Category Archives: Science Fiction

The Three-Body Problem

I’ve been saving this book to read for ages because I knew, I just KNEW, it was going to be good. I have a soft spot for science fiction, but one thing that really bugs me about science fiction is how American it always is. For some reason, first contact with extra-terrestrials always seems to happen in America and, considering it’s a big wide world out there, I’ve always found it a bit hard to believe that only America has the technology, the wherewithal, the interest in making that first contact. So when I found out that a Chinese science fiction novel won the Hugo award, I knew that I would have to read this book.

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“The Three-Body Problem” by Cixin Liu, translated into English by Ken Liu, is a science fiction novel that begins in China during the cultural revolution. It is the first in a series of three books called “Remembrance of Earth’s Past”. Ye Winjie, an astrophysics graduate, watches her father be beaten to death by Red Guards. After she is sent to Inner Mongolia to join a labour, an incident occurs that puts her life and future at risk. However, she is thrown a lifeline when she is given the opportunity to join a mysterious military communications centre. There’s only one catch: she will have to stay there the rest of the life. Decades later, a nanotechnology researcher called Wang Miao is asked to assist in the investigation of the deaths of several scientists. After experiencing some inexplicable disturbances in his vision, he decides to relax by playing a game he has seen others play: a virtual reality game called Three Body.

This book is the best science fiction novel I have read in a very long time. It is simply superb. If you enjoy science fiction, you’ll enjoy this – I promise you. Cixin Liu is a genius, the science in this book is fascinating, the writing is great (with plenty of helpful but unobtrusive footnotes from the translator) and I found myself whispering “Wow.” after every chapter I finished.

I’ve read quite a lot of Chinese fiction recently, and there are two themes that I almost always notice. One – the stories often centre in some way on the Cultural Revolution. Two – the writing is excellent. I think the only people who would not enjoy this book are people who are not frequent readers of the science fiction genre. Some may think that the characters aren’t interesting or developed enough, but personally I think that the author has kept the characters a little out of focus so that it’s easier for people to relate to them, and also so that the thrust of the story is front and centre.

This book was excellent. It’s up there with the top three books I’ve read this year. I can’t wait to read the rest in the series. I’ve already mailed it to the next person insisting they read it. It was unbelievably refreshing and I can’t recommend it enough.

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Clovers

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.

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“Clovers” by Samira is a science fiction parody about Androxen, mercreatures who live in the Earth’s ocean and procreate with human women. However, despite living in relative secrecy from their human counterparts, increasing interaction brings the Earth’s dire situation to their awareness. The Androxen decide to seek help and send a message out into space to be intercepted by aliens.

This is a creative book interspersed with lots of colourful illustrations that you need a colour eReader to fully appreciate. It is a creative and light-hearted story that casts humanity into relief against two other sentient races. The book is structured like a anthropological text told by the fictional Samira.

At times however, this book can seem a little overwritten. The author relies very heavily on alliteration and the story is sometimes obscured by the wordplay.

A fun spin on the science-fiction genre that is as much about the words as it is the story.

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Schismatrix Plus

Before I start this review, I need to take a moment to explain the concept of RedditGifts. RedditGifts is like a Secret Santa/Kris Kringle where gift exchanges are run year-round. You sign up for an exchange with a particular theme and get matched with a random person either in your own country or overseas. Every year there is a book exchange, and I received this book for the second of the three exchanges I’ve signed up to so far. If you follow this blog at all, you probably know that I like to read lots of different kinds of books. However there are some genres that I really enjoy in particular and one of them is biopunk, a subgenre of science fiction. I’ve reviewed a few other biopunk books on this blog, and my Santa picked up on that and sent me one I had never heard of. I decided to include this on on my five weeks of American literature, and I read this book in Mexico where I was staying near a cenote amongst the mangroves. At night time the whole area was lit up with green light and it had a very strong sci-fi vibe.

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“Schismatrix Plus” by Bruce Sterling is a collection of everything he has ever written about his Shaper/Mechanist universe: a future where humans who now inhabit asteriods in the asteroid belt are divided into warring factions. The Shapers advocate improving the human body through genetic engineering and mental control while the Mechanists seek to augment human bodies and prolong life with cyborg technology and medical advancements. The collection begins with his novel “Schismatrix” which follows Shaper turned sundog (space nomad) Abelard Lindsay as he travels from colony to colony evolving from exile to revolutionary. After that are five short stories that Sterling actually wrote prior to publishing his novel.

I think, first and foremost, this book was not structured correctly. I think that the entire thing would have been a far better experience if the order of the stories was the same as the order of publication rather than the novel followed by the short stories. Sterling kind of launches the reader into his universe, and as it is such a complex concept with lots of factions and outposts and politics and colonies, I felt like the book really took a long time to feel cohesive. The short stories were much easier to follow and each introduced different specific aspects of the Schismatrix, and I think by having them up front, the rest of the book would have made a lot more sense.

I did actually quite enjoy the short stories. “Spider Rose” and “Swarm” in particular both had that snappy unique premise and twisty plot that makes a great short story. I thought given a shorter format, Sterling was really able to succinctly explain the key elements of the Schismatrix universe and develop quick character-driven narratives.

The novel itself I think I enjoyed far less. I wasn’t really sold on Abelard as a character, which was a shame because he is the central character throughout the entire book. Despite originally starting out as a Shaper, he increasingly embraces (sometimes willingly, sometimes not) Mechanist technology and achieves incredible longevity. He is the eyes through which the reader witnesses the several evolutions of Schismatrix society and because he lives for hundreds of years, his character is quite static. The plot device of ‘where we went and what we did there’ is one I’ve criticised other books about before, and the novel felt like a series of vignettes loosely stitched together with the same point of view character. Nevertheless, I did really enjoy the many female characters in the story, especially Kitsune whose lust for power far surpassed any lust for men. I also really enjoyed the ending which had a bit of a “Watership Down” vibe about it.

A creative book, especially the short stories, but the novel itself fell a bit flat. I think he might have done better breaking up the novel into smaller pieces and just having the whole thing as a collection of short stories, each a spotlight on a different aspect of his universe.

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The Last Redhead

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.

The Last Redhead

“The Last Redhead” by L. J Mozdy is a science fiction novel set in an alternative world ruled by advertising campaigns and high-speed trains. After her mother dies giving birth to her, the Last Redhead, the only known redhead in the world for 20 years, lives her entire childhood in an orphanage. On her 18th birthday she’s kicked to the curb and picked up by the Spermicidal Maniac who informs her that they are going to have lots of redheaded babies and make lots of money. However, he’s not the only one who wants to find the Last Redhead and make some money off her, regardless of what she wants.

This is quite a surreal story, set in a strange world even more obsessed with beauty and advertising that our own. Mozdy is quite a creative writer with a similar writing style to Tom Robbins. He takes a particular interest in the grotesque minutiae of human existance. He weaves in social commentary, biology and pseudoscience to shed light on a society gone mad with the idea of red hair. This is quite a dense book though with a rather rambling story line, so it’s definitely more of a slow burn than a fast-paced book.

An interesting story with clear parallels to our own world, this book takes the myth of redheadedness going extinct to its most extreme.

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The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil

This book has been sitting on my to-read pile since my dad lent it to me at New Year’s. I thought the first eponymous story was just one of several short stories but it actually is more like a novella with several shortish stories afterwards. I toyed with the idea of just reading the first one, but the completionist in me won and I finished the book.

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“The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil” by George Saunders is a novella about a micro and fictional country called Inner Horner which is only big enough to hold one citizen at a time. The remaining six citizens wait their turn in the short term residency zone of the surrounding country of Outer Horner. One day, with no warning, Inner Horner shrinks and only 1/4 of the current citizen in residence is now able to fit. Opportunistic Outer Hornerite Phil declares this event an invasion and disaster for the Inner Hornerites ensues. Tacked onto the end of this novella is “In Persuasion Nation” which is a collection of short stories mostly centred around themes of advertising and television.

The novella is a really interesting story that walks a fine line between satire and surrealism. Saunders takes an issue of incredible complexity (border control), and simplifies it down into its most basic and wacky elements. This story could really apply to any place or any time (and I can think of a few places right now) where internal pressures outside their control force people to leave their country and some unlikely megalomaniac uses that as as springboard to ascend to power. Saunders is a very imaginative writer with a keen eye for the ridiculous. The rest of the short stories were a bit more of a mixed bag. I really enjoyed some of them, especially “my flamboyant grandson”, but some of the others were a bit too abstract or a bit too blunt in their messaging.

“The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil” is a timeless reminder that success shouldn’t be achieved by taking advantage of someone else’s misfortune. Even though this story was first published in 2005, it would have applied just as easily in 1945 as it does today.

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The Heart Goes Last

Margaret Atwood is one of my favourite authors, so when she released a new novel 18 months ago I was pretty excited to read it. I bought a copy but somehow it got lost in my to-read pile and she’s since released another book. Finally it made it to the front of the rotation, and I was eager to see if I’d like it as much as I liked books like “The Blind Assassin” or “Cat’s Eye”.

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“The Heart Goes Last” by Margaret Atwood is a dystopian science fiction novel set in a not-too distant future. Married couple Charmaine and Stan are living in their car after losing their home in a financial crash. Unable to get a job where his tech skills apply, Stan’s self esteem is ebbing while Charmaine works for peanuts at a bar to support them. When Charmaine sees an advertisement for a social experiment that claims to eradicate poverty, Charmaine convinces a reluctant Stan that this is the answer to their problems. Despite his reservations, Stan agrees to sign his life away to a utopian promise where in exchange for one month of paradise, participants spend one month in prison.

I just didn’t feel this book. I wanted to like it, but I could not get myself immersed. Stan and Charmaine just feel like the archetypes of the middle-class, straight white heterosexual couple. They start out unremarkable and they stay unremarkable. The premise is interesting, but Consilience as a concept felt a bit unfinished and under-researched and as a consequence lacked credibility. Maybe this is because the setting is too close to now, and it’s easier to suspend disbelief when the society described is far from our own. The characters on the inside all have a bit of a cardboard cut out feel and as Stan embarks on his mission, it’s just scene after scene of characters that don’t appear to have any distinct personality from one another. I felt like the gender segregation part of the book was a missed opportunity, and way too much of the book was dominated by sex and fetishes that were largely disconnected from the main plot. In even the most highly emotional parts of the book, I didn’t feel moved. Even if this is meant to be satire and a critique of where our society is heading, the story just feels way too artificial and ultimately falls flat.

Although Margaret Atwood has succeeded in writing dystopian fiction in the past, I think this book misses the mark.

 

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Bender

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author. I was immediately intrigued by the premise – four love stories that cross through time and space.

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“Bender” by Alexander Rigby is a historical fiction/science fiction hybrid novel about four star-crossed couples whose love is forbidden. During ancient Egyptian times, a pharaoh’s daughter falls for a slave. In Renaissance Italy where homosexuality is punishable by death, two men fall in love. In 1980s USA, two people meet who are already taken. Then, in an Argentina set 200 years from now, two women find themselves in an impossible situation.

Rigby is an elegant writer who fills his pages with rich imagery. This is a well-paced story that keeps you turning your pages to find out the fates of each of the four couples. Rigby’s concept is refreshingly original and thought-provoking. I found myself pondering the meaning of life, love and souls more than once throughout this book. The only thing I found a bit challenging about this book were that some of the stories, namely the ancient Egyptian and futuristic Argentinian stories, hooked me more than others.

A great book for anyone who is into romance, historical fiction or light science fiction.

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