Book Review: The Three-body Problem by Cixin Liu

Three-Body-CoverThe Three-Body Problem was first published in Chinese several years ago, and this is the first time it’s been available in English. Translated by Ken Liu (author of The Grace of Kings), it’s highly readable and I honestly hope that this is only the beginning of a huge influx of Chinese SF if this is the sort of wonderful stuff we are missing. Lack of translated works is a problem in general, but it’s especially notable with genre fiction, which is too bad, because literally every culture has its own traditions of speculative fiction and, goodness knows, we could use as many perspectives as we can get.

This book begins during the Cultural Revolution, of which I was sadly ignorant before I read this book. White middle class Mid-Western girls weren’t taught much Asian history to speak of back in the 1990s. Fortunately, there is enough explanation in the book, between the text itself and some very useful footnotes, to help historically illiterate Americans muddle through, although I would suggest reading at least a few Wikipedia articles if you’re as clueless as I was about this part of history. I actually expected to spend a lot more time Googling historical and cultural references than I did, and I probably would have spent a lot less time on it if I didn’t have a tendency to get sucked into Wikipedia for hours at a time. So if the intention of the author and translator was to make the book easily accessible to US readers, I think the footnotes, which were smartly chosen and concisely written, were well done and didn’t distract too much from the story.

The story itself takes some time to unfold, and it’s only towards the end of the book that I felt a real sense of urgency and momentum in the plot–only to find myself waiting for the next book in the trilogy. This would annoy me a lot more if the second book wasn’t coming out so soon (The Dark Forest – July 7, 2015), but as it is I’m just eaten up with anticipation for it.

The characters in The Three-Body Problem were interesting, and I loved Ye Wenjie in particular. Wang Miao was much less fascinating, but was a perfectly serviceable protagonist. The supporting characters were excellent, and I would go learn Chinese immediately if I learned there were any books about the adventures of Shi Qiang.

Something that is maybe not that big a deal in China but that I really appreciated was the overall gender parity. Women are present throughout the book and fill a variety of roles without being reduced to any recognizable stereotypes or boring sci-fi tropes. They felt real, and didn’t seem to be marginalized on account of their gender at all. My only quibble with the treatment of women in the book is that I would have liked to learn a little more about Wang Miao’s wife, who seemed to be completely forgotten about when she wasn’t literally in the room with Wang.

Most SF is as much, or more, about ideas than it is about just telling stories, and The Three-Body Problem is definitely heavy on ideas, but it never feels preachy. It examines a rather ugly part of Chinese history, it talks about environmentalism, and it considers the role of scientific thought in culture.

Ultimately, though, it’s a book about what would happen if we really did make contact with extraterrestrial life, but there’s no happy Star Trek vision of the future here. Humanity can be nasty, and there’s no guarantee that aliens would be any better than we are. I can’t wait to find out how humanity comes to terms with this knowledge in the rest of this series.

Rereading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: Chapters 39-42

Strange_RedThe second half of the book continues to pick up its pace, or at least it feels as if things are moving along faster now, even though I don’t think each chapter actually contains any more events than previous chapters. Definitely, though, it’s starting to feel like we’re getting close to some kind of climax.

A Most Uncomfortable Number

Jonathan Strange expects that Norrell will be infuriated by the review, but when the two magicians finally meet, Norrell is only, for once, honest. Norrell understands Strange, and in a way that perhaps no one else can, and he only ever meant, he says, to prevent Strange from making the same youthful mistakes that he made himself. Norrell apologizes and practically begs Jonathan Strange not to leave him, and it’s probably the most human he’s been in the book so far. Norrell’s pleas are not enough to convince Strange to continue their association, although Strange nearly gives in.

After Strange takes his leave, Lascelles questions Norrell about the magicians’ conversation. Norrell seems crushed by sadness with Strange gone, but Lascelles is quick to use this opportunity to try and poison Norrell against the younger magician:

“…two of anything is a most uncomfortable number. One may do as he pleases. Six may get along well enough. But two must always struggle for mastery.”

By the end of Lascelles’ speech, Norrell is persuaded of, well, something. Certainly, he is prepared to leave London with great haste, and within two hours of the breakup with Strange.

For his part, Jonathan Strange is also preparing to leave London. He and Arabella plan to return to their home in Shropshire, but first they must take their leave of their friends the Poles. As they are saying goodbye, Arabella says something that it seems likely she may later regret.

Jonathan Strange animates the mud at Waterloo to pull men from their horses.
Jonathan Strange animates the mud at Waterloo to pull men from their horses.

In Brussels

A quiet life in the country is not to be for Jonathan Strange, unfortunately. When Napoleon escapes his prison, Strange soon finds himself back on the continent, where Lord Wellington is administering a new war effort from Brussels. Once again, Jonathan Strange’s magic is instrumental in England’s success, although he commits acts using magic that he’s not proud of and sees an enormous amount of death. Chapter 40 ends after the Battle of Waterloo, with a dinner for dozens that only three men have survived to attend.

Segundus’s Fortunes

Meanwhile, back in England, John Segundus has finally been forced to look for employment, which he quickly finds tutoring young people in magical theory. Things seem to be looking up for him when he is approached by a wealthy widow who wants him to run an actual school for teaching magic. Before long, though, the planned school attracts the attention of Mr. Norrell, who sends Childermass to shut it down. When Segundus refuses to shut it down willingly, he soon finds that Norrell has managed to arrange things so that the school no longer has any support. Although Segundus writes to Jonathan Strange for relief, Strange doesn’t reply.

The Gentleman’s Plan

This section of the book closes with another meeting between Stephen Black and the gentleman with the thistledown hair. This time, the gentleman whisks Stephen away from Sir Walter’s house to a nearby coffeehouse where they sit down at an absolutely magical sounding feast. Here, the gentleman tells Stephen that Lady Pole is no longer holding the gentleman’s interest as she used to do, that, indeed, another young woman has caught the gentleman’s eye. He has a plan, he says, to bring the young woman to Lost-hope forever, but first he needs to obtain a piece of wood. From a bog.

 

Netflix released a bunch of character trailers for Sense8

I’m not sure I’d say I’m excited about Sense8, mostly because I’m still not sure I understand what it’s about, but I will be watching it when it hits Netflix on June 5. While I’m not quite clear on the plot yet–how exactly do eight strangers with a psychic link threaten the world?–I guess these trailers give us a bit of an idea of who these eight strangers are.

Sun – Seoul, Korea

Kala – Mumbai, India

Nomi – San Francisco, California

Wolfgang – Berlin, Germany

Riley – London, England

Will – Chicago, Illinois

Capheus – Nairobi, Kenya

Lito – Mexico City, Mexico

Weekend Links – May 30, 2015

Tanith Lee 1947-2015
Tanith Lee 1947-2015

Beloved author Tanith Lee has passed away:

Books:

John Scalzi signs $3.4 million book deal; far-right rival Vox Day crushed under 442 tons of sour grapes

ASOIAF has a rape problem

Maybe lengthy novels are required for the type of huge-scale worldbuilding that is currently popular?

Or not. Short novels can still contain vast universes.

A summer reading list for people who want to read diversely

If you care about diversity, this round table discussion is a great one to read for some perspective on what diversity even means

If you watch Game of Thrones, we also lost Maester Aemon this week:

via Beautiful Death
via Beautiful Death

Rereading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: Chapters 35-38

Strange_RedThese chapters are busy ones, but less with action than with characterization. Peacetime gives Mr. Strange in particular plenty of time to analyze his relationships with the other characters, especially Mr. Norrell.

The Painting

I’ve mostly avoided writing about the footnotes in this book, but Chapter 35 contains an important one regarding a painting that Mr. Strange and Mr. Norrell posed for in late 1814. I love the description of how the two men sat for the portrait, with Norrell fidgety, worried that the painter might somehow be stealing magical secrets, and Strange relaxed, indulgent and patient with Norrell’s neuroses. It’s an excellent sketch of their relationship up to this point, and it provides a starting point from which we begin, in these middle chapters of the novel, to see things degrade rather quickly between the two magicians.

Gentleman’s Magazine

While Drawlight and Lascelles attempt to sow discord between Strange and Norrell, chiefly by reminding Strange that he’s still never been allowed in Norrell’s library at Hurtfew Abbey, Norrell irritates Strange by nagging him about writing. In particular, Strange is supposed to write a piece for Gentleman’s Magazine, and Norrell expects him to only write what Norrell would agree with, and Strange chafes at this restriction, although he doesn’t relish the idea of confronting Norrell about it. Instead, he goes home, ostensibly to write, and complains to Arabella about it.

Drawlight’s Business

Arabella Strange has been listening to her husband’s complaints about Norrell for years, and she has her own very decided opinions on Norrell and Norrell’s friends. She wants, instead, to talk to her husband about a Miss Gray that she’s heard of who claims to be paying Jonathan Strange–to the tune of four hundred guineas–for magic lessons. Jonathan, however, dismisses the story and rather ignores his wife’s concern over the matter, even joking about it. It’s a moment of Jonathan Strange actually being kind of a dick, which I appreciate. Susanna Clarke does a good job, I think, of demonstrating that both of the magicians are kind of insufferable in very different ways. Conversely, she also balances this with including endearing and sympathetic qualities in her characters as well, which make them feel real and three-dimensional.

In any case, Strange doesn’t think of Miss Gray again until a few days later, when he’s at a club and is confronted with a pair of farmers who also claim to be receiving magical instruction from him even though they have never met. When finally introduced to Mr. Strange, the two gentleman farmers are quite understandably upset, but it soon comes out that they were paying a middleman who supplied them with instructional materials based on things Strange had said in conversation with Mr. Norrell–and overheard by the ever present Drawlight. To prove to the two defrauded gentleman that he is who he claims to be, Jonathan Strange steps into a mirror and disappears.

Strange surprises Drawlight and Mrs. Bullworth.
Strange surprises Drawlight and Mrs. Bullworth.

Mrs. Bullworth

When Jonathan Strange emerges from the mirror, it’s a different mirror entirely, in a very different place, some five miles from his own home in Soho. He surprises Drawlight at the home of one Mrs. Bullworth, yet another person who has been paying “Jonathan Strange” for magical services. Mrs. Bullworth has been giving Drawlight money to pay Mr. Strange for using black magic against her many enemies, not the least of which is Lascelles, who is the man who seduced and ruined Mrs. Bullworth, promising to marry her and then abandoning her when she was cast off by her husband.

Obviously, if you’ve read this far in the book you’ve known for some time what kind of men Drawlight and Lascelles are, but it’s kind of nice to see Drawlight, at least, get a bit of a comeuppance. By the end of Chapter 37, he’s banished from Norrell’s society (Norrell actually wants to reinstitute some draconian old laws so Drawlight could be hanged for his crimes) and ends up in a debtors prison. Lascelles manages to avoid a similar fate only because he has actually become truly interested in and invested in Norrell and magic–and because he cuts Drawlight out of his life immediately and completely to avoid any punishment by association with him.

The Strange’s  Bargain

Regarding Jonathan Strange’s travelling through mirrors, he finds opposition to his further experimentation with this trick from both Mr. Norrell and Arabella. Although Strange is excited to explore this new power, he eventually promises Arabella that he won’t do it again until she says he may. She, in turn, promises that she will grant her permission as soon as she is convinced of the safety of mirror travelling. I adore their marriage, so much, and this is a lovely compromise.

Lord Portishead’s Book

The final matter of importance that occurs in these chapters is the publication, by Lord Portishead, of a book on modern English magic, to which both Norrell and Strange have contributed. However, when Jonathan Strange reads the published manuscript, he finds himself incredibly disappointed and feeling misrepresented by the final text in spite of his own contributions.

Borrowing a copy of the book from Norrell, Strange goes home and promptly writes the scathing review of it that makes up Chapter 38. It’s the first time that Strange has put himself so directly in opposition to Norrell’s peculiar agenda regarding English magic, and it’s not going to go over well. At all.

Rereading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: Chapters 32-34

Strange_BlackWith the war now over, Strange and Norrell aren’t quite sure what to do with themselves. Strange’s experiences on the continent and his long absence have both made it somewhat difficult to just slip back into their old student-teacher relationship.

A Bad Place for Kings

Fortunately, the two magicians aren’t left to their own devices for long. King George is in the midst of a period of madness, and several of his children ask the magicians to see if there is anything they can do to help the king. While Norrell dismisses the idea, Jonathan Strange is at least willing to meet the man and see if any ideas come to him.

The first challenge Strange has to overcome is just getting to the king in the first place. King George is being kept basically locked up by the Willises, a pair of brothers who own a madhouse and who are apparently the only people consistently able and willing to actually deal with the king’s madnesses. However, when the king is in their custody, they control every aspect of his life and permit no visitors at all if they can help it.

"This is a bad place for kings!"
“This is a bad place for kings!”

Using magic, Strange manages to arrange a meeting with the king, who is certainly mad but also oddly lucid about certain things. It’s clear the king is unhappy as well, which Strange learns more by overhearing the king speaking to an invisible guest (whom the reader should recognize as the gentleman with the thistledown hair) than by conversing with the king himself. Indeed, the king seems to hardly see Jonathan Strange at all, and has frustratingly little to say to him throughout the visit.

The Song of Strange’s Life

Strange takes the king outside to walk through the garden, much against the desires of the Willises, and things just keep getting weirder. The king begins to wander off into a strange wood, and Strange feels himself being lured that direction as well, hearing strange music. The king tells him that “he” is playing for Strange, and Strange hears that the song does indeed describe his life, although he doesn’t know who “he” is. Realizing that something is amiss, Strange suddenly has the idea to use an ancient sort of spell to resist the fairy magic he’s found himself entranced by, and he manages to cancel the enchantment and save himself and the king.

Fairies and Madmen

When Strange returns to Norrell, he asks straightaway about fairies, and Norrell is unhelpful and rather evasive on the subject. Apparently, the affinity of fairies for the insane has been written about at length, and this is what initially guides Strange’s line of questioning. However, Norrell seems eager to put an end to the topic by suggesting that fairies no longer live in England at all anyway, and certainly he and Strange would never be so reckless as to summon one even if they did.

To Crush Their Spirits

Finally, Chapter 34 is a short one, in which the gentleman with the thistledown hair takes Stephen Black on a trip to Africa so they can discuss what to do about the two magicians. These sort of conversations with the gentleman are some of my favorite parts of this book just because he’s so irrational and unbalanced. Still, there is a method to his madness, and he still intends to make Stephen Black the King of England. First on the agenda, though, is to destroy or otherwise thwart the two magicians who seem so dedicated to impeding the gentleman’s plans. “We must make them wish they had never taken up the practice of magic!” he announces at the end of the chapter.

ABC’s The Quest is the best show you should binge watch in one sitting

I vaguely recall hearing something about this show sometime back in 2013, but I’m not usually into reality shows and I just totally forgot about it until it popped up on Netflix last week. Now, granted, my enjoyment of the show could have something to do with being stuck at home with a broken foot, but I kind of loved it.

The Quest is ten episodes of pure, slightly silly, feel good entertainment. It’s basically LARPing with occasional competitive games to eliminate contestants (called paladins) to find the One True Hero capable of rescuing the kingdom of Everealm.

The show is reasonably diverse, with the twelve contestants split evenly between men and women, including PoC, and seemingly representative of a fairly wide selection of geeks. I think what I liked best about the paladins, though, is that everyone was so nice. There are a couple of moments where people slip into regular reality show stuff, but overall everyone is just really earnest and positive. Because the show is largely a scripted adventure, even the competitive challenges are in essence cooperative.

The story is pretty predictable, and some of the acting leaves much to be desired, but The Quest is so fun and everyone is so likable that it manages to be such a good time that I didn’t even care. It looks unlikely that the show will get a second season, but if it does, I’ll be tuning in. Or at least waiting til it shows up on Netflix so I can watch the whole thing in one day again.

Sci-fi and Fantasy books, tv, films, and feminism