On to the Asteroid (Space Excursions II) – Travis S. Taylor & Les Johnson

A billionaire industrialist launches an automated mission to an asteroid, aiming to redirect it into a Lunar orbit for future extraction of minerals. The propulsion system malfunctions before completing the redirection maneuver, and now the asteroid is heading for impact with Earth. A desperate repair mission is launched.

The story is excellent. High stakes, interesting technical solutions, lots of hardcore space action, and a high pace. Unfortunately, and just like the previous book, it is let down by atrocious dialogue and cardboard cutout characters. The dialogue is especially cringeworthy. I did enjoy it because despite these negatives, it is a great yarn, but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re a real space buff.

Flying Upside Down – Duke Nukem

An extremely irreverent book about flying as a contract pilot in Mainland China. Everything from living conditions, to pay, to punitive schemes for minor infractions, to hair-raising transcripts of conversations with air traffic control, management, and first officers. The structure is loose, mainly made up of anecdotes and redacted emails from company officials.

The book is self-published and free to distribute. It is also full of grammatical and orthographic errors, with a structure that barely deserves the moniker. The tone is joking, sarcastic and exasperated, often to excess. The formatting goes from passable to awful. The content, though, is fascinating and horrifying in equal measure. The non-pilot would probably not find it very interesting, as it is full of jargon and addresses the unique aspects challenges of the profession.

The Three-Body Problem (Remembrance of Earth’s Past I) – Cixin Liu

The Three-Body Problem takes place in the People’s Republic of China, mainly in the present day. However, the story is rooted in events that took place during the Cultural Revolution.  In that troubled time, a young physics student named Ye sees her father, a professor of physics, killed by revolutionaries as a result of a struggle session. She is then sent to the country to work as a logger, before eventually ending up at a mysterious radio facility known as “Red Coast”.

In the present, a Nanotechnology expert called Wang is drawn into a web of intrigue surrounding a mysterious group called Frontiers of Science, made up of scientists with an initially unclear goal. He also starts playing a virtual reality game called “Three-Body Problem”, which deals with a planet where the sun has an irregular and unpredictable cycle, leading to great difficulties for the civilizations that rise and fall on it, as they have to deal with eras of extreme heat and extreme cold with no forewarning.

The story is somewhat interesting as long as the mystery is unveiling, but once things are laid out it is rather predictable. Having the protagonist, Wang, fumbling in the dark makes for a decent mystery, but once the much higher real stakes are revealed, his methodical discovery feels tedious.

The prose is filled with long infodumps. Every now and then some backstory must perforce be presented, but even the more interesting infodumps are intrusive on the pacing, and slow things down overmuch.

There is a tendency for Mr. Liu to take a somewhat condescending tone, presenting fictional constructs as facts with explanatory statements including words like “obviously”. If such “facts” came from a character, things would feel different, but this way it makes for a heavy-handed omniscient narration, which doesn’t fit well with Wang’s cluelessness. Eventually finding out that Ye has been “in the know” from the beginning does not make things better. (Granted, some of this feeling may be due to the clearly different literary style found in Chinese tradition.)

Rather disappointingly, I felt as if the novel took an inventive and very clever premise and then squandered it on a rather boring plot with an unspectacular outcome.

Note: I read the excellent English translation from Mandarin Chinese.

 

Gweilo: A memoir of a Hong Kong Childhood – Martin Booth

GweiloMartin Booth moved to Hong Kong with his parents in 1952, at the age of seven. This is an autobiographical account of the first three years he spent in the then British colony. Mr. Booth was obviously a curious and unafraid boy, roaming widely about the streets and hills of Kowloon and Hong Kong while connecting firmly with the local culture and people.

Having lived in Hong Kong for several years now, this book held particular interest for me. Mr. Booth lets us see Hong Kong through his eyes, without adult judgment or bias. I got the impression that he retells his experiences as Booth the boy saw them, not as Booth the man interpreted them later. This infuses the chronicle with a refreshing naivete. Mr. Booth’s stick-in-the-mud bully of a father contrasted with the adventurous and ever curious mother, make for an colorful domestic backdrop to his adventures. While it is easy to think that a young boy did not actually experience all the things described, and that age has romanticized in the author’s mind events which happened long ago, the authenticity of people’s reactions and places described makes me want to believe that Mr. Booth really did all these things. No doubt he was a more adventurous boy than most.

The love that Mr. Booth felt for Hong Kong shines through the pages. His eagerness to seek out new and foreign experiences should be encouraged in all people, not just expats. It was how he became really aware of his surroundings in a way that many expats are not.

NOTE: This book is entitled “Golden Boy: Memories of a Hong Kong Childhood” in the USA edition.

4½Rosbochs

Reamde – Neal Stephenson

A former drug smuggler turned Internet gaming magnate. His adoptive niece. A Russian gangster and his bodyguard. A Chinese computer virus writer. A Hungarian hacker. A British spy. An Islamist terrorist. A tea-selling girl from the Chinese hinterlands. These are some of the characters that inhabit Stephenson’s wide-spanning action thriller Reamde. It is almost impossible to briefly summarize the action, but suffice it to say it involves an attempt to extort money from players of a massively multiplayer role-playing game, a band of international terrorists, and a sprawling extended family from Iowa.

This is a big novel, weighing in at over a thousand pages. Due to Stephenson’s detailed and entertainingly understated descriptions, there are two action scenes which easily take up two hundred plus pages each. The action sprawls from the Pacific Northwest to the Chinese port city of Xiamen as several parties initially chase a conspiracy to extort money, then stumble upon something much more serious. The last quarter of the book is one long and convoluted chase scene, a killer payoff if there ever was one.

The many characters are complex, with rich back stories and believable quirks. The personal journey of the girl Zula, unwilling victim of not one, but two sets of abductors, is a fine base for the many branches of the story. She is a complex and strong character with two very different heritages, the first as a refugee from Eritrea, and the second as the adoptive daughter of a rural Iowan family. Her uncle Richard, the (former) black sheep of said family,  is equally interesting, and an archetypal corporate maverick.

While the main story is well paced and fascinating, Stephenson’s genius lies in his description of detail. Like a good comedian, he seeks out the hilarity in what on the face of it are ordinary situations. For example the disorientation felt by Americans in the sprawling Chinese city of Xiamen is brilliantly described, as are the similar sections where foreigners from other countries end up in the backwaters of Washington State and Idaho. Tangents and datadumps are often long, but Stephenson’s ironic and understated style make them both interesting and entertaining. Some parts of the book take place party in the virtual world of T’Rain, a massively multiplayer online game. These sections could easily have been cheesy and impenetrable to those not familiar with such games, but are written in an easy to understand fashion without reveling in geekiness. As such, they are easily accessible even to the game illiterate.

The Bear and the Dragon – Tom Clancy

A return to form for Clancy after the lackluster Rainbow Six, this novel nevertheless struck me as pretty formulaic. It was very cool, though, to see military cooperation between Russia and the United States. I enjoyed this one a lot. Watch for Pavel Petrovich Gogol, a very cool guy.

Back to the Moon (Space Excursions I) – Travis S. Taylor & Les Johnson

The story is set in the 2020s. NASA is finally returning to the Moon using the (now canceled) Orion/Altair hardware. Meanwhile, a private company is sending tourists around the Moon and the Chinese are up to something. The first mission back to the Moon turns in to a daring rescue.

I’m a big space program buff so I’m a sucker for this kind of book. The story itself is a decent adventure/thriller. The engineering is well described, as would be expected since Dr. Taylor works with NASA Huntsville and Les Johnson is a NASA physicist. Unfortunately the prose is quite stilted, especially during the first third. The characters are stereotypes, especially the Chinese. Unfortunately the Chinese are also the wrong stereotype. They feel like reruns of Cold War era Soviets with a dash of “Asian” thrown in. The story does pick up in the second half and there are some nice thrills for the space buff. If you aren’t interested in the space program particularly you should give this a pass. It isn’t a bad book per se but could have used an author with a smoother prose style.