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 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

 

Old Man’s War

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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.

Notes

  • 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

 

The Sisters Brothers

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Strange, hilarious at times, mournful at others, fatalistic, laced with violence and peppered with symbolism, The Sisters Brothers is a taut picaresque Western that reads like the script of a Coen brothers movie.

It’s about two brothers, hired killers Eli and Charlie Sisters, and the tale of their travels in Gold-Rush era California to find and end the life of a man, upon orders of their boss. But amidst this, Eli Sisters, who has long questioned if he is of the right temperament for this life, starts to try to dig himself and his brother out of the rut of hired killing that has been their lifeblood for years.

Eli is a great narrative figure – comical but somewhat relatable in his childlike earnestness, even as we remain aware that he is, after everything is said and done, still a killer. The gentler counterweight to his psychotic, trigger-happy brother, Eli spins his tale with what can only be described as a kind of endearing honesty, detailing his somewhat faltering and pathetic attempts at self-improvement while being stymied by the ides of fate, the judging eye of society, and the actions of his boorish, more violent brother. Eli’s earnestness provides the novel with its comic sensibility – his attempts at finding a love interest, his short-lived determination to lose weight, his wonderment at discovering the restorative properties of regular toothbrushing – all told in that incongruously formal, polite prose that for some reason characterizes the dialogue of the heroes and villains of every Hollywood-era Western.

But the comedy is tightly intertwined with the casual violence and thuggery that characterizes DeWitt’s vision of the Wild, Wild West – more akin to the pop-culture pastiches of the time, all dusty towns and pistol duels and testy barmaids, with its cavalier attitude to life and death out in the open road – than to sober historical portrayals. For all his attempts at self-improvement, Eli is always the tag-along to his brother, having little choice but to play supporting character to his brother as he intimidates, robs and shoots his way across the landscape in fulfillment of his baser inclinations.

This comes to a head when the brothers finally track down their quarry – a pioneering, industrious man with a ridiculous life story named Herman Kermit Warm, who has recently discovered a chemical that can easily reveal the location of the bountiful gold in Californian riverbeds. Eli thinks of this as a prime opportunity to abandon their life of killing, and, with much difficulty, convinces his brother to band together with Warm instead of killing him on the orders of their master. But, fittingly with the theme of dashed hopes of gold prospectors in the Western frontier, their plan doesn’t work out quite as they imagined, and Eli’s aspirations evaporate in much the same way as they started – in the violence that seems almost like the fate to which they are consigned.

The story ends on a cathartic note even as its climax is consummated in violence, a synthesis of Eli’s desire to abandon violence even as he searches for a better life. He is an almost quixotic character, an optimist who somehow retains his earnestness even as he is dealt blow after blow in life, sometimes through no fault of his own. Funnily enough, he seems to be his own Sancho Panza – he has enough self-awareness to be aware, to some degree, of his lot in life.

The Sisters Brothers offers Eli no riches for his deeds, but somewhat karmically, gives him the essence of what he claims to desire – a life outside of violence – although not exactly on the terms he had been so assiduously working for. In that sense, The Sisters Brothers can be viewed, albeit in a very twisted way, as a sort of karmic morality tale, one edged in a cinematic, almost stylised Tarantino-esque violence, tipped with the hard-edged justice of the Wild West.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 notebooks

Hide Me Among the Graves

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Hide Me Among the Graves is an intriguing, original and slightly anachronistic take on the Victorian vampire novel. 

It takes something special to rise up above the sea of sameness that is the contemporary vampire novel subgenre. Tim Powers, in Graves, has come up with a compelling mythology of vampirism that both feels fresh while staying somewhat true to the thematic power of the vampire trope – that sanguinary union of love and victimization that is the bloodsucker’s relationship with its thrall.

Vampires in Graves are the muses of their hosts, making them great poets and writers, but they are jealous entities and will kill or at least gravely injure anyone related to them. And the London of the setting is a gothic subterranean conurbation in the tradition of other fantastic depictions of city in its Victorian days, haunted by ghosts in the Thames, slowly drifting out to sea to dissipate into oblivion. It is as compelling a conceit as any I have seen in this subgenre, and Powers lays it out, for the most part, in a calibrated manner that slowly reveals the aspects of his mythos without resorting to expository dumps – the bane of many works of fantasy. 

Graves also features one of Tim Powers’ signature plot elements – the melding of reality and fiction through having his characters be fictionalized versions of middling-famous historical figures. Indeed, almost every character in Graves – save for the protagonist and his daughter – is based on a real denizen of Victorian England. In particular, members of the Rossetti family – a reasonably well-known family of poets and writers – are prominent characters in the book.

Also, Graves is a sequel to a previous novel of his, The Stress of Her Regard, which details the events, only hinted at in Graves, that led to the present condition of its characters, and also features a bevy of historical figures, from Byron to Keats.

Somewhat embarrassingly, I was unaware of both of these facts throughout the entire course of my reading of the book – although there is something to be said about the fact that this did not detract too much from its inherent qualities – though it’d be a bit hard to really appreciate the historical references without being some sort of Victorian-era poetry geek.

The irreality of the book’s faux-historical veneer is complemented by an abiding sense of anachronism. The characters don’t seem to think or talk like Victorians – they’re portrayed as being apart from the rest of society, branded by the knowledge of the deeper occult world, and strangely cavalier about ghosts, dessicated undead children, ouija rituals and carrying songbirds in one’s coat pockets. And there always seems to be a hansom cab about whenever the characters need one, a state of affairs that strikes me as very modern expectation. The bottom-line is that this, while set in a fixed historical moment, feels contemporary in outlook.

All in all, Graves is as good as any Victorian gothic horror novel I’ve seen – with a premise that it at once original but hews to the essence of the classic vampire novel.

I give it: 4 out of 5 hansom cabs

It

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Rambling, hoary and florid, IT is a dense jungle of a book that could use a round of editing, but nevertheless leaves a searing imprint of unease on the psyche.

IT is the quintessential Stephen King classic, the manifestation of what it means to be American horror. The town with a dark secret, a cast of sympathetic misfits, the cosmic horror beyond space and time – you can draw a straight and unbroken line from here to Stranger Things. It’s a funny thing indeed when I watch Stranger Things and it all feels so familiar – and then when I read IT, it all becomes clear from where that feeling stems. IT‘s tropes that have wormed their way into our collective cultural subconscious.

It’s a long and wandering book, repository of multiple storylines, recountings, historical anecdotes, and small character studies, flitting from viewpoint to viewpoint, jumping space and time, a veritable forest of prose. It draws the reader in with its dark complexity, painting, in multifaceted, intricate shades, a picture of Derry – a town steeped in its own twisted history, its citizens pawns in an unending cycle of violence stretching back to the earliest ages of man.

At the centre of it all is the horror that goes by many names: Pennywise, Bob Gray, It – an entity much more than the sum of its depictions in derivative media – a grotesque icon that ignites our most primal fears. A clown, his face covered in paint, holding a red balloon – is an entity profoundly out of place with it surroundings, out of sync with the natural order, a rictus of evil behind a merry, painted facade. Pennywise is an inspired creation of a writer who knows intimately the things that humans fear, down to our lizard brains.

But It is more than just a horror fest – it is also about the humanity that shines out against evil, of both the cosmic and mundane variety, of the tight bonds formed between friends, of the power of innocence and the imagination. In its own way, It is also a celebration of youth, of its wildness and creative power, and the ability of play to serve as a bulwark against the darkness of sober adulthood.

That said, however, It does have its fair share of flaws, some of which are more than a little disturbing. For one, the ending of the book feels somewhat like it’s straining for a neat resolution. Having cast It into a cosmic horror, King seems to have no good way for the villain to be defeated in any satisfying way, so the last few chapters of the book fall into a kind of contrived mysticism that uses a whole lot of arcane plot hijinks to MacGuyver its way towards a conclusion.

Also, It‘s treatment of Beverly Marsh, the one girl in the circle of protagonists, is a bit…problematic. Beverly Marsh is the one character who doesn’t seem to have an independent existence – she is always characterised in respect to some male figure in her life. There is an air of tokenism in terms of her inclusion into the Loser’s club – almost as if she is there to spark the boys’ adolescent development. Throughout, the narrative voice takes an abiding interest in Bev’s adolescent physical traits, and describes her central character tension as a simultaneous love-hate relationship with her loving but violent father, and although part of that is meant to generate unease, it feels like some editorial control might have helped in getting King to rein in some of his more…troubling authorial impulses, such as the infamous scene near the end of the book featuring an utterly out-of-place depiction of adolescent sexuality that makes very little sense in context and seems to have been added there just because.

It is a testament It’s hoary and multifarious power, however, that these problems, while very real, are strands in a tapestry of narrative threads that collectively form a masterpiece of the genre, seething with formless dread, grandiose in its evocation of evil, but strangely comforting in its exaltation of childhood, friendship, and innocence.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 inhalers