The Doomed City by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

If someone asked me what The Doomed City was about, I’d probably say it’s like a Soviet Dhalgren. It’s also like a Cold-War Russian Dark City, but since this novel obviously came first, I’m inclined to say that at least one of these properties ripped off The Doomed City to some extent.

(It’s Dark City.)

The actual plot of The Doomed City is rather loose — the story follows Andrei Voronin and a selection of other men through their lives in “The Experiment.”

The Experiment is nebulously described at a variety of junctions, but basically it comprises everything that the characters experience and interact with. They live in a city, but one with no defined location, climate or demographic. The inhabitants of the city come from a variety of nations and time periods, though all seem to represent, in one way or another, different political viewpoints that would have been of concern to a Russian citizen in the 1970s.

One might think of the Experiment as a massive fish tank, controlled by some unknown race of superintelligent aliens, in which humans take part in the building and daily function of a society, one that’s an odd amalgum of the societies from which they came.

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Maybe they’re just floating on a rock in space?

The one key factor that seems consistent in The Experiment is that each subject begins his time on the lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder and slowly rises through the ranks of society. When we first meet Andrei, he’s working as a garbage collector along with a ragtag group of friends. As the novel progresses, he becomes a detective, then a newspaper editor, then a city councillor. His close friends become policemen, reporters, and fellow councillors in turn, maintaining a similar, if progressively more powerful, group dynamic.

As numerous characters remark throughout the book, “The Experiment is The Experiment.” The apathetic claim becomes something of a mantra, a short, faithful prayer, a confirmation that they know nothing, that everything makes sense because it just does.

When baboons run rampant through the streets, when a seemingly sentient building devours citizens, when an expedition to the outer reaches of this uncharted “world” devolves into a madness of walking statues, temporal anomalies, and mysterious ruins, “The Experiment is The Experiment.”

For all this strangeness, The Doomed City never seems to veer into the same “supernatural” territory that fans of the Strugatsky’s best-known novel, Roadside Picnic, are probably familiar with. It’s a bit odd — The Doomed City might actually contain more of the observable supernatural, but that isn’t its focus.

Rather than painting a landscape, in The Doomed City the Sturgatsky brothers paint a dense party scene, an interpersonal drama with countless players major and minor, each with their own wants, aspirations, faults and failings. Certainly, many of these characters are political mascots, straw men built to represent political ideologies and time periods.

There’s a distinct lack of women in the novel. Those who do appear could be replaced with either men or blow-up dolls without affecting the plot in the slightest.  The Doomed City is as much a product of its time as it is a comment on it. Does that make this particular flaw forgiveable? Maybe, at a stretch, although it does make it glaringly obvious that the Sturgatsky brothers are also the white men by and for whom history is interpreted — perhaps their coded opinion of events (for as much merit as it does have) should also be taken with a grain of salt.

There are a lot of grey areas here, and in the novel, and one thing that I can appreciate about it is that the authors do very little to try to adjust the contrast.

Is The Experiment the afterlife? Is it hell? A genuine scientific study by ultra-advanced aliens, or some kind of government conspiracy? By the end of the novel, you might have formed your own theories, which will either be shattered or supported by the novel’s deliberately ambiguous ending.

Read the book for its dense character studies and fascinatingly nihilistic social commentary — or put it down for its alienation of women and failure to build any real suspense.

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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.

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.