The Three-Body Problem, Liu Cixin (trans. Ken Liu)

Review:

The Three-Body Problem - Liu Cixin, Ken Liu

What would you do if the laws of physics, of the universe, turned out not to be laws at all? Imagine you’re a scientist confronted with this realization. This is one of the more disturbing realities that characters must contend with in The Three-Body Problem, the first of a trilogy by Chinese author Liu Cixin.

The book does an excellent job of making the scale of the universe, from its immensity to its sub-atomic particularities, conceivable and real. One of the scientist characters has a gift that allows him to visualize numbers, and in a note the author reveals that he has a similar gift. The book is very intelligent and detailed in its explanation of science; I can’t say I could follow it all, but I understood the larger picture and was fascinated by the minutiae.

The book begins in China’s cultural revolution and fast forwards to the present, shifting perspectives from the scientist daughter of a persecuted university professor to a man working in nanotechnology. Most of the significant characters are scientists, with the exception of Da Shi, a corrupt, wily policeman who became my favorite character. The protagonist, Wang, learns of the deaths of prominent scientists and starts seeing strange things, such as a countdown that appears visible only to him. He is tasked with helping to investigate a shady scientific organization, which involves his playing a strange video game called Three-Body. Nothing is what it seems, and Wang falls down a rabbit hole (more like a black hole) that leads to knowledge of extra-terrestrial life.

This Chinese SF novel was something unique; I found its different style of storytelling often engaging, though sometimes odd. The translator explains in a note that there may be narrative techniques unfamiliar to Western readers, and I could sense them. For example, much is explained through pages of dialogue, and the narrative can feel interrupted by the video game chapters, as much as I enjoyed them. I struggled with the fact that, after a brief appearance earlier in the book, Wang’s wife and child do not re-enter the narrative, not even Wang’s thoughts. His thoughts themselves are often unknown–for a time I wasn’t sure where he stood in the quiet war going on.

Nevertheless, I do look forward to reading the next book in the trilogy (after a break) and to seeing the movie adaptation.

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The Three-Body Problem, Liu Cixin (trans. Ken Liu)

Version Control, by Dexter Palmer

Review:

Version Control: A Novel - Dexter Palmer

I’m seeing a theme in this year’s Tournament of Books shortlist (or, I should say, those books whose samples appealed to me): genre-bending and concerns about identity. I like to think about the lines between or blurring genres, and I appreciate the lens of race or sexuality, both of which are commonly excluded from much genre fic.

Dexter Palmer’s Version Control is speculative, but only just: its future is near, and there are certainly elements that are not at all far-fetched and therefore frightening: self-driving cars that can endanger passengers when, say, a firmware update has a glitch; data mining and what it could be used for; digital avatars, operating much like bot accounts on social media sites. There are also reminders for our own present, such as the real goals of online dating services–to keep you using (and paying) as long as possible, not successfully find a partner.

Palmer’s novel is marketed as “time travel like you’ve never seen it before.” I’ll go ahead and preface my questions about and problems with the book by saying I’m easily confused by time travel narratives, no matter how well explained.

The book is structurally tight, with thematic echoes across points of view and timelines, of which there are two. The idea of “the best of all possible worlds” is central; when it’s inevitably discovered that the device the protagonist’s husband is working on is, well, working, despite a lack of scientific proof, the characters realize what we as readers learned about halfway through the book when details of their lives change (character x is dead instead of y; characters go–or don’t go–by certain nicknames; character a cheats with character b rather than c, etc.): every time someone enters the “causation violation” chamber, a new timeline branches off.

Before the characters themselves are in the know, in the first timeline explored, the protagonist feels something’s not right, but can’t explain what. She’s not alone; the phenomenon is experienced by others and has become a diagnosis. What I don’t understand is why they have that sense of wrongness. I was also confused by Sean, the physicist and protagonist’s son. Is his mural as his mother, Rebecca, sees it, or as Alicia sees (or doesn’t see) it? Is he simply an artistic child suffering from loss?

Though thematically sound with some fresh explorations of gender and race in the hard sciences especially, Version Control didn’t quite come together for me. I didn’t particularly like or care about any of the characters; I’d say Carson was most interesting to me. The end was fairly predictable; I enjoyed the first half more. I have some stylistic quibbles that are just my bias, like chunks or pages of dialog, which reminded me of exposition in movies, and what felt like unnecessary section breaks. But I wanted to know what happened next, and the mystery of what was going on and why definitely kept me reading.

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Version Control, by Dexter Palmer

He, She, It, and I

Review:

He, She and It - Marge Piercy

I wish I’d been able to read this book when I was assigned it for a graduate class on speculative fiction and utopias/dystopias. It’s a rich novel with so much to discuss. As it is, I can imagine I’ll only touch on some of the issues the book explores (see my long list of tags) and my reactions as I read.

 

First, this is the only speculative novel I’ve read with a Jewish protagonist and characters, steeped in Jewish culture. Woven together with Shira’s story and her evolving relationship with Yod, the cyborg, is a story Shira’s grandmother, Malkah, tells to Yod about the Jewish ghetto in Prague circa 1600, and the Golem created to defend those living there. At first I was thrown by the story and how it was being told, but after the first such chapter I got it. Obviously, Yod’s and the Golem’s stories parallel one another in essential ways. Primarily, both explore the question of “humanity” and personhood often raised by SF when androids or cyborgs are involved. I never get tired of this topic.

 

The novel was published in the early ’90s, and so much is dead-on when it comes to our present and probable future–corporations running the world and determining culture; poverty and violence; the role of the internet; the destruction of the environment. The only “futuristic” bit that feels dated (if that makes sense) is the virtual reality-style raid, and that’s only because people have been trying to make VR a thing for so long, and predicting it will be, despite it never catching on.

 

I loved the novel’s representations of sexuality and gender, and it’s clearly feminist, without being polemic. In its depiction of Tikva, the Jewish “free town” that exists beyond the corporate enclaves and “Glop” (megalopolis), socialism rises as the more humane and diverse system as compared to the rampant capitalism that rules most of the world.

 

Malkah and the Golem, Joseph, are the most interesting characters to me, and Nili grew on me as well, as she does with Shira. I sometimes struggled with Shira; she can be self-pitying and not always self-aware, though her journey involves coming into her own as a thinker and worker (however, she only comes to trust in herself when she learns she was deliberately not promoted; her stasis had nothing to do with a lack of skill–in other words, validation from others plays a strong role in her own sense of self, which is natural but dangerous). I also never liked Gadi, Shira’s childhood love, which made it tougher for me to in turn like Shira.

 

My only other issue was with the pacing at the end, where for a moment it seems Shira is about to make a disastrous mistake before she quickly comes to her senses. I suppose this is meant as a contrast to the Maharal’s way of dealing with Joseph, and a final show of growth for Shira. However, it comes and goes so fast, it felt melodramatic or heavy-handed.

 

If you like SF at all, or are eager for interesting female characters, or, like me, are maybe developing a deep fascination with A.I., this is a different and engrossing novel.

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He, She, It, and I