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.

 

Earthbound (Marsbound III) – Joe Haldeman

Marsbound3EarthboundAfter the massive cliffhanger at the end of Starbound, our heroes are stuck on Earth. The Others have stopped all electrics and electronics from functioning. Civilization is collapsing and things are generally looking grim.

Compared to the previous two volumes, the concluding book is nowhere near as good. The premise is clever and intriguing, but it devolves quickly into a story about how to survive the end of civilization. The epic storyline dealing with the Others and what place humanity will have in relation to them, which has been the main thrust of the plot in the first two books, is almost completely ignored. Spy makes a couple of appearances, but what they mean is never explained. Much of the story seems rather random. The monumental deux ex machina at the end is simply adding insult to injury. If you’ve read the first two books, by all means read on to find out what happens with Carmen in the end, but also be thankful the book is short.

2½Rosbochs

 

Starbound (Marsbound II) – Joe Haldeman

Marsbound2StarboundIn the sequel to Marsbound, Carmen and Paul, along with a few other human and Martian crew members, are tasked with an interstellar exploratory mission to the presumed home planet of the Others. Despite the “free energy” discovered in the previous book, the trip will take years, skimming the speed of light. But do the Others appreciate the intrusion? And what do they really want?

Most of the book is about the trip itself, and the psychological challenges of living for years in a confined space while hurtling towards what the crew thinks is probably doom. The last part sees humanity confronted once again with the judgment of the mysterious Others. These aliens seem to see humanity as somewhere between clumsy child and dangerous but manageable pest. The fact that humanity is hopelessly outclassed, and can only use its action to prove intent, gives an interesting perspective, as does the fact that the human emissaries feel that those who sent them out really don’t understand the problem. The ending is a massive cliffhanger, leading directly to the third and final book.

Haldeman does not disappoint, with his trademark unexpected but internally consistent logical plot twists. His characters, this time described from three different first person viewpoints, are flawed and realistic, down to little marital niggles that most would rather keep hidden even from themselves.

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

A Darkling Sea – James L. Cambias

ADarklingSeaUnder the thick ice crust of the moon Ilmatar, there is a world-spanning cold ocean filled with strange alien creatures, some of them intelligent with primitive technology. A human expeditionary base studies this dark and submerged world under strict non-contact rules. Inevitably, one of the academics tries to get a bit too close. At the same time, a ship from the advanced Sholen race arrives at Ilmatar. The Sholen with to contain human contamination of pristine worlds, and due to internal Sholen politics they attempt to force the humans to leave.

The sub-ice ocean of Ilmatar is richly described through the diverse viewpoints of Ilmatarans, humans and Sholen. Mr. Cambias has managed to make the aliens quite alien in their thinking, especially the Ilmatarans with their immediate sense of experience, tricky relationship with memory and sudden narcolepsy. An adventure novel at heart, this book manages to ride above mere action into more intellectual territory by exploring the relationships between three races with different motivations in an unusual environment. It is also a good first contact novel. I was strongly reminded of the film The Abyss, with its mix of dark underwater milieus and dank submerged base.

4Rosbochs

Marsbound (Marsbound I) – Joe Haldeman

Marsbound1MarsboundCarmen Dula is nineteen years old when she moves to the Mars base with her family on a five-year assignment. She is an intelligent, level-headed (remote) college student who falls in love with the pilot. The journey and stay present challenges large and small, both regarding survival itself and getting along with the other residents. Then one day she wants to spend some time alone and unwisely takes a walk outside without a buddy. She falls into a hole and is rescued by a Martian.

Wait, what? I did not see that twist coming. I thought this was going to be about colonizing Mars. I suppose I should have read the blurb which blatantly alludes to it. As so often happens with Haldeman, the familial way in which his first-person protagonist speaks to the reader lulls us into a sense of false security about where the story is going to go. What starts out small and almost ordinary balloons out or proportion in unexpected directions as suddenly this everyman (or in this case everywoman) has to make decisions that affect the entire human race.

4Rosbochs

Spindrift – Allen Steele

Spindrift is a spinoff of the Coyote series, dealing with first contact. The ending, where the survivors of the Galileo expedition arrive in Coyote, is already predetermined, if you will, by the epilogue of Coyote Frontier and the prologue of Spindrift itself. To arrive at this conclusion, Steele sends the Galileo and its crew on a voyage to a rogue asteroid hurtling far outside the solar system. This asteroid, dubbed Spindrift, has responded to signals from a SETI search program.

The novel is quite short, and not very much happens. What is worse, it is all very predictable. The characters are taken straight from Central Casting and the spaceship scenes are unsurprising. Even the enigmatic alien artifact is filled with stock puzzles. Setting it within the Coyote backstory is a pretty neat trick if you’ve read the other books. As a standalone, however, the novel is inadequate, far too predictable and sadly formulaic. The only redeeming quality is the way Steele manages to make the reader care for the characters. I genuinely wanted to know what would happen next, and thus reading the book was not a complete loss.

Calculating God – Robert J. Sawyer

An alien lands outside the Royal Ontario Museum in Ontario and asks to see a paleontologist. This is the first alien contact. The alien says that on his world, and on the world of another alien race, the fossil record shows that five mass extinctions have occurred at the same time as they did on earth. The alien races see this as evidence that God exists, and is tampering with the development of intelligent beings. The human paleontologist, Tom Jericho, is skeptical at first, but the evidence is compelling.

I was prepared to hate this book because the premise seemed stupid at first, but Sawyer deftly weaves together known elements of paleontology, genetics, cosmology and other disciplines. There are a couple of small factual errors, such as the fact that Hubble could not immediately be trained on a supernova. And even if it was the optics would be burned out. But I’ll attribute those to dramatic license.

The message of the novel, if you will, is that if there is a supreme being, then he/she/it is not mystical, but encompassed by the scope of science. The interaction between the dying Jericho, as he struggles with his incumbent mortality, and the alien Hollus, is very well written. Sawyer shows their friendship during the events of the novel in a very poignant way. The climax of the novel is unexpected and massive, as the scope of the novel changes dramatically.

 

2001 Series – Arthur C. Clarke

This series started as a one-off book released in conjunction with the Stanley Kubrick movie of the same name. The series consists of:

  • 2001: A Space Odyssey
  • 2010: Odyssey Two. (Also made into a film)
  • 2061 Odyssey Three
  • 3001: The Final Odyssey

The first and second books are enthralling. 2061 is more of the same, and thus decent but somewhat pointless as part of the arc. 3001 is an attempt at closing up all the loose threads, and does so in a satisfying way.

For a long time, these books frustrated me because I just didn’t get them. On the surface, they are hard SciFi, but there is quite a bit of existential pondering about the nature of life. When I finally just relaxed and accepted the fact that there are mystical things going on, I realized that this is the whole point. The reader is supposed to be in awe, and there are some things that mankind is not meant to know (yet). Just remember to accept the mystery and embrace the sense of wonder.

 

A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky – Vernor Vinge

Vernor Vinge thinks big, strange and different.

A Fire Upon the Deep. Hi-tech meets lo-tech in a story with some rather interesting takes on physics and sentience. Don’t be surprised it you don’t understand anything for a hundred pages or so. It gets easier. A fantastic view of the universe, and amazing aliens. A great journey.

A Deepness in the Sky. Chronologically a prequel to A Fire Upon the Deep but apart from being in the same universe and having one character who appears in both they are completely unrelated. Interstellar travel is slow, and sometimes plans take decades to come to fruition. A mission to a mysterious star finds fascinating aliens who live on a planet with some pretty extreme climate. The mission itself is subverted by tyrants. The novel follows both the aliens and the humans as they both struggle towards the climactic conclusion: Contact!

The Exiles Saga, Intervention and The Galactic Milieu Trilogy – Julian May

The scope of this saga spanning eight novels is staggering. A gate is opened to the past, specifically the Pliocene era. But it is a one-way trip. Adventurous souls travel back, and find a world unlike any they could imagine. Epic conflict rages between ancient races, and the future destiny of man is decided. The initial four books make up The Saga of Pliocene Exile.

  • The Many-Coloured Land
  • The Golden Torc
  • The Nonborn King
  • The Adversary

These can be read as a standalone series, but who would want to stop there?

The “bridge” book deals with first contact and the emergence of humans with “supernatural” powers such as telekinesis.

  • Intervention. In the US edition this was divided into “Intervention: Surveillance” and “Intervention: Metaconcert”.

The Galactic Milieu Trilogy deals with events after humanity has entered the galactic community.

  • Jack the Bodiless
  • Diamond Mask
  • Magnificat

What surprised me as I finally finished the whole thing was how May had meticulously planned the entire arc from the very beginning, with elements important to the last novels referenced in the first. This lends the whole series a sense of completion rare in such works. Considering the fact that it took over 12 years to write, the achievement is even more impressive.

The characters are amazing, with rich depths and particular quirks that blend in well with the evolving destiny of humankind. The settings, especially in Exiles are fabulous.

Unfortunately, the US covers are beyond awful, but don’t be put off by that. Also unfortunately, the books are out of print, but can be easily found second hand.

The Mote in God’s Eye – Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle

Arguably the best story about first contact ever written. A ship comes careening into a human system. The pilot is dead, and strange, and it has apparently traveled for years at sublight speeds to get there. Even more strange is the fact that the ship hardly seems enough to sustain it. Two ships are dispatched to a star system hidden inside a nebula to contact the aliens. The society of “Moties” they find is very strange, and very fascinating, almost as fascinating as the creatures themselves. What they fail to realize is that the truth behind Motie society is deeply disturbing and will be a danger to all humanity.

It has aged very slightly due to the its being written in the seventies, but this hardly detracts from the magnificence of this novel. Manages to capture the essence of encountering the truly alien, and how humans have a hard time not placing their own values and prejudices on that which they do not understand.

Contact with Chaos – Michael Z. Williamson

Set in the “Freehold” universe, this novel is about first contact with a planetbound race that has almost no metals. They turn out to be quite advanced in ceramics, steam and other sciences, all developed without metals. Humanity, in the form of a joint Freehold/UN mission, makes efforts not to expose the race to metals. This inevitably causes tension.

While not as action packed as other Williamson novels, I found this highly enjoyable. The plot is both smart, entertaining and clever. The characters are perhaps somewhat unoriginal, but do the job adequately. I did have a hard time keeping track of some of the secondary characters. A dramatis personae would have been great. Williamson is at his best when describing the effects of weapons and other technology. Many other authors would have turned this book into a boring scholarly piece, but Williamson manages to keep the technology discussions both entertaining and fascinating. The story has many interesting twists to keep it going.