The Three-Body Problem.

ESPN has published an index to all my 2016 prospect content.

Liu Cixin’s 2006 novel The Three-Body Problem was translated into English in 2014 and promptly won the Hugo Award for Best Novel, making Liu the first Asian writer to win the award. He’s won a slew of Galaxy Awards in China for his fiction, but in an interview after he won the Hugo he said he was just writing for “beer money.” That seems a bit disingenuous, as even the afterword to The Three-Body Problem reveals more of his motivation and his enormous imagination, but even so, he’s coming at science fiction from an entirely different angle than any author I’ve read before.

Liu’s novel is the first of a trilogy that presents a largely realistic, hard-science fiction look at the classic sci-fi story of first contact. The book’s title (in Chinese it’s santi, which just means “three body”) refers to a famous problem in classical mechanics. Given the beginning positions, masses, and velocities of two bodies (such as a planet and its moon), determining their motions is simple. When the same problem is extended to three bodies – such as the Earth, its moon, and the Sun – it becomes extremely difficult to solve, and the solution, first identified in 1912 by Karl Sundman, converges so slowly that it’s useless. (The same is true for any n-body problem where n > 2, with that solution coming in a 1991 paper by Wand Qiudong.)

The problem and its lack of a practical solution figures heavily in the novel, although the reason isn’t immediately clear. What is clear, however, is that something very weird is going on, causing scientists to commit suicide without apparent explanation, and it’s connected in some fashion with the secret research facility on Radar Peak and with an intense massive multiplayer game called Three-Body. A nanomaterials researcher, Wang Miao, becomes involved in the global mystery when he starts seeing an ominous countdown first in photographs he takes and then in his own eyes, eventually working with the government to try infiltrate the apparent conspiracy to undermine both science and global security. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that the conspiracy involves the alien race heading for Earth, and the handful of characters who populate Liu’s book have differing feelings on the visitors, even though they won’t arrive for another four centuries.

Liu insists in that afterword that he doesn’t write to make any points, so his works are not political or metaphorical, even though I think it would be easy to read The Three-Body Problem as a work of political allegory, considering the results of life under authoritarianism on individuals’ loyalties to themselves versus to the state. But even without that subtext, the novel still offers plenty of room for analysis because, whether or not he intended it, Liu is exploring the way people might react to this kind of species-altering event, and the varying ways in which people might lose hope in humanity’s ability to fix its own problems. (He makes many references to environmental catastrophes, some real, some not, but despite the book’s infusion of real science, he also includes a maddening, unscientific claim about a GMO crop-caused catastrophe too.) What might cause someone to turn his/her back on the entire human race? To betray us to an unknown species that might intend to do us harm? Some of these conjectures border on the absurd – the rise of a global movement dedicated to the destruction of humanity seems a bit worse than your average doomsday cult – but their existence gives Liu an extreme against which he can set the characters who don’t quite embrace that nihilistic view.

Hard science fiction, in my reading experience, tends to be dry and obsessed with its own navel, so busy telling you about all the cool science – real or speculative – that the prose and plot suffer. Liu’s work is the best blend of quality fiction and hard science, of which there’s a lot, from the three-body problem to quantum entanglement to some crazy stuff about the sun as a radio-wave amplifier and the unfolding of a proton. His explanations are a little abstruse, but having read a bit about these topics recently I was able to follow his text, and he doesn’t dwell long enough on any of the hard-science stuff to derail the plot. I actually had a harder time keeping the characters straight – referring to the wisecracking policeman Da Shi by two different names did not help – than I did staying with the science.

Where Liu falls short as an author is in character development – even beyond my own difficulty with the names. The various leads, including the nanotechnologist Wang and the retired scientist Ye Wenjie, have remarkably little personalities of their own; they become different characters when pressed into action or facing a crisis, but retain none of those traits after those sequences end. Not only does The Three-Body Problem lack a hero or heroine, but it lacks any central character who’s of interest for his or her own sake, rather than as functions within the larger program of the book.

The Three-Body Problem ends with a partial conclusion – the mysteries within the book are solved, but the alien race still won’t arrive for over four hundred years, leaving humanity to decide how to prepare and respond, but with a handicap to their efforts that I assume will hang over much of the sequel, The Dark Forest. It’s certainly readable enough on its own, although you won’t get the satisfaction of a complete ending; the final book of the trilogy, Death’s End, will appear in English this August, when The Dark Forest comes out in paperback.

Next up: I’ve still got two sections left in Rabbit at Rest. Rabbit Angstrom has to be one of my least favorite protagonists in the history of literature.


Robert Sawyer’s name might be more familiar to those of you who watched the short-lived ABC series Flash Forward, based on his novel of the same name, but his one Hugo Award for Best Novel came four years after that book with Hominids, the first book in a trilogy that posits a parallel universe where Neanderthals won the evolutionary battle over Cro-Magnons and have since become the dominant species on their version of Earth.

The two parallel Earths are joined briefly during a quantum computing experiment gone awry in the Neanderthals’ universe, opening a portal that rather rudely deposits Neanderthal physicist Ponder Boddit in our world, smack in the middle of an underground heavy-water tank at the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because it’s real, located in the Creighton nickel mine a bit north of Lake Huron, and the director of the neutrino-detection experiment just won the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physics earlier this month. Sawyer grounds everything in the Homo sapiens world in reality, using real place and brand names, although some of them (Palm Pilot? Handspring?) already sound comically out of date.

Boddit’s appearance in our world and sudden, unexplained disappearance in his creates two separate storylines: one here, focusing on the mystery of his arrival and the very short-term impact on him from a substantial shock to the system; and one there, where his coworker and sort of life-partner (sexual orientation in Sawyer’s Neanderthal world is fluid) Adikor Huld finds himself accused of murder because he was the only one present when Boddit left the building. The latter story ends up the more interesting one despite what would appear to be a simpler premise, as Sawyer uses it to explore both the Neanderthals’ culture and the individual personalities of several characters, primarily Adikor himself. Boddit’s adventure on our side – which, it is clear from the beginning, can only end properly with the opening of a new portal and his return to “his” earth – feels rushed and somewhat rote, as if Sawyer had a sort of checklist of things he wanted to cover and felt compelled to hit them all.

For example, Sawyer has made the Neanderthals a nontheistic and nonreligious society, primarily to set up a scene where he attacks the Catholicism of the main female character, Mary Vaughn, who develops feelings for him during the few days they spend together; it feels forced, and a bit unlikely that the entire culture of Neanderthals would be without religion even before it had a scientific explanation for the existence of the universe or of consciousness. Mary’s character herself is also problematic – her first appearance on the pages is as a rape victim, which serves no purpose within the novel as a whole except possibly to make her more open to seeing Boddit as a fellow human because he is, in our terms, more of a “gentleman.”

Sawyer’s Neanderthals fall too much into the “noble savage” cliché, as their universe has no war, pollution, poverty, or even crime, with a global population of just over 150 million and all citizens equipped from birth with a Companion, an electronic device implanted in the wrist that measures vital signs and records locations, movements, and actions for later storage. It’s a crime-prevention device, a walking encyclopedia, and a near-complete abrogation of individual privacy in the Neanderthals’ Marxist society. It’s also terribly convenient because it allows Boddit to communicate with the people who find him on our side of the portal within a matter of hours, as the Companion can “learn” English and translate for him. (Granted, without that, the book would be a very frustrating read and probably quite boring.)

The two plots are so thin, in fact, that Hominids feels more like an extended prologue for another story than like a standalone novel. While Sawyer’s explanations of quantum mechanics and the existence of this second, parallel universe are quite clever and mostly grounded in real science, once he gets Boddit here, not a whole lot happens either in terms of action on the pages or exploration of the many ramifications of such a discovery, both scientific and anthropological.

Oh, by the way: Not that anyone should take my predictions seriously, but I’ll say Mets in 5.

Next up: Graham Greene’s first novel, The Man Within.

Red Mars.

I have a scouting blog up with notes from three games I saw last week, covering Jeff Hoffman, Gleyber Torres, Matt Strahm, Spencer Adams, and Brad Markey.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy won a Nebula Award for the first book (Red Mars), Hugo Awards for the second (Green Mars) and third (Blue Mars), and Locus Awards for the second and third, as well as a passel of other awards and nominations. I just finished Red Mars, the dense 570-page opener, on Friday, and I can’t fathom why it won the Nebula or has spawned a cult following that appears to be leading toward a scripted series on Spike TV.

The Mars trilogy covers the first human attempt to colonize Mars, with a mission leaving Earth in 2026 (heh) with 100 colonizers chosen largely for their scientific and engineering skills. The goal is merely to establish a permanent settlement that may open the door for further research and potential economic activity like heavy-metal mining, but as conditions on Earth deteriorate due to war, pollution, and overpopulation, emigration to Mars becomes a reality and accelerates beyond the point that the red planet can handle it – especially since Mars is freezing and its thin atmosphere comprises mostly carbon dioxide. This in turn exacerbates the initial philosophical divide among the “first hundred” of whether humans should attempt to terraform Mars and make it suitable for long-term human settlement, or if humans have any responsibility to maintain the planet’s environment and, if present, any ecosystem that might exist at a microscopic level.

Red Mars is hard science fiction, very heavy on the technical aspects of its subject, with painstaking attempts to keep it as scientifically accurate as it can be. That means the book is about as dry as the Martian equator, as Robinson devotes paragraphs and even pages to details that contribute nothing to the plot and only serve to show that the author has indeed done his research. I can understand the desire to convince the reader that something like the space elevator transportation system is feasible, for example, but the point of including it in a work of fiction should be to show its effect on the characters within the story, not merely to say, “hey, cool, a space elevator!”

Robinson seems so caught up in demonstrating the technologies required for the mission and his mastery of their specifics that he spends very little time developing the book’s central characters, roughly a dozen of the first hundred who play significant roles in the novel’s multistranded story arc. Two of the most significant ones are dead before the book even ends, as are a few characters of less importance, and while many dramatic works benefit from the uncertainty around characters’ fates, Red Mars isn’t one of them. There’s no sense of impending jeopardy to raise tensions, and when the novel ends with a lengthy journey where several of the first hundred escape from Terran forces, I never doubted that they’d succeed in reaching their destination. And, most damning of all, I didn’t really care if they didn’t, so long as Robinson didn’t bore me to death first with details of how their little rovers worked or more about that bizarre flood that, even with all his descriptive text, I still could not for the life of me manage to picture in my head.

So my question to those of you who’ve braved this series is whether it’s worth it to continue, as I’ve been reading past Hugo winners, which would include both of the next two books in the series. My instinct is no, that the issue was Robinson’s writing style, and that seems unlikely to improve from book to book, at least not enough for me to plod through another 1200 pages.

Next up: I just finished A Bell for Adano, a wonderful satirical war novel by John Hersey (author of the famed New Yorker piece Hiroshima) and have begun Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly.


My Futures Game recap is up for Insiders.

I read six books on my vacation – fortunately, my wife and I both subscribe to John Waters’ philosophy on lovers and books – including four of my favorite authors/series (Poirot, Nero Wolfe, Flavia de Luce, and a standalone P.G. Wodehouse novel), as well as two new authors, including Larry Niven’s Hugo and Nebula Award-winning novel Ringworld. Like Arthur Clarke’s similarly-acclaimed Rendezvous with Rama, Ringworld is a work of hard science fiction, in this case playing off a popular concept in physics and speculative science (the Dyson Sphere) and turning it into a lengthy adventure story involving the discovery of a distant world. It’s also surprisingly dull for a story that has as much action as Ringworld does, perhaps because most of the plot elements are so hackneyed.

Set in a distant future where man has explored a wider corner of the galaxy, encountering at least three alien races, the story has four explorers setting off on a mission to reach the structure of the story’s title, an artificial planet of sorts shaped like a ring around a distant sun. The crew is assembled by a two-headed creature called a puppeteer, who has deliberately selected three specific members – two humans, and one giant feline creature called a kzinti – for this mission, itself a response to the discovery that the Milky Way’s core is going to break down in a massive chain reaction in about 20,000 years. The puppeteers have already begun a massive migration, but it becomes clear that they want to see if copying Ringworld would accommodate them in another system.

Niven has explicitly said that he modeled the world after the Dyson Sphere, a hypothetical structure built around a star capable of capturing all of that star’s energy to supply the needs of the species that built it. Dyson recognized that per capita energy usage rises as a civilization becomes more technologically advanced – how many devices are you charging at the moment? – and conceived this structure as a totally crazy, speculative solution as well as a theoretical maximum on the energy available to that civilization, given that solar energy would dwarf any energy from nonrenewable sources. Niven has the unfortunate tendency to give the reader too much of the physics, generally in awkward dialogue between these impossibly-educated crew members, which doesn’t do much to help keep the story moving. Where Niven has to deviate from known or even hypothetical physics – the familiar “hyperdrive” of most science fiction gets stretched even further than normal – he spares us the details, which works much better because you’re only reading this book if you’re already willing to suspend your disbelief in things like travel at or faster than the speed of light. (Niven actually has an amusing bit of handwaving about this that I won’t spoil.)

Science fiction that relies this heavily on the science portion for seizing and maintaining reader interest worked for me when I was a teenager, but now it leaves me cold; I want fiction that tells me a story, preferably one that examines some fundamental aspects of human nature. (Granted, that’s tricky with a kzinti who might eat his shipmates or a puppeteer who rolls into a ball when scared as part of the crew.) Niven could have used his plot device as a way to consider the eventuality that we will fill the planet, or reach a point where we can’t increase our per capita energy consumption, but he blows right past that to get his quartet on Ringworld, where they find … well, not very much. And what they find is bizarre, often inexplicable, and impossible to picture with Niven’s rather stolid prose.

Ringworld isn’t a slow or arduous read, however – the writing isn’t complex, the sentences are pretty short, and most chapters function as self-contained stories. It may have been more praiseworthy in its day, but given some of the recent Hugo winners that have put storycraft over the sci-fi or fantasy elements, it feels very dated.

Next up: I just finished Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle and started Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Hours on the flight back from Humid City this morning.

Rendezvous with Rama.

A brief Insider piece where I rank the top ten prospects by position went up this afternoon.

I’m gradually working my way through the list of winners of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, mostly concentrating on recent winners, but jumping back for a few of the classics I missed when I went through a heavy sci-fi phase as a teenager. Arthur Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama won the Hugo in 1974 (and the Nebula and a bunch of other significant awards in the genre) and remains highly-regarded four decades later, even though it’s extremely light on conventional plot elements, focusing instead on hard science and some philosophical questions around what an encounter with a superior alien intelligence might entail.

Rama itself is a giant alien vessel that enters our solar system on a parabolic trip around our sun in the year 2131, by which point humanity has colonized several other planets and bodies in the system (including, bizarrely, Mercury and the Neptunian moon Triton), and has also set up an early-warning system to detect possible threats to earth after a meteorite fell on northern Italy in 2077. This system identifies Rama first as a fast-moving asteroid or meteorite, but when it comes closer it becomes apparent that it’s some sort of extraterrestrial ship or device, larger than many asteroids, a giant cylinder spinning at a rate impossible for a natural object. The confederation of planets sets up a manned mission to Rama to explore it, assuming the world itself is dead, which sets up the bulk of the book as a description of what the mission finds once they reach Rama and make their way inside of it.

Clarke’s interests here seem to split into two areas – the internal construction of Rama as a self-sufficient entity with a sort of artificial intelligence powering it (Rama has been in transit for so long that no purely biological life remains, if it ever existed), and some of the moral and ethical dilemmas around the exploration of the world. Since its creators are not present, and could not have left any explanation of their intentions, how would the explorers balance scientific inquiry with the moral imperative to do minimal harm? At one point, the Mercury colonists (“Hermians”) – and let’s not even get started on the absurdity of that – decide to set up a preemptive strike, even though there’s no clear sign that Rama has been sent to attack anything in our system; again, where is the inflection point beyond which the proper response is self-defense?

Because Clarke moves everything so quickly, and sets up just the briefest tensions, there isn’t much discussion or even time for thought about these issues – he’s sort of throwing the questions out there for the reader, then moving on to whatever’s next. I’m not suggesting he had to go Full Tolstoy and give us 80 pages on the morality of space exploration, but a novel that wants to confront these philosophical questions probably should have a little more internal debate among the characters than Rama did. Clarke tries to include this by jumping from the actions of the crew on Rama to the conferences among the various emissaries from the various colonies across the solar system, but these focus as much on problem-solving as on ethical concerns.

I’ve read in a few places, including (but not limited to) Wikipedia, that filming Rendezvous with Rama is a longtime goal of Morgan Freeman, but I can’t imagine this book as a successful film without major script changes. There are no aliens, so there’s no antagonist. The explorers fight a little bit against time, a little against the “elements” within Rama (which is essentially a world turned inside out), but the standard sources of tension are simply absent here. Clarke creates narrative greed only by keeping the chapters short and the action quick, but once it becomes clear he’s not going to kill off a large section of the crew, we’re just watching the explorers peel back layers of the onion and racing a little bit against the clock. The purpose of Rama itself doesn’t become clear until near the very end of the novel, and the crew has little or nothing to do with the revelation. It would likely be a spectacular film visually, but it needs a stronger plot to be a commercial success, and I’m not sure that could happen without throwing the science out the window.

Next up: Another Hugo winner, Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer.