The End of All Things

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What it’s about: The sixth book in the Old Man’s War sequence continues the story of the Colonial Union’s quest to survive amidst various encroachments, primarily that of a clandestine organisation that has a stake in its dissolution.

Notes:

  • Like The Human Division, this book is also comprised of a number of interconnected novellas, but unlike The Human Division, these are much more tightly connected and linked to a central narrative strand that was just only hinted at in the previous book. The Human Division had attributed various mysterious happenings to an unseen agent, but it is only in this book that the big bad is finally revealed in all its dastardliness, and this book is all about confronting that main antagonist. In that sense, The End of All Things is the more focused and narratively cohesive work.
  • This is the book where the political philosophies banded about throughout the series’ length gets put to the fore and discussed. Space, with its vastness and unpredictability, is a perfect canvas for a Hobbesian state of affairs where it’s every civilization for itself. But in this environment, two major polities have emerged – the Colonial Union and the Conclave, and the former is actually the “bad guy” in the Universe – an aggressive and expansionist entity that regards its actions as the only way to ensure survival in a cold and unfeeling universe. The Conclave, on the other hand, is a liberal, heterogeneous polity forged out of grudging consensus, an international order governed by mutually-reinforcing norms, that views the CU as a threat to its fragile state of affairs.
  • The Big Bad, known as Equilibrium, belongs to an order of political thought that views this bipolar world as inherently unstable and dangerous – that at some point, one entity will gain hegemony at the total expense of the other, imposing its fiat on the rest of the polities in known space, while erasing the losing party from existence. In a bid to resolve this state of affairs, they seek to use subterfuge and a whole host of frankly vile tactics to topple both empires and return the galaxy to a purely multipolar state of affairs, which they believe to be the most stable. Of course, they’re also counting on enriching themselves in the process, and the journey back into multipolarity is going to result in genocide.
  • Now, contemporary IR theory is of many minds about the stability of various polar configurations. Classical realism would hold that multipolar worlds offer the greatest stability, others think that it would still result in a large number of petty wars and force individual polities to mind too many different enemies, increasing the chances of overreaction and petty warfare. Either way, war is a constant, but Equilibrium clearly thinks that in a scenario where each state commands weapons capable of destroying vast swathes of an opposing planet, a multipolar world would diffuse aggressiveness and maximise the chances of species continuity (since no one species would be enough of a threat to be a concerted target of genocide from an alliance of other races). Basically, a return to a world where war is fought to maintain the balance of power, rather than to exterminate the enemy in their entirety.
  • IR aside, though, Equilibrium’s methods clearly paint them as an avowed antagonist, and the entire book is about the good guys’ efforts to sic them out and wipe their mercenary asses off known space, which proceeds in satisfying fashion. The first novella, the story of the preternaturally-resourceful Rafe Daquin, who, even as a disembodied brain in a jar, manages to outsmart his Equilibrium captors and reveal their existence to the world, is classic Scalzi – a story of how an underdog uses smarts to win the day against all odds. The second segment discusses the internal politics of the Conclave, and the third and last segments sees them coming to a modus vivendi  with the CU and Earth in a bid to defeat the newly found enemy. The stories are focused, fast-paced and thrillingly smart, interlaced with classic Scalzi humor and satisfying descriptions of subterfuge. Really, no one beats Scalzi at setting up convoluted plots that unroll across the telling of a tale in such a satisfying way.

Verdict: Yet another classic Scalzi doing what he does best, The End of All Things wraps up the latest strand of the intriguing Old Man’s War universe in satisfying and kinetic fashion.

I give this: 4.5 out of 5 brain-controlled ships

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Gardens of the Sun

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What it’s about: The follow-up to The Quiet War, this book continues the story of the conflict between Earth and the Outers, as well as that of the lives of the various characters from the first book.

Notes:

  • This was actually a more enjoyable read than The Quiet War. McAuley is better at the big picture, and Gardens of the Sun definitely has a much more expansive scope than the first book. The book adopts a much more “future history” tone, with McAuley describing grandiose social and political movements, migrations, and revolutions from the perspective of his characters, who are both observers and active participants in these events. There isn’t much in the way of tension – a lot of the plot threads have an air of inevitability to them, in the sense that we never feel like the characters are acting in opposition to overwhelming odds against them, and the stage is often set for ensuring the survival of the collective (but not so much for the individual characters, who get killed off like flies). And a lot of the plot is told, rather than shown, in long expository passages. But I don’t actually mind this, because it plays to McAuley’s strengths in world-building.
  • Surprisingly, the characters all get significant and meaningful development in this book, and are as a consequence much more fleshed-out than in the first book. Characters like Cash Baker, Alder, Dave and even Loc Ifrahim are no longer the one-dimensional ciphers in the Quiet War and are deployed in a much more sympathetic and nuanced light. This really made me enjoy the book that much more.
  • For all of McAuley’s strengths in worldbuilding, however, one problem that emerges in this second book is his plot resolutions. He seems to have a clear ending in mind, but has problems resolving things that he’s set up over the course of the book. This leads to certain leaps in plot logic and deus ex machinae that pop up close to the end of the book, and plot elements that one would think deserve a bit more attention are described in the past tense and are taken to have occurred off-screen.

Verdict: While still flawed, Gardens of the Sun is a much more interesting and involved read than its predecessor, and maintains the same grandiosity of worldbuilding as the original.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 Ghost Ships

The Quiet War

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What it’s about: Earth, newly ascendant from environmental catastrophe, seeks to establish its hegemony over the far-flung colonies of posthuman Outers living in the moons and planetoids of Jupiter and Saturn.

Notes:

  • This is the first of a duology of books that paint an arresting vision of the state of a 23rd century solar system where humankind has mastered genetic and environmental engineering to a degree that they can spin complete habitats on the most arid of rocks and thrive there to a high degree of self sufficiency and comfort.
  • The Quiet War starts out intriguingly enough, introducing the reader to a climate change-ravaged Earth with a vastly reshaped political theatre, dominated in the Americas by the dictatorial and oligopolistic (but also aggressively environmentalist) families of Greater Brazil, and their attendant gene wizards: scientific geniuses whose proprietary mastery of genetic engineering have given them considerable clout and influence.
  • On the far edges of the Solar System, new typologies of living are being explored by the Outers: diamond-tented cities perched on moonlets, undersea bases clinging onto the underside of Europa’s kilometres-thick ice-crust, mysterious gardens of vacuum-adapted organisms in the centres of hollowed-out asteroids. The Outers themselves are on the cusp of a massive flowering, forging their descendants into posthuman clades adapted to the diverse environments of the solar system.
  • McAuley’s training as a botanist and biologist shows, with oddly beautiful passages devoted to the exploration of how future humans might be able to cultivate living biomes from dead rock, and of the rejuvenation efforts being carried out on Earth, where we see an odd juxtaposition of climate consciousness, religious fervor, and dictatorship – a state of affairs that seems more and more likely as our squabbling corporate-dominated institutions move closer and closer to a global warming redline without being able to come to a consensus.
  • McAuley treats both sides with some complexity, at the risk of muddying his message. Greater Brazil is depicted as aggressive, conservative and militaristic, contrasted against the technologically progressive, gene-spliced Outers who operate using a culture of radical consensus and whose currency is a system of favour-based accounting called kudos. Except I’m not quite sure who McAuley is rooting for sometimes (which is not a bad thing, per se, but I think most books should take a stand on this) – because the Outer system of democracy is portrayed as ineffectual and affected, to the point of making them sitting ducks for a military strike.
  • Amidst the stellar worldbuilding, however, is a ponderous narrative populated with undistinguished characters, that, like the spaceships of the era, take forever to get anywhere. And indeed, the titular quiet war between Earth and the Outers is the payoff of the entire book, and the consequence of McAuley’s slow and considered buildup, but it feels almost inevitable – thus, the reader is just left with the task of finding out how exactly it happens.
  • To put it another way, the lives of the small players in this space opera intertwine with the massive historical shifts in power that result in a vastly different Solar System between the start and the end of the book. But the lives of the small, for the most part, pale in interest to those characters closer to the loci of power – gene wizard Sri Hong-Owen may be the most intriguing of these. But the book’s other POV characters – notably Macy Minnot and Cash Baker – are the “human interest” characters that don’t seem quite as interesting in the scheme of things, even as they are expository vehicles for McAuley to further explore the world he has wrought.

Verdict: While the worldbuilding is top-notch, the narrative takes forever to get anywhere, not helped by the inherent dullness of many of the story’s POV characters.

I give this book: 3.5/5 spex

Persepolis

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What it’s about: A precocious young woman tells the story of how she came of age in revolutionary Iran.

Notes:

  • To me, Persepolis exemplified one of the great virtues of reading – its ability to introduce the reader to new places and people, and most importantly, humanise them. In a climate where Iran is constantly demonised as an intolerant theocratic pariah state with nuclear ambitions, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that there are people living there whose hopes, dreams and fears are akin to ours.
  • But it doesn’t vacillate into cultural relativism – Satrapi is firm in stating her position that Iran’s current environment is repressive to women, foreign ideas, and alternative systems of thought and faith, and that this has robbed its culture of its essential vitality. There is much that Satrapi depicts as evil and backward about the Islamist regime, and many of the people Satrapi depicts are no angels – bigoted, cowardly, bullying, or apathetic cogs of the state. But there are good people too.
  • In this sense, Persepolis is, while funny and charming to a fault, still a tragic story of how Iran, teetering on the brink of democratic revolution, instead fell prey to its more reactionary tendencies. As part of a stratum of liberal Iranians who were the losers in this particular cultural battle, Satrapi and her family had to get by as best as they could in a climate of fear and paranoia.
  • Yet, the magic of Persepolis is that, told through a child’s lens, it is also a story of growing up and of the pleasures of childhood. While always politically and socially conscious, Satrapi, the rebellious child (and later teenager), always finds small ways to sidestep and defy the system she finds herself in – and there is a real human rawness to this because she does so not so much because of high ideological reasons but because she is simply a free-spirited kid who doesn’t want to adhere to the strictures of religiously orthodox behaviour.
  • Satrapi’s relatability and her evocation of the interstices of Iranian society who still flourish even under the hard-heeled boot of theocratic rule are powerful reminders to readers in other climes not to tar an entire people by the political brush of ideologically-inclined media empires, and to recognise our shared humanity through the power of story.
  • Lastly, a note on the art style: while simple and monochrome, Satrapi has a knack for expressiveness amidst light and stark shadow that jumps out of its simplicity.

Verdict: Entertaining, sobering and rawly authentic, Persepolis brings us closer to an understanding of Iran and its peoples through its honest evocation of growing up in a repressive Iran, told through Satrapi’s vivacious autobiographical lens.

I give this: 4.5 out of 5 Iron Maiden Posters

 

The Human Division

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What it’s about: The Colonial Union has lost Earth and must now rely more on diplomacy to survive, even as nefarious forces seek to bring about its destruction.

Notes:

  • This is the first of two serialised novels in the Old Man’s War universe, and as such, can read somewhat episodically at times. The novel follows Harry Wilson, one of the original friends of the erstwhile protagonist John Perry. Wilson is more scientist than soldier, relying more on his wits than his modified green body to survive. And that, I think, makes him more interesting than Perry.
  • Scalzi has great fun putting the characters into all sorts of weird situations showcasing the weird and wonderful in interspecies relations. Many chapters are almost self-contained in how they depict Wilson and his crew thinking on their feet to triage teetering diplomatic negotiations, often relying on serendipity and blind luck to save humanity’s reputation.
  • The self-contained nature of each chapter means that it doesn’t read like a novel, but more like a series of interconnected chapters. Serialised fiction is not new, but Scalzi here has somewhat eschewed the end-of-chapter suspense hook that characterises much of such fiction in favor of making them stories on their own, but unified by an overarching strand that actually never really surfaces in this book (it will the next). It’s a strange read, but not unpleasant. But in a world where information flows so freely, why indeed do books need to be self-contained anymore?

Verdict: Disjointed but entertaining and pure Scalzi in its whimsical inventiveness, The Human Division is a portentous new chapter in the Old Man’s War universe.

I give this: 4 out of 5 nanofiber crowns

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

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