The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

The Three Body-Problem by Cixin Liu

I bought this book and made it halfway through before I realized it was part of a trilogy. I rarely have the patience for trilogies anymore so I tend to avoid them, but now I’m locked in for another two books so this should be interesting! Hah! Hopefully this turns out better than the time I attempted to review more than one Horus Heresy novel in a row.

Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem is a Hugo-Award-winning book that was on the “staff picks” shelf in Powell’s when I was in Portland back in November. It’s an Obviously Good ™ book, so I’ll admit I went in prepared to sing its praises.

Not that I’m disappointed, it certainly is good. I found that for a number of reasons the pacing of the novel tended to ebb and flow for me. There were bits where I devoured entire chapters, unable to put it down, and bits where it took me several days to make it through 10 pages.

Liu plants an extraterrestrial first-contact tale deeply in the mire of contemporary Chinese history. I’ll admit that my knowledge of the Cultural Revolution is vague at best, and the novel starts by presenting a not-entirely-objective interpretation of events so I still can’t call myself an expert. Liu’s focus lies with the impact of the revolution on academia and scientific research, particularly in the field of theoretical physics.

In Liu’s fiction, the events of the Cultural Revolution indirectly set in motion an extraterrestrial invasion of Earth by fostering a disdain and mistrust for humanity in the best and brightest of astronomers, physicists, and military personnel.

First contact reveals itself slowly as characters in two different timelines play their separate parts. Ye Wenjie, an astrophysicist who is sent to work at a military base using radio scanning equipment for tactical purposes during the revolution, discovers a novel method of amplifying radio waves, allowing a later transmission to be sent into another solar system.

Decades after this discovery, Wang Miao, a present-day nanomaterials researcher, stumbles upon a bizarre VR game in which players are unknowingly introduced to the aliens that Ye Wenjie opened communications with decades before, by attempting to solve a physics problem that plagues the in-game NPCs.

The aliens are called Trisolarans, as they inhabit a planet caught in the unpredictable orbit of three stars. These three stars (the three bodies identified in the book’s title) cause the planet to oscillate violently between periods of extreme cold, incinerating heat, and occasionally, an era of mild and predictable temperatures known by locals as a “stable era.”

The communication that Ye Wenjie opens causes a cascade of events leading to a sort of multi-tiered invasion, the first phase of which manifests in the individual minds of high-level physicists, and which is designed to culminate in a physical invasion some four centuries in Earth’s future. Humanity must coordinate and plan ahead on a scale never before imagined, or doom a distant future generation to certain death.

Phrased that way it seems like an apt metaphor for the climate change issues of today, but rest assured that I’m oversimplifying it.

Throughout the novel, Liu does an incredible job of evoking complex processes on magnitudes both extremely large and extremely small, using clever metaphor and visualization. The basic binary function of a computer, for example, is at one point depicted with thousands of pairs of soldiers raising and lowering alternating flags. In another scene, the unfolding of a photon into additional dimensions is described in beautiful visual detail, and reminded me of some of the more fascinating descriptions of life in six dimensional spaces, in Greg Egan’s Diaspora.

The aliens themselves are interestingly thought out – with characteristics that would be plausible for their extreme environment, as well as others that seem deliberately designed to reflect the worst aspects of human nature back at the reader. While the scope of the novel is massive – in some cases too massive to easily relate to – I appreciated that it did not extend all the way to preemptively describing the physical appearance of the Trisolarans. They remain enticingly alien through the very end of the book.

I’ve started reading The Dark Forest at this point already and it so far holds to the same level of scope, in which the story spans the entire globe, yet will occasionally stop to focus intently on the tiniest minutiae of Earth, or spend pages on the inner thoughts of a single character. It’s an interesting strategy, one that allows for a large number of threads to eventually come together, even if they take their sweet time getting there.

Pick up this book if you want to contemplate the destruction of the human race as a psychological, rather than a physical process. Read it if you want to feel small, or to lament the heartbreaking shortness of the human lifespan – and the daunting idea of continuing to operate as a unit despite the routine death and replacement of every aspect of a system.

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The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer

The Southern Reach is a weird series of novels – part science fiction, part magical realism, part classic horror. I acquired the compilation volume so thankfully I was able to read all three of them in one go. I find the older I get the less patience I have for committing myself to entire trilogies.

That said, I did enjoy the clear tonal distinction between each of these books. Annihilation, certainly, could function as a standalone novel. Authority and Acceptance less so, but they still each have a tangibly different focus.

At the center of the stories, a mystery – a bizarre stretch of landscape where some unspeakable cosmic event took place, now quarantined by a government body. A series of expeditions sent in to attempt to study the area, with results ranging from unexplained death and disappearance to expedition members in zombie-like states of Zen upon returning.

When the novel first introduced Area X I started having very strong flashbacks to Boris and Arkady Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic, and naturally, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. A bizarre thing has happened, but what exactly occurred is decidedly less important than the lasting effects of the event.

Vandermeer’s decision to withhold the names of most of his characters, having the reader know them instead by their job title, is one that I found really helpful for enforcing that focus on landscape. Characters have their own human dramas, definitely, but always within the larger context of an overarching biosphere of moving parts.

So, Annihilation is incredibly creepy. I will freely confess that it kept me awake for several nights until I finally had to stop reading it before bed. I may startle easily, but it takes a lot to leave me genuinely uneasy in the way that this book did, so I have to give it major points for that alone.

I won’t tiptoe around the Lovecraftian aspects of the story. Spoiler alert: the events of Area X are not of this Earth. Possibly not of this dimension or universe. Indescribable cosmic horror unfolds in a way that’s more believable than most of the explicitly Lovecraftian fiction that I’ve come across.

The entire trilogy leans heavily into that uncertainty, that deep tension between being intensely curious about something, while understanding that you’re probably better off not knowing. There’s an unavoidable sense of despair, as well. Despair over relationships, despair over ones’ own mortality, the despair of realizing how truly powerless we all are.

I also have to say that I really enjoyed the way gender and sexuality was employed, (or, successfully ignored) by Vandermeer. Which is to say, gender dynamics are hardly a focal point, and I don’t want to reward mediocrity here, but I still feel the need to mention what a breath of fresh air it was to read a novel with so many believable, fully realized, uncompromised female characters (including the Main Character, at least in Annihilation.)

There’s a gay character, and a bisexual character, both of whose orientations are completely incidental to their roles in the story. There’s even a brief mention of the existence of non-binary individuals. It may not be much but when this kind of thing is as rare as it is, I have to take a moment to offer encouragement for what it’s worth.

For a novel about terror from beyond our galaxy, it’s a story that suffused with incredibly believable human experiences and reactions, one that manages to maintain a small scope despite the immense measure of its primary conflict. The trilogy may be about horrors of the highest magnitude, but serves to remind us that there’s horror inside every one of us, as well.

Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

This book almost broke me.

It’s excellent in nearly every way and yet when I think about it I still feel a vague sense of disappointment or anger. As I said to a friend in response to their beginning to read Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson is an excellent writer in every way – except in writing female characters with more than one dimension.

Which is to say that in this sweeping, deeply informative, pleasantly convoluted, century-spanning novel, you could still more or less replace every female character with a blowup doll and have the same amount of impact on the plot.

(This is excepting the instances where Stephenson seems to mistake psychotic, red-flag jealousy for the behavior of that mythical beast, the Strong Female Character.)

All that said, I actively hate myself for being a feminist nitpick when the overall structure of the book is so. Fucking. Good. I just want to unabashedly love it for its manly wartime swashbuckling and fascinating descriptions of hacking and math. The writing is tight, it never drags. I hate historical fiction and Cryptonomicon somehow turned WWII into an endlessly interesting setting.

Is it the non-female-identifying aspects of myself that make me think I should be able to just set aside the flat, lazy, women-writing and focus on a classic fucking story? Maybe?

Anyway, I’ve been trying to write about this book since I finished it literally months ago and I haven’t been able to come up with a review that I can fully stand behind. I’ve read other things and I want to move on with my life so here it is. Read Cryptonomicon yourself. Make up your own damn mind.

I can’t even begin to tell you how to feel about it.

Metro 2033 by Dmitry Glukhovsky

If there’s one thing I’ve learned while keeping this blog, it’s that it’s much harder to be snarky about books I actually liked. Which is why it took me so damn long to write about Dmitry Glukhovsky’s Metro 2033.

But I dug deep, and mustered enough ennui for a small rant, so here goes.

This book is essentially billed as a straight-up sci-fi/horror story – but there’s a lot of nuance to Metro 2033 and that’s exactly what makes it so good. Not only that, but Glukhovsky manages to pull off horror writing that’s actually legitimately creepy.

Quick plot rundown: Metro 2033 takes place, conveniently, in the year 2033, in the metro train tunnels underneath what used to be Moscow. The entire surface of the planet, (presumably; the scope of the story is fairly small and the characters for the most part have no way of knowing what the actual conditions are on the surface of the planet) was rendered uninhabitable a couple decades prior to this by the events of a third world war.

The main character of the novel is a man in his early 20’s named Artyom, who was but a wee baby when they nuked the world, and has spent most of his life in an underground train station, growing mushrooms for sustenance. The Moscow metro is vast – extensive enough that a communist revolution already broke out at some point prior to the events of Metro, with the requisite social upheaval. A number of stations have been taken as territory by the reds, complete with ongoing border skirmishes and prejudice-driven executions.

Aside from humans continuing their grand legacy of being just, so awful, there’s a new threat from the so-called “Dark Ones,” a new race of super-beings that nobody’s really seen but are assumed by everyone to be pure evil and out for blood. Are they horribly disfigured mutants from the surface? The next step in human evolution? Aliens? There’s probably a fan theory about aliens. Nobody knows.

There’s also the threat of a plague and the possibility that Satan himself lives in the tunnels, which are almost certainly haunted by… something, not to mention uncanny numbers of rats. The story makes it very clear how little fun is to be had in the metro.

So a rant: way before I actually picked up this book I watched someone play a demo of the videogame version on the Xbox 360. I was mildly annoyed with the game after only a couple hours’ worth of actual gameplay because it had the player just shooting weird mutant creatures crawling through the tunnels.

Now, I realize the limitations that the developers were working with. Metro 2033 (the game) is a first-person shooter and one of the most fundamental aspects of an FPS is having something to shoot at, and there are a lot of reasons for inserting a non-human foe to fill that slot. I guess it’s a pet peeve of mine that sci-fi horror writers of late frequently seem to fall back on “monsters” that, while certainly unpleasant, still appear to be carbon-based life forms with all the accoutrements like skin and some type of blood, and… eyes maybe.

What I’m saying is these things aren’t really that scary anymore because while they might be super strong and have extra-thick skin or plates of exoskeleton or whatever, you can still fundamentally kill them with guns. In some cases you may need to upgrade to a rocket launcher but I believe my point stands.

Also, if this is how you formulate your monster I have to assume that the monster doesn’t actually have any concept of malice or vengeance because it’s basically just a dumb animal, otherwise it might display the trappings of human-level intelligence, namely some form of combat strategy, external weapons, or perhaps an ability to be reasoned with.

Therefore, I posit that this type of creature isn’t really a scary monster, it’s just a large, angry dog. And I know Cujo was a hit but that was the 80s and I think animalistic monsters like werewolves or swamp things have at this point been distilled into tropes of either harlequin romance or cheeseball black and white horror films.

What I’m getting at is that I picked up Metro 2033 fully prepared to be disappointed that the main antagonist was a big ugly dog, or several big ugly dogs.

I was, however, actually thoroughly impressed with the antagonist forces present in the novel. Glukhovsky seems to understand that part of what makes horror horrifying is to have the character, and the reader by proxy, left uncertain about the true nature of the antagonist. Though Metro sits very comfortably in the “plausible” post-apocalyptic dystopia section of sci-fi, the horror elements are presented as mostly paranormal. This could totally fucking destroy all the scientific plausibility of the setting, but it’s executed with such an expert hand that it works beautifully.

There’s no final boss battle with these supernatural forces – they appear throughout the novel and while a number of possible explanations are explored at various point, none is presented as being specifically correct. What is “certain,” as much as anything can be certain, is that the forces are inherently malicious, and the kind of thing that you could never hope to kill with a gun. Maybe it’s a metaphor for human hate. Maybe the metro is actually purgatory, and the forces are just voices rising up from hell. Maybe a bunch of people living in dark tunnels with hardly any food, medicine or running water will eventually become paranoid enough to start giving physical shape to their anxieties. What is clear, is that the bad things happening in the tunnels are comprehensively unsettling.

At its heart, Metro 2033 is a pretty formulaic hero’s quest, wherein our boy Artyom must travel from his home on the outer reaches of the inhabitable metro, into the very center of human civilization and conflict, to kill the Dark Ones once and for all. You could easily re-skin this as fantasy and it would basically be Soviet Lord of the Rings.

But that’s okay. The structure of the plot falls into the background compared to the tight writing and character development. Artyom is such a pure cinnamon bun that you can’t help but root for him, and the occasional really convenient escape from certain doom is somehow improved by your pure love for a Kalashnikov-toting, gas-mask wearing main character who is, at his heart, an adorable and soft little kid.

I think part of what I loved about this book is that it somehow manages to seem somehow optimistic, in a world where you get a free ski mask with your purchase of an AK-47. The clearest available moral of the story is that humanity is irredeemably stupid and awful and that we deserve everything we have coming, and yet it never becomes an existential slog.

That said, I will say to make sure you’ve got your favorite whiskey in the house, because you’re going to need a drink when you finish this book.