Thursday, August 18, 2016

2015 Hugo Winner: THE THREE-BODY PROBLEM by Liu Cixin

Over sixty awards in, and the Hugos still have some new ground to break. With this work from Chinese science fiction writer Liu Cixin, 2015 gave us the first translated winner ever. This was, of course, in the midst of "sad puppy" reactionary slate voting. Again, the actual winner has everything you'd want in a classic science fiction novel - mystery, problem-solving, and big ideas - which undermines the only puppy complaints that are anywhere in the neighborhood of valid. This novel's win was part of a strong anti-sad puppy final result that included "no award" winning many categories that the slate had dominated (though the book had some support from puppy voters, which may have skewed the results).

The Three-Body Problem begins during China's Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s, in which activist students fought viciously over Communist ideology in an effort to renew the principles of China's Revolution. This included widespread persecution of intellectuals, and acts of humiliation and violence against anyone believed to have committed ideological crimes. Not only is this an interesting place to start a novel set in China, it gives Liu a couple of thematic points that will recur in the novel: the sense among some of the characters that humanity is too depraved to continue to exist as it is, and also a belief that empirical science should transcend political ideology.

Ye Wenjie witnesses the brutal beating of her father, a theoretical physicist, during the cultural revolution before being sent off to Red Coast, a Chinese SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Life) program, for political rehabilitation. Her story is told in flashback at various points in the book, though once an author introduces a SETI project in a science fiction book, you probably have some hint about the plot. In the present (well, near future), we follow nanomaterials researcher Wang Miao. Wang is contacted by the Chinese police, including the book's most colorful character Investigator Da Shi, along with the CIA. They're investigating the recent deaths of several scientists around the world. After having his own surreal experiences (some of the best parts of the book), Wang ends up exploring a virtual reality video game called The Three-Body Problem. In the game, Wang has to figure out the seasonal cycles on a planet that has irregular periods of intense heat and cold.

My description of the plot may sound rather scattered, but all of this comes together really brilliantly in the last third of the novel, and there are some really fantastic ideas that I haven't even delved into yet. I think I can say this without spoiling anything (because it will sound like nonsense until you get to it) - the building of the sophon is one of the best science fiction sequences I've read in a long time.

I really came to enjoy this book a lot. In fact, it has just about everything I want out of science fiction - big ideas that don't ignore human societies and historical thinking and context. I will say the prose was a little plain. In a translated work, it's hard to say where the blame lies, but I've read a fair number of Ken Liu's stories, and I think he's a fine writer, so I'd wager that Liu Cixin's prose is probably fairly unadorned (though very clear) in the original Mandarin. A bigger problem is with the characters. There is attention paid to their motivations, but beyond that they're all pretty flat. Ye Wenjie is the most well-rounded, detective Da Shi is a fun archetype, the main character is kinda dull, though that maybe helps him as a point-of-view character - he is easy to project onto. Actually, I have to say that adding together the stock characters and unadorned prose alongside the great ideas and logical storytelling, I was reminded a lot of Isaac Asimov (who gets name-checked at one point). Asimov was very influential in my early sf reading, so it was a pleasant association, even though not all of those characteristics would be considered virtues in most novelists.

Grade: A-

Monday, August 1, 2016

2014 Nebula Winner: ANNIHILATION by Jeff VanderMeer

Jeff VanderMeer is the kind of active and well-liked leader in the science fiction community to whom the SFWA often seems to award Nebulas. I've hinted in the past that this seeming emphasis on the writer over the work hasn't always led to the strongest winners, in my opinion, but things worked out well with this choice. Annihilation is a strong and intriguing work of speculative fiction with literary ambitions - in other words, just what I'm looking for in these winners.

The novel is written as a journal of an expedition into a mysterious place called Area X that has a strange ecology and dramatic effects on the minds of any humans who enter it. The biologist of the twelfth expedition narrates, and we never learn her name or the names of the other expedition members (a psychologist, a surveyor, and an anthropologist). Things, of course, go wrong immediately, The results are pretty trippy with a heavy focus on how perception shapes behavior. VanderMeer can accomplish a lot, for instance, with the simple fact that expedition members can't agree on whether to call an artifact they find a "tunnel" or a "tower." I haven't always been a fan of very surrealist sf, but it works well here, as the images offer some great surprises and puzzles that stimulated my imagination, Interspersed with these events are flashbacks to the biologists pre-expedition life that build a very convincing character - she is surprisingly well-rounded despite remaining unnamed.

It's short and fast-paced, and I actually thought the length perfect. For a book that is abstract in many ways and doesn't seem interested in explaining many of its mysteries, spending any longer in this world might have gotten a little tiring. But, it ends on a very strong note. However, this is the first volume in The Southern Reach trilogy (all published in 2014 in an interesting strategy), so I guess there is more to be said about Area X and the efforts to explore it. I'm reluctant to dive into the other books not despite my enjoyment of this one but because that enjoyment was so predicated on its length and mystery. If anyone out there is reading and wants to recommend books two and three, I'd love to hear from them though.

Grade: A-