Tag Archives: 2015 books

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.

Book Review: A Crown for Cold Silver by Alex Marshall

Marshall_A Crown for Cold SilverI was totally unprepared for this book. I’m not sure that I’d say I loved it, but it it was nearly impossible to put down, which is something I seldom say about books that have over 600 pages.

A Crown for Cold Silver is, I suppose, grimdark, but it’s not a novel that takes itself too seriously, which is refreshing. While there is a lot of violence, a lot of moral ambiguity, and things end on a decidedly pessimistic note, these are balanced by a real sense of humor, anachronistically modern-sounding dialogue, and a tendency to outright mock some of the genre’s standard tropes. It’s not quite a true pastiche and not quite a satire as it does tend to follow most of the ordinary grimdark story patterns, but ACfCS plays with the genre in a lot of really fun ways that make it a much more entertaining read than some of the more gloom and doom stuff on the market.

Possibly the most notable facet of ACfCS is its inclusive take on gender, sexuality, and race. Definitely it’s a progressive work in regard to the first two. There is a pretty even split of men and women among the large cast of characters, and women and men seem to be pretty equally present in all roles without gender stereotyping. Diverse sexuality is also on display, with bisexuality in particular seeming to be largely the norm in the world of the Star. Sex is talked about frankly and sexual violence seeming to be pretty much non-existent, which is also a refreshing change from the norm in a genre where rape is commonly used as a cheap way to add “grit” to fantasy worlds.

Race in the world of the Star is a little more complicated to comment upon. Most of the characters are not given much physical description, and what they do get is generally more to indicate age, wealth, athleticism, and gender expression. Instead, race is indicated by cultural descriptions and names–there is one culture that uses Korean-sounding names and another than seems Indian-inspired. There is also the “barbarian” culture of the Horned Wolves, which I at first took to be a normal sort of fantasy “Northern barbarian/viking” culture, but which in the later part of the book turns out to be not that at all. There are also the “weirdborn” or “wildborn” who can be of any race, but are people who are believed to have demon blood.

It’s a strange mix of wholly original races and cultures and some use of real-world cultural markers as shorthand to differentiate between people groups, and I’m not sure that it entirely works as well as the author might hope. That said, I didn’t feel like any of the various races were fetishized or unduly othered. There are multiple characters of every ethnicity in the book, so no one character bears the burden of being representative of their race, and while you definitely get a sense of the characters’ shared cultures, they are also shown to be very different individuals with complex relationships to each other and to their peoples. In short, even if Alex Marshall relies a little too much on recognizable markers for defining races on the Star, it’s still a damn sight better than most similar fantasy worlds that are overwhelmingly white and heavily European-influenced.

The plot of ACfCS is fairly straightforward-seeming. Zosia is a retired warrior queen who has been living in obscurity for over twenty years when her husband is killed and everyone in the village she’s been living in is massacred. She wants revenge and to that end starts looking up all her old warlord friends, who are also mostly retired or otherwise settled down to live peaceful lives. And hijinks ensue as literally nothing goes as anyone has planned, because this is a grimdark novel and there’s literally no one who doesn’t have a secret agenda of their own. There are some slow-ish spots in the narrative, which I think is to be expected in a book of this length, but overall I found the pacing to be good, and the book ends with a series of gut punching revelations that have me waiting with bated breath for the next book in the series (I believe it’s a planned trilogy).

In my opinion, what few flaws there are to be found in A Crown for Cold Silver are made up for by a hilarious conversation about the merits of a chain mail bikini, which is more than worth the price of admission.

Book Review: Born With Teeth by Kate Mulgrew

Mulgrew_Born With Teeth
Born With Teeth by Kate Mulgrew

Over the last couple of years, I’ve found myself developing a real fondness for memoirs, so when I found out that Kate Mulgrew, who I’ve admired since the first time I saw her enter the bridge on Star Trek: Voyager, was publishing one, I was thrilled. Born With Teeth is not a book about Star Trek, so fans of the series hoping for that may be disappointed, but Kate Mulgrew has lived a full and interesting life and has a lot to say about art, love, and finding happiness by being true to one’s self.

From the first pages of this book, as she writes about growing up as a precocious and much-loved child in Iowa, it’s very clear that Kate Mulgrew is not cut out to be a conventional woman. Leaving home for New York, she pursues her career as an actress with a deep and abiding passion for her craft that sustains her over the decades of her life.

Early on, we learn that Mulgrew gave birth early in her career to a daughter who she gave up for adoption, and Mulgrew’s regret over this decision and her desire to be reunited with the child she lost figures nearly as largely in the story as her passion for acting. Mulgrew’s feelings about the adoption consume many pages, and even as she later marries and has two more children by her first husband, she never stops wanting to know her daughter.

I finished this book in just one day, I found it so riveting. Kate Mulgrew is a passionate, intelligent, driven woman who isn’t afraid to talk about her mistakes. She’s also wry and funny, but never cynical, even about her often disappointing relationships with men. Mulgrew’s love for her children and her attempts to stay true to herself while also doing right by them are relatable and compelling.

Born With Teeth is an excellent, fast read about a woman who struggles with balancing her personal and professional lives. The book is light on practical advice, but I think it’s a wonderful story to show that a life doesn’t have to be objectively perfect in order to be rich and fulfilling.  I think one takeaway here is that mistakes shouldn’t define one’s life and that it’s never too late to make positive changes. The other takeaway is that it’s okay to not compromise when happiness is on the line, which is an excellent message, especially for young, creative women, to whom I would most recommend this book.