. Kidnapped, according to the younger brother. Left just like their mother left them, according to everybody else in Bone Gap, a small town in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by corn fields and not much else. That Finn thinks Roza was kidnapped, yet couldn’t even give a good description of what her kidnapper looked like, well, he’s always been a dreamer, a moon gazer, sidetracked easily, not even able or willing to look people in the eyes. Not even his brother Sean believes him; easier to believe she left just like their mother left them. But of course Finn is right. Roza was abducted, by a man who wants her to love him and promises he won’t touch her until she wants to.

Squint a bit and Roza’s rich, powerful and mysterious kidnapper looks a lot like a fairy tale prince, riding out on a white horse to kiss strange girls awake from their coma without being asked. He takes her away from her humble home and installs her in a castle where her every whim can be catered too, gives her the best food to eat, the best dresses to wear, servants to clothe her and as he constantly assures her, his absolute conviction that she is the most beautiful woman in the world. In a fairy tale that sort of behaviour may be charming; here it’s creepy, even without the whole kidnapping aspect to things. The assumption that he knows what’s best for her while refusing to even consider her own desires, that’s the mark of the abuser.. Her kidnapper treats Roza like a thing, a possession, rather than a human being.

Because Bone Gap opens with Flynn as the viewpoint character, wandering around town being angry at not being believed about Roza’s kidnapping, I feared Roza herself would be only present as victim. Fortunately, this isn’t the case. Kept prisoner in a series of increasingly strange “homes”, she attempts to escape and fight back. She seems to be aware she’s in a fairy tale situation, as she’s careful not to eat or drink from the sumptuous food her kidnapper provides for her, consisting on bread and water. It’s also Roza who, in the climax to the story, comes up with the way to finally free herself, without making Flynn’s efforts unnecessary.

Flynn meanwhile doesn’t know he’s in a fairy tale. Angry as he is at not being believed about Roza’s kidnapping, there isn’t anything constructive he can let out his anger on, so instead he gets into fights with the Rudes, Bone Gap’s resident bullies, which isn’t helped by his inability to tell them apart. What also doesn’t help Flynn is the refusal of his brother to talk about Roza’s disappearance and the general disbelief of the people of Bone Gap, their view of him as nice but dimwitted, distracted, a dreamer.

Petey, the daughter of a local bee keeper, is somebody else who’s hemmed in by people’s perceptions of her. They call her strange, ugly and of course, as inevitable with every girl like that, “easy”. She’s abrasive and defensive, but despite this Flynn has always found her interesting and attractive. Over the course of the story they get drawn together, especially after strange things start happening to Flynn. Things like finding a strange horse in their barn, a horse that’s more than it seems to be. A horse that might hold the key to rescuing Roza. Petey is another viewpoint character, not just there to become Flynn’s girlfriend or prize, but somebody who helps solve one part of the puzzle, by realising what might cause Flynn’s inability to recognise people.

What I like about Bone Gap is that this is a fantastical story deeply embedded in, not standing outside of the overwhelming mundanity of life in Bone Gap. Roza’s kidnapper fore example is a fairy tale villain but also not that much different from other creeps she’s had had to deal with back home in Poland as well as in America and the story explicitly makes this connection. Just like Flynn’s “weirdness” and difference from everybody else in Bone Gap has a thoroughly mundane explanation as well as a more mystical one, without the one being the excuse for the other. What I also like is how Flynn, Roza and Petey all have their role to play in resolving the mystery of Roza’s kidnapping, that it isn’t just Flynn’s story, but theirs as well.

Bone Gap is a novel about love, both romantic and otherwise, about growing up, about changing your own view of who you are, forcing yourself to grow beyond other people’s views of you. It’s not just the villain who attempts to force Roza into his view of her, who has to be defeated for her and flynn and Petey to be free. It’s a fantasy novel in mundane drag, with echoes of some very old myths running through it. It may have been published by a YA publisher, but there’s plenty of things for an adult reader to find interesting too.