Death’s End

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What it’s about: After the events of The Dark Forest, humanity has gained a reprieve against the Trisolarians due to the principles of dark forest deterrence. But the reprieve turns out to be short-lived, and humanity soon finds itself exposed to bigger threats than just the Trisolarians. It’s a big hoary galaxy out there.

Notes: 

  • The series resembles an exponential curve in terms of its timeline – the first book takes place over half a century, the second over a couple of centuries, and the third, literally billions of years. Accordingly, the scope and imaginativeness of the series also expands, while its human elements remain about the same.
  • The protagonist this round is the Chinese astrophysicist Cheng Xin, whose good nature makes her one of the most maligned characters in the entire series. Let’s just say that she’s in a position to make a number of very important decisions and manages to choose wrongly in every instance. But she gets to witness the end of the universe, which might either be a blessing or a curse depending on who you ask.
  • Cheng Xin is, however, emblematic of Liu’s rather retro approach towards the depiction and characterisation of gender in this book. While not quite chauvinistic, he takes a view that societies can take on aspects of different genders, and this guides their outlook on political and social affairs. Indeed, Liu’s 23rd century society is a feminised one, where men of the era are virtually indistinguishable from women in physical appearance and manner, and is consequently unprepared to shoulder the harsh, masculine” burden of having to maintain the system of dark forest deterrence, which requires someone who can credibly carry out the MAD option.
  • Relatedly, Liu’s sociological commentary can seem a bit fantastic at times – he posits a sort of generational cut-off after which society began to “switch” genders, and this can happen in the space of mere decades, which seems to me to be a bit of a contrived way to make a point about societies that act according to their prevailing “gender”. It assumes societies can be homogenised through the lens of gendered action, and it also assumes that gender normativities trump rational calculation, which is a coded way of saying women let their sentiment cloud their rationality – which is problematic.
  • In any case, however, this book is extremely depressing. Not least because of the wanton sense of existential crisis that constantly hounds at the heels of latter-day humanity, but because the book really makes you grok the immensity of the cosmos in a way that strips one of the self-importance of the immediate. Liu’s conceptual imagination is staggering, positing things like weaponised physics, black domains, and pocket universes.
  • But the book also hints at bigger and more magnificent ordering principles that suggests that the logic of the dark forest may not be as all-encompassing as it seems. Cheng Xin witnesses it all, an observer who somehow survives the eons of deep time until the end of the universe, when it is revealed that both humanity and Trisolarians have survived till that point – but the ensuing eras are glossed over. There is an immensity of hope in that revelation – that the species endured through time to witness the ultimate omega moment – the rebirth of a new, whole universe and a chance to start afresh. But it’s taken a long time, and a number of lucky breaks, to overcome the implied consequence of the Fermi Paradox to arrive at that point.
  • The book ends with many unanswered questions. What is humanity like at the end of the universe? What did Tianming see and experience during his time with the Trisolarian fleet? What were the “trade lanes” being hinted at, and does that mean that there is a galactic community that has transcended dark forest logics? What are the hidden warnings implied in the fairytale that Tianming told Cheng Xin? Was there really a way for humanity to avoid the two-dimensionalisation of the Solar System? And what happens after the end of the book, which stops right at the point where the fate of the universe, and of future universes, is undecided?
  • Those questions may never be answered, but in their non-answering, they connote a sense of the boundlessness and ineffable nature of the cosmos, one that cannot all be packed into a single tome. But Liu has, in Death’s End, tried to do just that.

Verdict: Flawed, complex, and messy, but ambitious and audacious beyond measure, Death’s End is a magnificently imaginative capstone to a truly remarkable trilogy.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 gravity ships

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Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Season #2)

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What it’s about: The wacky on-the-job adventures of the Brooklyn Nine Nine crew continue, but this time with a dash of high-stakes drama and romance: Captain Holt is forced to leave the Nine Nine, and Jake and Amy start to get a move on. Charles and Gina bang in what must be the most non-sequitur office pairing in sitcom.

Notes:

  • Brooklyn Nine Nine continues to be a well-written and comforting collection of good-hearted hilarity (except for its ceaseless mean-spirited riffing of Hitchcock and Scully (and to a smaller extent, Boyle) who only deserve about 80% of what comes to them).
  • Character dynamics seem to evolve somewhat naturally – while everyone plays off their stereotypes for comic effect, there is a divide between their joke selves and their dramatic selves – they are more than their own typecasting. Nowhere is this more apparent than Jake Peralta, who becomes surprisingly decent-hearted even as his naturally carefree self gets him into real hot water at least twice an episode.
  • Charles is the most hangdog-sad character in the show – an overly cultured individual with an odd interpretation of social mores, strangely worshipful towards his best friend Jake – and I somehow feel the saddest for him, just because it’s in his inherent nature to be the butt of all the jokes. His boundless and strange passions and indefatigable zest for the oddly fine things in life are oddly sympathetic, yet he is more often than not rendered impotent by his esoteric preoccupations in a way that is humorous but also somewhat tragic. And it feels that there are cracks in his friendship with Jake, which seemed a sacrosanct partnership in season 1.
  • Amy’s maturity and her wilfully blind devotion to Holt seem at odds with each other – one is played for laughs while the other makes her a foil for the zanier antics of the group. Yet the show balances this well, making Amy an accomplice to insanity at some points and a straight-laced goody two shoes another. It’s just one of the comic juxtapositions that keeps the show fresh.
  • The show ends on a bum note – Holt leaving the Nine Nine, defeated at the moment of victory by his arch-nemesis Wunch – and that is a bit of dramatic irony (because we know it’ll end up alright – it’s a sitcom!), but it really does seem rather sad.

Verdict: Same old fun, with a bit of character growth and exploration of the dramatic while not sacrificing the formulas that make this show a comedic tour de force – Brooklyn Nine Nine hasn’t lost its Season 1 spark, and may even outshine it in the feels department.

I give this: 4.5 out of 5 Gigglepigs

The Dark Forest

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What it’s about: The follow-up to Three Body Problem details humanity’s centuries-long stand against the invading Trisolarians. In an attempt to overcome the ubiquitous surveillance of the sophons, humanity vests its hopes in the plans of Wallfacers – individuals tasked with coming up with plans to save humanity that are only known to themselves. Luo Ji, a mediocre astronomer, is mysteriously granted the position of Wallfacer, but he has within him the seeds of a truth that will be the key to defeat the Trisolarian threat.

Notes:

  • The Dark Forest has a rare conceptual brilliance – it bandies around concepts with the aplomb of a latter-day Asimov. Indeed, with this book, I really do think that the series has cemented its place as a kind of latter-day Foundation series with its centuries-sweeping cosmic story, its breathtaking ideas about the impact of unimaginable change on society, and its preoccupation with immutable laws that govern the behaviour of sapients.
  • Of course, Dark Forest also shares some of the criticisms of Asimov – spare prose and dialogue, functional characterisation, and a kind of conceptual parsimony to its depictions of society that doesn’t take into account the gnarly complexities of the real world.
  • In fact, The Dark Forest also has a very anime feel to it – it has a lot of similar tropes to high-concept anime science fiction such as Psycho Pass – as well as an unbridled and almost delirious creativity in concept and nomenclature. Wallfacers, sophons, droplets – these could have come right out of anime. Not to mention that protagonist Luo Ji spends a fair amount of his time being preoccupied by hallucinations of an imaginary girlfriend (literally), which other characters take to mean that he has the rare ability of a true literateur. This kind of thing is unfortunately also the preserve of a surprising proportion of anime.
  • The use of hibernation allows the book to skip centuries’ worth of time, which allows Liu to advance epochs to hundreds of years in the future. Humanity has developed a magnificent space fleet and settled many worlds in the solar system, and feel confident to face the Trisolarian threat. It is an optimistic picture, but unfortunately one that has to be curtailed in a bit of a hackneyed fashion when Liu breaks out the classic “underestimating your enemy trope”, in which humanity’s entire fleet is destroyed by a single ship of the Trisolarians due to their overconfidence. This allows Liu to execute the “saved by the seat of your pants” dramatic trope by allowing Luo Ji to come up with the solution to save humanity from the jaws of defeat at the last moment, at the end of the book.
  • Though I don’t quite begrudge that use of dramatic tension – Luo Ji’s secret is in many ways the conceptual centrepiece and the origin of the book’s name. In a twisted but brilliant union of the concepts of MAD and the Fermi Paradox, Liu paints a picture of a universe teeming with hidden life, where the ironclad rules of Dark Forest theory mean that any species that reveals its location in the galaxy is immediately eliminated as a potential threat due to the uncertainty of its intentions when resolved over vast gulfs in spacetime. Thus, species hide themselves, qua Fermi’s question is answered. When faced with the spectre of ultimate and easy destruction by infinitely more powerful species, that serves as a powerful deterrent – try to harm me, and I will reveal our location to the cosmos, resulting in annihilation of both species. A brilliantly elegant solution to resolve the story that, to be sure, has its own flaws, but its sheer parsimonious simplicity is very compelling, and provides plenty of food for thought coupled with a visceral sense of wonder-horror at the grandiose, dark, threatening web that is the wider galaxy.

Verdict: Brimming with ideas, elegantly executed, and hiding a truly incredible science fictional twist at its end, The Dark Forest is probably my favorite novel in the series.

I give this: 4.5 out of 5 droplets

The Three Body Problem

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What it’s about: A Chinese scientist delves into a mysterious video game set in a world that lives and dies in thrall to the unpredictable orbital patterns of its three suns, which holds the key to unraveling a decades-old conspiracy that threatens the continuity of the human race.

Notes:

  • This is a book whose merit lies largely in its ideas and scope. It is not a particularly nuanced or sensitive character study; its characters are by and large either forgettable, or memorable insofar as they embody some stereotype – like Da Shi, the irreverent but competent policeman, a trope straight out of some Hong Kong action movie.  But its slow unravelling of the conceptual frame that will later dominate the narrative of the next two books is masterfully done.
  • The frame is that of the classic alien invasion story, but with a creative twist. Due to the constraints of their spaceflight technology, these Trisolarian invaders, who hail from the Centauri trinary star system, will take four hundred years to get to Earth. This fundamental constraint requires that they take measures to inhibit Earth’s ability to develop defensive technologies to counter the invasion – so they send tiny little supercomputers called sophons, etched into the fundamental structure of a single proton, to interfere with Earth’s research in fundamental physics, by zipping in and out of our particle accelerators and confounding our research. Soon, Earth is inundated with hundreds of these particles, and they become an ubiquitous and nearly omniscient surveillance network by which the aliens can divine any plans we might come up with. Liu’s gift is to pack all these original ideas into the confines of a single book and make them sound utterly plausible even as they are so out of this world .
  • That said, the book also lacks a sense of hard-headed realism: its characters are far too idealistic and ideological in their motivations. The ETO, a terrorist organisation in cahoots with the aliens, adopt a religious attitude to these aliens, thinking of them as savior agents coming to reinstate righteousness onto a fallen world. But their security protocols are strangely lax – they recruit via the titular video game that depicts the lives of the Trisolarians, and if the player seems to be sympathetic to their plight and smart enough to beat it, he or she is recruited. It is absurdly easy for the protagonist to infiltrate their ranks by playing and winning the game and then pretending to be sympathetic – he then attends their townhall with a tracker and leads the police to them. I would say that these and other problems (loose plot threads, weird lapse in logic) plague the first half or so of the book, but then the sheer impending scope of the final few chapters just makes these structural and stylistic problems seem insignificant in comparison.
  • Indeed, by the end of the book, one gets the sense that all the events that have led up to this instant are merely preparatory staging, and that the main show – the saga of humanity’s centuries long struggle against the aliens, is just about to begin.
  • This is a translated book. Ken Liu’s translation of the original Mandarin struggles mightily in the style department, giving the prose a very functional character that also kind of hurts the characterisation, because the character dialogue and descriptions are written in very plain language, robbing them of subtlety or verisimilitude.

Verdict: It’s a pretty flawed book in terms of the occasional lapses of logic in its plot, its mediocre characters, and its prosaic translated prose, but the daring, breathtaking strength and scope of its ideas and its place as a part of an epic overarching narratieve more than makes up for it.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 sophons

The Last Colony

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What it’s about: A new galactic council, the Conclave, has emerged – its goal, to end inter-species conflict over planetary resources by only allowing new colonies under its auspices. The Colonial Union isn’t happy with this development and enlists the now-retired John Perry to head up a new colony in defiance of this directive.

Notes

  • Scalzi’s great gift is his ability to write about intrigue – the Colonial Union is portrayed here as a Machiavellian operator with multiple layers of intent running through its various initiatives.
  • Great power politics is at the forefront – the Conclave is a classic move to upstage realist views of international relations by creating a system in which the benefits of membership outweigh the costs. The Colonial Union, as a local superpower of sorts, has been able to ignore this equation for now, but the shifting webs of power dynamics percolate through the narrative.
  • Reading this in opposition to The Dark Forest, which also presents a similar vision of interstellar political dynamics, presents an interesting contrast of parameters. In this universe, interstellar travel is fast, species are broadly similar in psychological characteristics, and information flows are much more transparent – whereas that is completely the opposite case in the Three-Body universe. These qualities in theory make it easier to upend the dark forest equilibrium that so imprisons the thinking of advanced civilisations in the latter case. Essentially, when it is not difficult to find planets and alien species, and when it is far easier to collect intelligence about the intentions and capabilities of the enemy, mutually assured destruction is no longer the imperative – such a race would probably be found and exterminated quite quickly. In fact, I find it quite surprising that the species in Scalzi’s universe have taken so long to get their act together.
  • The John Perry chronicles also include another book, Zoe’s Tale, which runs concurrently to this one and focuses on the adventures of Perry’s adopted daughter Zoe. That book was a fun read when I last read it like 5 years ago, but I haven’t read it for this round as my intention was to refresh my memory before going on to the newest offerings in the Old Man’s War oeuvre.

Verdict: While John Perry isn’t my favorite character, The Last Colony is a satisfying exposition on the emerging political structures of the wider universe, and an interesting science-fictional commentary on international relations.

I give this: 4/5 Gamerans

The Ghost Brigades

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What it’s about: The Ghost Brigades are the special forces of the Colonial Union, created out of a mishmash of genetic material to create soldiers truly built for the sorry business of warfare. One hapless specimen becomes used as a pawn in a frenzied quest to stop a madman’s plan to topple the Colonial Union for his own megalomaniacal agenda.

Notes: 

  • A loose sequel of sorts to Old Man’s War, the book continues to expand the universe in interesting ways. The Ghost Brigades is not as straight-shooting as the first, and it does have some moments of powerful pathos.
  • The main character, Jared Dirac, is a great vehicle for bringing the reader through the paces of the story and universe – much like the first book. Dirac’s pathos as a character is really a distillation of one of the age-old themes in literature – the dynamic between father and son and whether or not the son can redress the sins of the father. Except in this circumstance it’s more like original and clone.
  • The trajectory of the series at large becomes more apparent, as the actions of the Colonial Union are revealed in all their moral ambiguity even as they face enemies that seek to exterminate them with equal ruthlessness.
  • The special forces themselves are wonderfully developed in their own strange way – Scalzi does a good job of humanizing while stressing how different they are from other humans – in terms of their faculty for telepathic communication, their admixture of knowledge and naivete as a result of their accelerated physical and mental development, and, in some cases, their decidedly non-standard phenotypes.
  • The Obin are an interesting idea for an alien species – intelligent but lacking in consciousness, and driven by a desire to obtain it for themselves. In other words, a race of philosophical zombies. Someone like Dennett would tell you that this is essentially absurd – consciousness is a gestalt and anything advanced enough to give the appearance of consciousness is probably conscious. But then again, since consciousness transfer is a thing in this series, Scalzi probably takes the position that consciousness is an added layer on top of mere computational ability.

Verdict: I actually like this one better than Old Man’s War, because it’s decidedly more involved in questioning the conventions of the universe and whether or not there is an alternative to the endless warfare that humanity seems resigned to in Old Man’s War. Also, Jared Dirac is less of a Gary Sue power fantasy than John Perry.

I give this: 4.5 out of 5 imperial grubs