Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Season #2)


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.


  • 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


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.


  • 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


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.


  • 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


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.


  • 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


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.


  • 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


Old Man’s War


What it’s about: In a universe filled with hostile alien civilisations, the Machiavellian Colonial Union turns to Earth’s elderly masses as a source of fresh conscripts, promising to restore their youth and vitality in return for fighting their wars. Septuagenarian John Perry joins up and goes through a whirlwind of space adventures in which he kills alien baddies and gets the girl.


  • This is the first in a long line of Old Man’s War books, and is best understood as such. This is a book that treads the fine line between science-fiction jingoism and an introspection on great power politics writ large across vast interstellar distances, but the ramifications of the Colonial Union’s brutally realist stance towards foreign policy will be borne out in full in later novels.
  • That said, it feels very old fashioned in a way – a power fantasy whose protagonist is an old man who’s only ever known existence on a tiny blue world, suddenly thrust into the great unknown. He meets new friends and allies, gets shouted at by a drill sergeant who comes to grudgingly respect him, shoots aliens, does the whole heroic shtick, and finds love at the end of it.
  • There’s the whole sensawunder thing going on here , as Perry discovers that humanity in space has mastered far more advanced technology than they let on to their Earth cousins. Much of the book is powered by a sense of discovery over the imaginative strangeness of the universe and humankind’s precarious place in it.
  • That said, the best thing about Old Man’s War is how it so gleefully acknowledges its own cliched premises while playing them straight. It adds freshness and a dash of wry self-referential humour in what is also just a fast paced and enjoyable read. Someone on the Internet put it quite nicely – Scalzi’s best books tend to feature intelligent characters that face an uncaring universe with humour, brio, and derring-do.

Verdict: This is one of the classics of the genre; a taut, rollicking thriller chock full of the signature Scalzi humor and panache. A easy but obligatory read for any science fiction fan.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 ritual battles


Black Mirror (Season 2)


This second season of Black Mirror has a galaxy of interesting ideas, but somehow does less well on the follow-through.

The second season follows the first in taking boilerplate speculative what-if? scenarios and turning them into macabre, character-focused stories. Overall, however, I feel that the episodes of the second season generally share a tendency to aim too high and then fall somewhat short providing satisfying narrative closure.

The first episode, Be Right Back, touches on a very disquieting and relatable conceit – what if you could create robotic simulacra of a lost loved one from fragments of their social media existences? The episode starts out strong, with well-played emotional overtones that convincingly explain the protagonist’s succumbing to the temptation of bringing back her deceased husband. The resulting reunion is as bittersweet as it is creepy, and is very well done. But as the episode wears on, it’s not clear that it knows how to develop the ramifications of the premise to compelling conclusions, fixating on the protagonist’s emotional rejection of the simulacrum due to her realisation that it can never truly replace her husband, which, I think, is a less interesting conceit than if the protagonist were to have accepted that fact – and perhaps ask the more pertinent question of whether the simulacrum could one day be considered a real, distinct person. There is also no real resolution, or neat round-up, only a coda that takes place a few years later, that doesn’t wrap the episode up thematically in any coherent (to me) way.

The second, White Bear, is chilling, weird and terrifying from start to finish, but is predicated on a twist that, while truly unexpected, turns the episode into something on another level that is so extreme in its implications as to be unbelievable. A woman who doesn’t remember who she is is forced on the run from some maniacal murderers, constantly being filmed by hordes of silent, smartphone-brandishing zombies. It mixes and subverts many horror and apocalyptic tropes in a very smart way, and turns into a meditation on tit-for-tat vengeance as a form of participative mass entertainment. But it makes certain assumptions about contemporary human societies and the ways in which they deal with these things that don’t sit well with me somehow. In what society would carefully staged vigilantism turn into an outlet for popular entertainment, while preserving contemporary received values of justice and due process? I do understand that these scenarios are meant to be speculative and push the boundaries to present a thematic point, but my preference is for even such societies to have a greater amount of self-consistency.

The last, The Waldo Moment, is probably my least favorite for similar reasons as the second – an irreverent, vulgarity-spewing virtual character runs for political office and gets voted into power by a disgruntled electorate, tired of conventional politics. While some would call it chillingly prophetic of Donald Trump’s rise, this episode doesn’t, in my mind, really convincingly show how it happened, even as it plays off the Jekyll-and-Hyde contrast between the quiet, introspective voice of Waldo and his Waldo-esque stage persona, which takes a life of its own. The episode’s premise strains credulity as Waldo becomes an international revolution, transcending cultures and languages. The annoying coda shows a dystopian future in which the homeless protagonist ekes out a meager existence in a world where Waldo has become the virtual avatar of the powers that be, which is the very definition of stretching a premise far beyond its breaking point.

The 2014 bonus White Christmas episode, which I will take as part of this season, is basically a complex and convoluted mishmash of many different sf ideas into a single three-parter mega-episode that, while interesting, is too convoluted to have that sense of single-issue coherence that other Black Mirror episodes have. But it is probably still the best and most complete of the episodes insofar as it expertly wends together its disparate technological, sociological and psychological strands to a fitting and utterly chilling finish.

I give this season: 3.5 out of 5 blue bears