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

La La Land

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Everyone’s going ga-ga over La La Land, the latest from Whiplash director Damien Chazelle, starring Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, and the eponymous city of Los Angeles. Not only is it loved by audiences, it’s also been feted at the Golden Globes, winning a record seven awards, and receiving a total of 14 Oscar nominations.

On one hand, it’s not wholly unexpected. La La Land is almost perfect awards fodder for the Hollywood set. A film about performers making it big in the city of stars, and all the pitfalls, heartbreaks and wonders that process holds, mediated through a classical Hollywood romance that recalls Hollywood’s halcyon glories. It’s Hollywood navel-gazing at its finest.

But in truth, cynicism aside, La La Land really is a delight to watch. A musical set in 21st Century Los Angeles but containing all the lyrical charm, freewheeling style, and irrepressible energy of its Golden Age inspirations, La La Land makes use of that vast memetic reservoir of cultural memory of the classical Hollywood musical,to position itself firmly as a classic of the genre for a new generation.

After a somewhat humdrum first twenty minutes (yes, I wasn’t that impressed with the dancing on the freeway), the film really takes off after our leads bump into each other at a party. Gosling and Stone play talented performers who are struggling to make it big in their art. Mia (Stone) works shifts as a barista while going for audition after audition, and Sebastian (Gosling) picks out Christmas tunes at a local restaurant while dreaming about setting up his own old school jazz bar. Their shared circumstances and their irrepressible zest for their respective passions make them a solid match. And Gosling and Stone are perfect for the roles – they have incredible chemistry together, leading us almostly helplessly to root for them every step of the way.

There’s an almost cheesy – but not quite – exuberance to their budding relationship. It’s a very old school sort of affair – the kind that involves minimal long distance communication despite the existence of smartphones and internet. While shaky plotwise, it really lends a sort of intimacy to their romance, because all their interactions are mediated while they’re on screen together, sharing the same physical space. As I said, throwback to the classics. There is little tolerance for the slow burn, skype-mediated LDR relationship in this kind of film – it’s all or nothing.

Their budding romance includes a third element – the city of Los Angeles itself. Contemporary renditions of LA tend to bring out its less attractive aspects – just look at Gosling’s other movie, Drive, where the noirish, sodium-lighted streets of LA drift by to a slow-beat-techno tempo. Or they tend to fixate on its status as a city of artifice, criminality and chicanery. There’s even the whole Blade Runner depiction of it as this cyberpunk stratified dystopia, where the rich live in arcologies and the poor on the rainy, perpetually dark streets.

La La Land’s LA is vibrant, romantic, full of hidden doors that, Narnia-like, whisk you to other worlds and other possibilities. Its parks are lined with ornate lamps that give off a soft ivory glow to complement the couple’s’ tap dancing. Griffiths Observatory is not a place for the clandestine exchange of briefcases, but a podium from which our leads can dance amongst the planets and the stars. Of course, there are jokes about the traffic, the coffee, and the callousness of auditioners. But LA itself is just presented as is, but with a little dose of magic. It’s a refreshing take on a city that is so often maligned by its own denizens.

It brings me back to a point I wanted to make about things being as they are – La La Land just gives off a sense of authenticity. LA is LA, of course, but so are Mia and Sebastian – eminently normal people doing their best to achieve their dreams. Gosling and Stone aren’t the best singers or dancers, but the fact that their singing and dancing aren’t perfect makes them seem more real and more relatable. It’s strange because a musical is decidedly not ‘realistic’ – nobody bursts into song unsolicited. When Stone or Gosling sing, it’s almost as if the world shifts out of one frame of reality into another, where the camera flattens out and the world ceases to exist except for the performers themselves. It’s an arrangement that is pure artifice, but the raw emotional power of the performances (like Stone’s impassioned “The Fools Who Dream”, or Gosling’s “City of Stars”) allow it to transcend beyond artifice into authentic, aesthetic truth.

The film’s bittersweet ending is probably its most divisive, but the fact that it has evoked so much feeling is a testament to its effectiveness as a closing device for the plot. Over the course of their relationship, Mia and Sebastian have nudged each other in the direction of achieving their dreams, but they realise that they cannot both achieve them while they’re still together, and they go their separate ways. Years later, Mia, now an accomplished actress, comes across Seb’s thriving jazz establishment, where Seb is just about to guest perform. Seeing her, Seb, filled with sudden emotion, plays a long medley of all the musical motifs of the film and their past romance, imagining an alternate future where they had stayed together, but ultimately sounds a last, lingering note of melancholy. Before Mia leaves, they share a last, tentative glance, sad that their romance didn’t last, but happy for each other.

Never mind the quibbling about whether or not it would’ve been possible, logistically, for their romance to continue on pace with them achieving their respective dreams – it’s what their choice represented that gives the ending its unique resonance. Their decision to part ways was partly driven by their love for each other, and their wish for the other to have the best shot at achieving their dreams. And yet, there is always that element of uncertainty – what if they had stuck together? Life is full of these questions, these forks in the road, and it’s easy to regret decisions and imagine utopian might-have-beens. In the end, though, La La Land makes the bold decision to stake its position against the cliched tide of romantic tropes guaranteeing a happily-ever-after. It makes us ask the question, as we leave the cinema in a state of cathartic release, whether or not it really is worth giving up love for one’s dreams, or vice versa – and itself balances on the knife’s edge of answering either way. But, certainly, the wonderment of its tentpole romance is a testament to the oft-quoted Tennyson quote that “tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all”.

I give this film: 4.5 out of 5 Buick Riveras