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.

 

Milk Run (Smuggler’s Tales From The Golden Age Of The Solar Clipper I) – Nathan Lowell

On her graduation day at the merchant marine academy in Port Newmar, Natalya Regyri is framed for murder. Along with her friend Zoya, she escapes to “Toehold Space”, a clandestine network of stations not regulated by the central authorities.

This book starts a new series in the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper universe. As in the other books, there is no dramatic action. In his afterword, Mr. Lowell takes almost condescending pride in pointing out that he tells stories of ordinary working men and women. This installment starts off well, but the second half is bogged down in overlong, tedious discussions on inventory management. On the bright side, the dialogue is snappily written, and keeps things going even when during the umpteenth crew meeting to dissect the fine points of shipboard logistics software.

In Ashes Born (Seeker’s Tales From The Golden Age of The Solar Clipper I) – Nathan Lowell

SeekersTales1InAshesBornWhile billed as the start of a new series, this book is a direct sequel to the Trader’s Tales From the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper series. The break has its logic in the new direction for the life of our protagonis. At the end of the previous book, Ishmael Wang had achieved his goal of becoming a captain. He is a independently wealthy and does not need to work ever again. This leaves him feeling at loose ends, so he returns to the academy for some soul searching and perhaps the discovery of a new purpose. His very old friend Pip shows up to drag him along in a new venture, and maybe find some closure regarding the events in Owner’s Share.

For fans of the series, this book will feel familiar. Ishmael and Pip may be older and wiser but they remain an entertaining pair. Mr. Lowell has developed a high skill in writing dialogue. The events in this book, as in previous ones, are far from epic, but they are as ever quietly entertaining. And while certainly one could criticize the author for creating a future where culture everywhere is a ludicrously homogeneous American idyll, or for ignoring quite a few logical fallacies in the economic model of society, that would just take away from the fun.

4Rosbochs

The Left Hand of Darkness (Hainish Cycle IV) – Ursula K. LeGuin

TheLeftHandofDarknessThe Left Hand of Darkness is part of the Hainish Cycle, but very much as a standalone novel. Humanity is scattered among dozens of worlds. The planet Gethen, also known as Winter, was colonized by humanity many thousands of years previously. Contact was then lost and has only recently been re-established, with the Ekumen, a sort of federation of worlds, sending an envoy to bring the world into the fold. It is through the eyes of this envoy that most of the story is told. The humans on Gethen show curious sexual characteristics, spending most of their time as androgynous non-sexual beings, then entering a period of estrus once a month, at which point they become either dominantly male or female. This changes gender politics entirely, in fact eliminating them completely. On Gethen, people are judged on ability, with gender not entering into the equation.

While the premise is interesting, the novel has two problems. First and foremost, it may have been rather progressive when it was published in 1969, but nowadays the exploration of the human sexuality issue that is at the core of the novel is both dated and non-subversive. The world has moved on and the novel has aged badly because of it. Secondly, it is rather dull. I never felt that I cared either way for the envoy or his mission, or if the two depicted nations on Gethen would go to war. The characters are dull and the world is dull. The stakes are nominally high, but the setting is washed out and feels dead to the reader. I gave up about a third of the way in.

1½Rosbochs

Owner’s Share (Trader’s Tales from the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper VI) – Nathan Lowell

SolarClipperTales6OwnersShareIn the sixth and final book of the series, Ishmael Wang finds himself, through a series of somewhat contrived circumstances, owner of his own small passenger and cargo ship. He must now turn a profit for himself. An added wrinkle is that one of the crewmen is the heir to the shipping line where he used to work. She has been forced by a codicil in her father’s will to work as a crewmember for a year in order to inherit the company. This adds some unexpected complications.

While most of the book follows the same adventures in normality model as the previous ones, there is a healthy dose  of intrigue, and even some violence, in this last book. Ishmael’s final fate is bittersweet. While part of me wants to applaud Mr. Lowell for not giving our hero a stereotypical feelgood happy ending, part of me wishes he had.

3½Rosbochs

 

A Light in the Dark (Tales from the Deep Dark I) – Nathan Lowell

ALightintheDarkThis novella is set several decades before Ishmael’s adventures in Trader’s Tales from the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper. Captain Gunderson and his crew run into a small rock way out in the Deep Dark, leaving the jump engine disabled. They are off the shipping lanes and slowly running out of consumables.

This was enjoyable for the character interactions but nothing groundbreaking. A pleasant diversion.

3Rosbochs

Captain’s Share (Trader’s Tales from the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper V) – Nathan Lowell

GoldenAgeoftheSolarClipper5CaptainsShareAfter a decade on the William Tinkerwhere he has progressed from third mate to first mate, Ishmael finally sits for Captain and shortly thereafter receives command of the Agamemnon, a small cargo ship with only eight crew. The Aganemnon  has a bad reputation. It is crewed by troublemakers and misfits, and profits have been abysmal.

Unlike Double Share, this book goes back to the adventures in normality model. The problems with the crew are swiftly and painlessly resolved through the application of some good old fashioned leadership. It is still an enjoyable read because the characters are richly realized, and the pithy dialogue is excellent.

On a side note, it seems rather unrealistic to be shipping things like gases and clay from planetary system to planetary system, unless shipping is ridiculously cheap of course. Having said that, the books aren’t really about the items that are being traded, but rather about shipboard life, so I’m willing to forgive Lowell on this point.

3Rosbochs

Double Share (Trader’s Tales from the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper IV) – Nathan Lowell

TradersTalesfromtheGoldenAgeoftheSolarClipper4DoubleShareAfter graduating from the merchant marine officer’s academy, Ishmael Wang starts work as a “boot” Third Mate on the cargo ship William Tinker. He soon discovers that the ship has serious problems, with crew morale dangerously low. The Captain is a recluse who almost never comes out of his cabin, the First Mate is a sociopathic sexual predator and the crew is subject to daily humiliation and assault.

While the first three books of the series are mildly enjoyable, this one ups the ante considerably. Mr. Lowell knows how to write pithy dialogue and describe character dynamics. What was missing was serious conflict in the plot. Nothing momentous really happened in the first three books. Certainly this was by design, as Mr. Lowell did not want his character to be some kind of “chosen one” and have a glorious foretold destiny. However this made for pretty dull stories only held aloft by the interest the reader had in the protagonist. While there are no exploding stars in this book, the gravely dysfunctional crew of the William Tinker makes for interesting reading, especially when Ishmael inevitably starts rebelling against the status quo.

4Rosbochs

 

Full Share (Trader’s Tales from the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper III) – Nathan Lowell

TheGoldenAgeoftheSolarClipper3FullShareAfter an accident involving a coronal mass ejection cripples the ship and threatens the lives of the entire crew, Ishmael is set to work investigating why the safety systems failed. He is now fully rated, meaning a higher share of profits, but the officers pressure him into thinking about the officer’s academy.

After the somewhat disappointing Half Share, Full Share finally puts Ishmael and the rest of the crew of the Lois McKendrick in some real danger. Adventures in normality among generally nice people can only go so far and real tension and conflict is required to make things interesting. The end of the book, while again unrealistically portraying Ishmael as catnip for women, at least does so in a fun way that will appeal to the reader. Shameless is the word, but it works.

3Rosbochs

Half Share (Trader’s Tales of the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper II) – Nathan Lowell

GoldenAgeoftheSolarClipper2HalfShare

The second book in the series picks up exactly where Quarter Share left off. Ishmael transfers from the galley to environmental. He also starts to come to terms with women and relationships with such.

As in the first book, there is no imminent danger and there are no action scenes. Mr. Lowell has a knack for making ordinary pursuits interesting, but his dialogue flirts with cheesiness rather too often. The second half of the book is a departure. In no time flat, Ishmael goes from normal uncertain eighteen-year old to hunk with perfect pick-up lines. The transformation is too fast and well over the top. To compound the problem, our teenage hero is seemingly the perfect man. He has no flaws and everyone likes him, especially women. Having said that, the characters, cheesy and somewhat unrealistic as they often are, certainly come alive on the page. I did feel a strong bond with the denizens of the SC Lois McKendrick, and I do want to find out what happens to them next.

2½Rosbochs

Quarter Share (Trader’s Tales from the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper I) – Nathan Lowell

GoldenAgeoftheSolarClipperIQuarterShareTeenager Ishmael Wang’s mother dies suddenly and as a result he has ninety days before he is booted off the company-owned planet where he lives. One of the few options he has is to join the merchant navy.

This book purposefully eschews space opera staples like aliens, ship-to-ship battles and other disasters for a less spectacular story of hard work and dedication leading to success. While it could have been boring, I found myself rather enjoying young Ishmael’s adventures in normality. The trading between stars brought back fond memories to the hours I spent playing Elite and Frontier: Elite II way back when. Certainly this is not a gripping space adventure, but it is a fun diversion despite the oftentimes wooden dialogue.

3Rosbochs

Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch I) – Ann Leckie

ImperialRadch1AncillaryJusticeThe story is in two parts, divided temporally. In an earlier time, a living ship and her “ancillaries”, human bodies taken over by the ship’s intellect, serve the Radch, a ruthless empire ruled by an even more ruthless leader. In a later time, what is left of the ship’s intellect, inhabiting a human body, is on a quest to find a mythical weapon in order to exact revenge.

The premise is very intriguing, and the world-building top notch. It is a fascinating society where familial connections are everything and strict obedience mandatory, with dissent punished by death immediately. Outside the Radch, things are looser, and people see the Radch as rather strange, if very powerful.

While the writing is fine, the characterization excellent, and the story intriguing, this book has a serious flaw that prevented me from getting more than a third of the way in. It seems completely devoid of humor. The characters having no sense of humor may be understandable, but unfortunately the writing lacks any twinkle or spark. This makes the whole affair very dull. I can see the skill in the writing but after a while this became a slog which I didn’t feel like continuing.

2Rosbochs

Juggler of Worlds – Larry Niven & Edward M. Lerner

In this standalone sequel to Fleet of Worlds, ARM agent and professional paranoiac Sigmund Ausfaller is obsessed with the enigmatic Puppeteer race. The book follows his career from recruitment to ultimate savior. It is a long and complex tale that touches on many points and characters covered in Niven‘s Known Space stories from decades past.

Fleet of Worlds is a pretty decent book. More importantly, it really took me back to the Niven’s classic Known Space novels and short stories. Juggler of Worlds unfortunately does not live up to its prequel. The plot is razor thin. The objective seems mostly to fill in the gaps between various Beowulf Schaeffer stories. Cute for the Niven fan, but it falls wells short of what I expected.

Love the cover though.

Fleet of Worlds – Larry Niven & Edward M. Lerner

A new novel in the Known Space universe, “Fleet of Worlds” fills in some gaps in the story of the Puppeteers and the migration of their worlds (the “Fleet of Worlds”). It tells the previously unknown story of a society of humans living with the Puppeteers without knowledge of their heritage. The Puppeteers have some deep, dark secrets revealed. There are some excellent descriptions of Puppeteer society. We are also introduced to a younger Nessus, the Puppeteer featured in Ringworld.

It is a good story, and long awaited for any fan of Known Space. Unlike the third and fourth Ringworld novels, it really manages to capture the tone of the main Known Space novels. I hadn’t realized how much I missed the environment. Note, though, that you you will have a hard time following without at least having read Crashlander or Neutron Star (Crashlander reprints all the stories from Neutron Star).

The Call of the Wild – Jack London

I don’t think that I can add much about this classic beyond what has already been said by other reviewers. Although it is, perhaps, more intended for a teenage audience, I found it very engaging. Quite simply a great yarn about a boy and his dog.

Bolos – Created by Keith Laumer

Bolos are huge self-aware robotic battle tanks/mobile fortresses. Throughout a very long history of wars and conflicts, they have served humanity selflessly.

After Laumer’s death, Baen thought to resurrect the Bolos with a series of anthologies featureing a variety of authors. There is some excellent, some good, and some less good, but the overall quality is surprisingly high. It is military SciFi in a very pure form, and many will probably be put off by this. I have read the first four books:

  • Bolos Book 1 – Honor of the Regiment
  • Bolos Book 2 – The Unconquerable
  • Bolos Book 3 – The Triumphant
  • Bolos Book 4 – Last Stand

The Rama Series – Arthur C. Clarke & Gentry Lee

A mysterious giant cylinder is found in space, falling inwards on a trajectory which will take it through the solar system. It is dubbed “Rama”. An expedition is sent to probe it’s contents.

Along with 2001, Rendezvous with Rama is the defining work of Arthur C. Clarke. The book is full of his trademark sense of wonder, and Clarke manages to convey awe at alien things like few others can. The first book is a solo effort. Clarke then teamed up with Gentry Lee to write a sequel trilogy. The whole series consists of:

  • Rendezvous with Rama
  • Rama II
  • The Garden of Rama
  • Rama Revealed

The follow-up trilogy explores and expands on the Rama concept, and puts forward some very interesting ideas on life in the universe, and how ready we as humans really are to inherit the stars (or Eden). It is an epic tale of destiny, focused around the character of Nicole, a hero if there ever was one. Not an action hero, however. Simply an inspiring figure around which the story swirls and flows. Wonderful stuff, and quite awe-inspiring.

Luftslottet som sprängdes (The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest) – Stieg Larsson

The final novel in the Millennium trilogy concludes the story begun in Flickan som lekte med Elden (The Girl who Played with Fire) and ties up the Salander arc started in Män som hatar kvinnor (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). The novel picks up right after the dramatic events surrounding the encounter between Zalachenko and Lisbeth Salander. Salander is arrested and spends most of the time in isolation, first in hospital and then in prison. At the same time Blomkvist and his cohorts work to set things straight, proving how the state has committed crimes against her and in the process unraveling a conspiracy deep within the Swedish secret police.

Despite the fact that much of the book consists of spy-novel maneuvering and exposition of past events, it is a total page turner, especially the second half. The suspense as good guys and bad guys try to outmaneuver each other is gripping and masterfully written. The character development of Salander is interesting, particularly her slow realization (helped along by her attorney and others) that if she wants the people around her and the state to consider her a competent adult she has obligations towards these people and the state. The state especially has repeatedly betrayed Salander, and she is thus understandably suspicious of the concept.

Due to the death of Stieg Larsson and the legal disputes surrounding his estate, we may never see the nearly finished fourth novel or six additional novels which he allegedly planned. A shame, perhaps, but the three published works are still rather neatly tied up. And in this way Larsson’s legacy will not be diluted. He will forever be remembered as a novelist at the top of his game, with no slow decline to mar the image.

For the record, I read it in the original Swedish.

Flickan som lekte med elden (The Girl Who Played with Fire) – Stieg Larsson

I read this novel in the original Swedish.

The sequel to Män som hatar kvinnor (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) has a slow start. At the newspaper Millenium, new collaborator Dag Svensson is preparing a big exposé on trafficking. A number of policemen, judges and other prominent individuals will be named as having had liaisons with underaged sex slaves. Out of the blue, Dag and his domestic partner are brutally murdered. Lisbeth Salander’s legal guardian (she is declared incompetent) and torturer from the first book is also murdered with the same gun. Lisbeth Salander has just returned to Sweden and, through a series of unfortunate coincidences, finds herself wanted for the murders. The story then follows the police investigation as well as the actions of Lisbeth and journalist Michael Blomkvist. There is a lot of deep diving into Lisbeth’s mysterious background.

While Män som hatar kvinnor (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) was a relatively self-contained story, this one is much more wide ranging. The ending does not neatly tie up all loose ends, but distinctly leads into the next novel. The excuisitely crafted character of Lisbeth Salander is further explored, and while Blomkvist was the focus in the first novel, she is very clearly the center of this one. One of the more prominent themes is how society dismisses and discriminates against people with alternative lifestyles. Several of the policemen are extremely resistant to taking Lisbeth (allegedly a bisexual) and Miriam Wu (an ostentatiously lesbian artist) seriously, especially since they are into fem-rock of the darker variety with alleged satanist influences. The mainstream press is no better than the police, feeding the masses with shock headlines instead of reporting the facts. An interesting indictment of the mainstream which rings very true.

I enjoyed this novel almost as much as the first one. The second half is a real page turner. However the story feels a bit more contrived and there is a lack of focus in the first half. A lot of setup, if you will. Still, even if it didn’t satisfy as much as the first one it is very good stuff.

Män som hatar kvinnor (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) – Stieg Larsson

Since I am Swedish, it seems somewhat odd that I seem to be the last person to have read Stieg Larsson’s wildly successful Millennium trilogy. I have finally gotten around to it, starting of course with the first novel. For the record, I read it in the original Swedish.

The novel has two protagonists, middle-aged muckraker journalist Mikael Blomkvist and twenty-five year old sociopathic hacker genius Lisbeth Salander. Blomkvist is hired to dig into a forty-year old murder mystery by an old industrialist. Salander is a researcher, expert at finding the dirt on people, who becomes involved in the investigation. What they finally find is shocking beyond their wildest expectations.

I am often irrationally suspicious when an author becomes universally acclaimed by both critics and public, and this is perhaps why it took me so long to get around to reading The Girl with the Dragon  Tattoo. But I also do not mind being proven wrong. This novel is certainly one of the finest I have read in a long time. The characters are deep, interesting and “different”. They do not fit any preconceived molds but are very real and believable. Salander especially is a very peculiar character to say the least, but Larsson adeptly makes her plausible and even sympathetic. This even though she certainly is not a sympathetic person by any normal definition. She is almost the comic relief versus Blomkvist’s straight man in a twisted sort of way. The story is excellent, but the book is at heart a character study of the two protagonists. And that is the key to its genius.

The pacing is not perfect, faltering a bit in the slow middle part, but overall it is very good. The story itself is complex without being hard to follow, supporting the plot perfectly. The device of the age old mystery of Harriet’s disappearance set against the backdrop of the intricacies of Vanger family politics is simply superb. And even when you think it is all over, over a tenth of the book is left, with a very extended epilogue that is still satisfying, possessing the same page-turning quality as the rest of the book. The language is elegant without being pompous, with clever turns of phrase in support of the story but never for their own sake.

One thing I do wonder about, and which is not really a reflection on the book’s merit, is how a person without any Swedish background experiences the novel. Many behaviors, locations and situations are so very Swedish that they would seem hard to translate. I guess I will never know.

V for Vendetta – Alan Moore & David Lloyd

A dystopian graphic novel about a post nuclear war fascist England by the same writer as the incredible Watchmen. The art is very different from that work, however. To go with the setting, it is unusual for a comic strip. No thought bubbles, no sound effects, just a washed out gray style that is purposefully unnerving.

The main character, V, is a larger than life anti-hero who fights back against the fascist regime in traditional terrorist fashion, or so it seems. But this terrorist understands the people, and really serves as a catalyst for the change brewing under the surface anyway. A great story on many levels.

Beyond the cool factor of this graphic novel is the hard-hitting social commentary, the deep understanding of human nature, and the interesting conclusion. It is a scary thing how true the setting rings.

V for Vendetta was adapted into a movie with Natalie Portman, which I found very much captured the themes of the novel. While using film imagery to great effect, it didn’t hollywoodize the story into a washed down puddle of great visuals without substance, but dared to be stark and shocking like the novel.