Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang.

My first book, Smart Baseball, is out now in hardcover, ebook, and audiobook. You can find links to order it here or get it at any local bookstore.

Kate Wilhelm won the Hugo and Locus Awards for Best Novel in 1977 for her book Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, which Locus called – I kid you not – the best book about cloning, which I guess is a subgenre I just missed over the years. It’s also much more than just a book about cloning; like the best genre fiction, it uses its setting as a platform to tell a bigger story, in this case one about the importance of individuality in a society that might overvalue the collective good.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang starts with the fall of civilization; environmental degradation leads to worldwide food shortages and global pandemics. One family in the Shenandoah Valley starts planning for the apocalypse by building a research facility and eventually a hospital on their rural property and beginning a cloning program to combat declining fertility. Over the course of the novel, which jumps forward a few years at multiple points, the clones take over the kibbutz and start building their mini-society in a very different way than their ancestors would have, creating something akin to true communism as described by Marx in the end of Das Kapital. That attempt runs into massive practical and cultural problems, and Mark, the hero of the last half of the book, becomes the reluctant individual who tries to topple the status quo.

I don’t know what Wilhelm’s political views were, but I found it hard to see this as anything but a criticism of communism and its advocacy of a command (centrally planned) economy. The clones aren’t just similar; they experience a psychic bond to each other, so when one is injured, his/her clone siblings feel it, but so they’re also unable to function apart from their broods. Mark is raised outside of the commune for several years by his mother, Molly, who was part of a group that attempted to explore the ruins of nearby Washington, D.C., the members of which were all permanently altered by the traumatic experience of their separation. That leaves Mark the one true individual in the colony, not just able to function on his own, but able to think critically and creatively in ways that the clones cannot. At first, he acts out the way that bright kids do, playing pranks on the clones who can’t think their way out of trouble, but eventually realizes (or decides) that he’s the only person who can save both the colony and what remains of humanity.

And that’s really what this is – a savior story, set against the backdrop of a collective society that doesn’t just deny the individuality of its members, it breeds all individuality out of its members, selecting clones based on physical or mental characteristics needed to maintain the colony. (There’s an anti-eugenics theme in here as well, although it’s not as well-developed.) In a novel with few complete characters – that’s a feature of a cloning story, not a bug – Mark is the best, and comes across as the reluctant hero, beset by internal demons that resulted from mistreatment by the very society that he’s trying to save. I haven’t read the works of Ayn Rand beyond a few snippets, but this seems to mirror the anti-communist, individualist themes of her objectivist philosophy, just with better writing.

Next up: Kelly Link’s Pulitzer-nominated short story collection Get in Trouble.

Spin.

Smart Baseball is out on Tuesday! You can still preorder it here.

Robert Charles Wilson’s ambitious novel Spin, winner of the 2005 Hugo Award for Best Novel, combines some hard science fiction with some highly speculative work in both cosmology and nanotechnology as it follows three characters after the cataclysmic event that gives the book its title. It’s a bold novel of ideas that struggles a little in its midsection but comes through with a rousing, clever finish that also gives a bleak story a hopeful if uncertain resolution.

The Spin of the title is the name humanity gives a temporal bubble that an unknown, external entity (later dubbed the “Hypotheticals”) has placed around the Earth, causing time inside the bubble to move more slowly than it does outside. Where one year passes on Earth inside the Spin, a hundred million years pass outside of it, which means that after thirty to fifty years inside the Spin, the region of the solar system where the Earth exists would become uninhabitable as the Sun begins the expansion that precedes its death.

The story itself starts with twelve-year-old Tyler Dupree and his two friends, Diane and Jason Lawton, from the night the Spin first appears, obscuring the stars and knocking out satellite communications worldwide. Jason is the scientific genius of the trio; Diane, his sensitive twin sister who turns to religion; and Tyler, the narrator and balancing figure, a bit of a Nick Newland for his bland presence in the story, whose love for Diane is unrequited and whose friendship with Jason feels professional even before, later in life, he becomes Jason’s personal physician.

The narrative jumps around in time, with vignettes from a distant future where Tyler is going through a process we later learn is a massive physical adjustment to a sort of drug regimen brought to earth by a human who has returned to Earth from Mars. It’s one of Wilson’s most clever gambits in the book – Jason and others at his father’s think tank/quasi-governmental organization Perihelion decide to create life on Mars by terraforming and seeding it from afar and then sending people. This takes advantage of the time discrepancy, so the hundreds of millions of years required by evolution take just a few years of Earth time. And it turns out that Life on Mars advances even beyond what life on earth has, with a life-extension treatment that upends the lives of the few on Earth who try it. His return to Earth sparks a second, even more extensive space program that holds the key to humanity surviving the imminent death of its home planet and solar system.

Spin is saved from itself by Tyler and the twins, as the story, while entertaining for its speculative aspects, could not support a 450-page novel by itself. They’re only moderately well-developed, but are at least developed enough to feel real (unlike the twins’ parents, who are straight out of central casting – the hard-driving, materialistic, unloving father, and his miserable alcoholic wife); the twins have a yin/yang dichotomy between them, the hardcore rationalist against the emotion-driven sentimentalist, but Wilson has them behave in ways that transcend two-dimensional stereotypes. Jason’s tortured relationship with his father could make up its own book, and felt more authentic than Tyler’s cold pining for Diane over years when he doesn’t see or hear from her.

The speculative science involved in the second space effort and the resolution of the Spin story reminded me a bit of Michio Kaku’s Parallel Worlds, a non-fiction science book that delves into the idea of the multiverse and whether, for example, wormholes might exist or someone (or something) might travel through a black hole into another universe. In the science world, this might be called “bunkrapt,” but it is fantastic fodder for hard science fiction, and gives Wilson an improbable but internally consistent resolution to the story. There was a point around 2/3 of the way through Spin where I felt like the narrative had slowed down and I was probably going to end up giving it a negative review, but the truly clever endings to the various plotlines make the book a success.

Next up: Another Hugo winner, Kate Wilhelm’s Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.

My last post from Arizona went up yesterday for Insiders, with notes on four prospects: Dylan Cease, Anderson Espinoza, Luis Almanzar, and Scott Blewett. My annual breakout players column goes up Thursday – but if you subscribe to my newsletter, you already knew that.

Also, some great boardgame apps from Asmodee are on sale till March 26th. Here are the ones I recommend, each of which is $2:
* Ticket to Ride (iOSandroid)
* Splendor (iOSandroid)
* Pandemic (iOSandroid)
* Small World (iOSandroid)

Just 34 more days till Smart Baseball is released. You can still preorder it now via Harper-Collins’ site.

Michael Chabon won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2001 with his sprawling novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a story about comic books, magicians, Jewish mysticism, homophobia, fascism, and a few other themes, one that garnered universal praise but that I thought could have used some serious editing. That experience steered me away from Chabon, figuring if I couldn’t love his acknowledged masterwork then I probably just wasn’t a fan, until I picked up his Hugo Award winner The Yiddish Policemen’s Union earlier this year in a used bookstore. It’s still very much Chabon’s voice, but the story here is so much more focused and the side characters more developed, which spurred my “hot take” tweet the other day that I preferred this novel to his magnum opus.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is set in an alternate timeline where the real-life proposal to create a homeland in Alaska for displaced Jews went through, and where the state of Israel was overrun by Arab attackers, so that the city of Sitka – population in our timeline: about 9000 – is a bustling metropolis of over two million people, mostly Jewish refugees and their descendants. (For comparison’s sake, the entire state of Alaska has fewer than 750,000 people right now.) This protectorate comes with an expiration date, like the United Kingdom’s agreement in Hong Kong or our agreement in Panama, where the autonomy of the local Jewish population over their municipal affairs will end two months after the time in which the story takes place, with the fate of all of these Jews unknown. They may lose their citizenship, and will certainly lose their socioeconomic status, with federal agents lurking, ready to come in and throw the Jews out.

Set against this backdrop is an old-fashioned noir detective novel, one that begins with a dead junkie in the flophouse where alcoholic cop Meyer Landsman lives (and drinks). The junkie has been shot in the head, execution-style, but left behind some very strange clues, including a miniature chessboard left in the middle of a difficult problem and Jewish prayer strings (tzitzit) that the victim appears to have used to tie off when shooting heroin. The victim turns out to be someone fairly significant in the local underworld, which spins Landsman and his partner, the half-Jewish/half-Tlingit Berko Shemets, into a traditional hard-boiled detective storyline where they bounce in a sort of circle around the same handful of suspects and sources to try to unravel the core mystery. Of course, Landsman gets knocked out, kidnapped, nearly killled, and drunk over the course of the novel, because Chabon is at least true to the form to which he’s paying homage.

Chabon creates a fun cast of eccentrics to populate this novel – which was also true of Kavalier and Clay – even though he has to cut them all from the same basic cloth. They’re all exiles facing the potential end of their safe haven, all brought up in the same semi-closed community, all coping with the same existential doubts. Even those who’ve spent time outside of the enclave, such as Meyer’s ex-wife and now boss Bina, share the same core experiences and are facing the same sort of countdown-to-extinction questions. Chabon gives them surprising depth given the limitations he’s placed on himself with this setting.

He also wrote a cracking good plot; at the end of the day, detective fiction lives and dies by two things, the main character and the story, so while Chabon’s prose can be spectacular, it’s lipstick on a pig if the story isn’t good. I was drawn into the story fairly quickly, and he manages to peel back the layers in a way that feels realistic, while also infusing just enough of a conspiracy to keep the reader guessing – and to give some meaning to the general sense of the Sitka population that the world is really out to get the city’s Jews.

The characters in the book are all supposed to be speaking Yiddish, with a glossary at the end of the book for Yiddish terms that Chabon chose to keep or that lack an easy translation, a detail that makes sense for the setting but that gave the book the only real distraction, especially when Chabon would tell us that a certain character had switched to English or, on one or two occasions, Hebrew. It fits the setting – a refugee population moving en masse like that wouldn’t just adopt a new tongue – but detracted slightly from the flow of the story.

As for the ending … I don’t think Chabon intended to satisfy the reader here, because this isn’t a traditional hard-boiled detective novel, but an updated one that respects the tradition, and because the conclusion here has to mimic the fate of the Sitka population. They’re not getting the resolution they deserve, so the readers should at least be left with some ambiguity to reflect it. With the rest of the story as tightly woven and written as it is, that’s a compromise I can easily accept as a reader.

Next up: Lois McMaster Bujold’s Hugo winner Mirror Dance, part of the Vorkosigan series; I read and enjoyed The Vor Game in November but skipped the review because I was on vacation.

The Fifth Season.

N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season won the 2016 Hugo Prize for the best science-fiction novel of the year, and while I have had a lot of issues with Hugo winners, this one absolutely deserved the honor. Jemisin constructs a world that is thoroughly integrated with the plot, one that incorporates the theme of environmental degradation into its story, and uses a brilliant tripartite narrative that gradually comes together as the novel reaches the end, with a clever twist that I didn’t really see coming.

The Fifth Season is set on Earth of the very distant future, on a planet that experiences frequent seismic disruptions that cause “seasons” that threaten mass extinctions, like the way the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora caused the so-called year without a summer. These seasons last years, decades, occasionally even a century, and wipe out most of civilization each time, although humanity attempts to learn and improve its survival chances with every change. There’s only one (known) continent, the Stillness, sort-of ruled by the remnants of an empire, with people organized into autonomous communities called “comms.”

People have evolved in the interim as well, with some people born with a special power called “orogeny” that allows them to draw strength from the earth itself and move stone or even tectonic plates. These orogenes, known colloquially by the pejorative term “roggas,” are often used to quell minor earthquakes, but can also move mountains, literally. Most orogenes are brought to the main comm and trained to use their powers, but some never learn and are a danger to themselves and others, leading to widespread prejudice and even violence. There’s also a third type of human running around, the stone-eaters, although their role isn’t clear till very late in the story.

Jemisin gives us those three intertwined narratives, all truly centered around orogeny – their roles in society and the way they’re simultaneously valued and feared by others. One is told in the second person, and “you” are the orogene mother of two, and when the story starts, you find that your non-orogenic husband has beaten your son to death, probably because he figured out the boy also had this power. The second follows a young girl, Damaya, who’s discovered to have the same power and is brought by a Guardian to the central comm for training in a special academy for orogenes, which isn’t exactly Hogwarts. The third follows Syenite, an adult orogene who is forced to join up with Alabaster, who’s implied to be the most powerful orogene in the Stillness, for the purposes of breeding and giving birth to lots of orogenic babies. When they’re also asked to visit a coastal comm and help them with a problem in their harbor, things start to go very wrong, a series of events that precipitates the union of the three storylines as the book reaches its conclusion.

Outside of Ursula K. Leguin’s work, The Fifth Season is probably the most outright feminist sci-fi novel I’ve ever read – but not in an overt way at all. The characters aren’t feminists; it’s not clear such a designation would have any meaning in this society. The entire story explores the role of women in society, the possibility of them having power equal to or exceeding that of men, and the timeless questions of a woman’s agency in matters like having children. Environmental degradation does underpin the overall story – Jemisin’s Earth often appears to be trying to kill people, and the humans’ pagan religion treats the planet as an angry god – but it’s the women themselves who are the stars of the novel, and their challenges drive the plot forward.

I could have done without some of Jemisin’s explicit descriptions of sex – they just don’t add anything at all to the story – and some of the cruelty inflicted on children in the book, while more relevant to the plot, was tough to read too. Jemisin’s biggest strength as a writer is the pure storytelling; she’s conceived a world unlike any I’ve seen, remaking the post-apocalyptic earth into something less nightmarish, a testament to the human desire to live and to keep something of civilization going. The dialogue can be clunky, especially when any of the characters is forced to confront something unpleasant or makes a sudden realization. Alabaster is the only well-drawn male character (although that’s kind of a welcome change from novels that don’t have a single three-dimensional female character in sight). It’s such an incredibly compelling story, however, intricate yet internally consistent, around three women you will want to follow to the story’s end … and the sequel, since it turns out this is the start of a new trilogy, with the second book, The Obelisk Gate, already out.

Next up: One of the early Pulitzer winners, the out-of-print Journey in the Dark, by Martin Flavin, which I picked up used because there isn’t even a library copy in the entire state of Delaware.

Stranger in a Strange Land.

Continuing my roll through Hugo winners, I finally got around to Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land right before Christmas. It’s long been on my to-read list, but I figured I’d eventually find a copy in a used bookstore and waited until that happened to read it, even though I’ve read a few other Heinlein works (Double Star and Starship Troopers, both Hugo winners) and enjoyed them. Stranger is something else entirely, however – a deeply philosophical work, a new version of the Christ figure in literature, and a book with just a veneer of science fiction about it. Heinlein’s views on religion, morality, and human nature may not be yours or mine, but this novel gives you plenty to consider and reconsider on these subjects and more, simply because he sets off the correct bomb in the middle of the metaphorical town square.

That bomb is the person of Valentine Michael Smith, a man who was born on Mars and raised by Martians, an alien race, apparently much older than ours, that evolved quite differently from our own and possesses physical powers well beyond anything humans have acquired. When “Mike” returns to Earth with a second spacecraft, he’s suddenly the most sought-after person on our planet, with the government hiding him, multiple authorities trying to steal from him, and the media chasing him, and, eventually, one reporter and his nurse friend choosing to free him, sneaking him out of the hospital where he’s a de facto prisoner. Mike and the nurse end up at the estate of Jubal Harshaw, a polymath, hack author, and attorney who takes an immediate interest in Mike’s case and becomes his mentor and cicerone and protector all in one, negotiating for Mike’s freedom under the guise of the latter being the leader of humanity on Mars.

Mike ends up exploring human religion and philosophy, including the megachurch/cult of the Fosterites, and selects pieces of that he finds worthwhile in building his own Church of All Worlds, where members advance through various levels of enlightenment towards an inner circle, learning the Martian language and acquiring some of the same psychokinetic abilities Mike has. The Church of All Worlds becomes a counterculture haven, preaching free love and naturalism, eschewing modern capitalism, and living in a commune-like structure each time they set up shop in a new town. Their popularity threatens many existing forces, from the government to traditional religions, who whip up enmity towards its members and Mike in particular, leading to an entirely predictable ending that completes his Christ-like journey through the novel.

The novel’s title comes from one possible translation of a phrase in Exodus 2:22, “And she bare him a son, and he called his name Gershom: for he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land.” Smith comes here as ignorant of human customs as a baby, and even has to learn to use his body properly in our higher gravity. He brings Martian concepts of dualism and an afterlife, of war, commerce, and, of course, of water, which is revered through the practice of “sharing water” with someone, after which you are “water brothers,” a sort of blood oath that bonds you to each other for life. He adopts some trivial aspects of human culture, at least temporarily, such as wearing clothes, but takes on a mystical role to those around him – first Jubal’s employees, then gradually more and more who take to his own message of free love, spiritual enlightenment, and … uh … being nice to everyone.

That’s where the book goes a bit off the rails for me, at least, although Heinlein is aiming for something very big here and probably gets as close to his goal as most authors could. Smith’s religion is cultlike too, and it’s not very clear what he’s preaching or promising – people see that he can move stuff with his mind, and he’s offering a sort of spiritual salvation without stigmatizing or forbidding sex the way the Catholic Church and many evangelical Protestant groups do, so of course they’re flocking to him. And there’s certainly something Christ-like in his messages of love, tolerance, and nonviolence, as well as his willingness to sacrifice himself for the good of everyone around him. But Smith’s transition from ingenue to wiseman/Pied Piper is wildly abrupt and unexplained; in one chapter, he’s still confused by common human norms, and in the next, he and Jill, the nurse who got him out of the hospital, have run off to join a traveling carnival. (I read the version of the novel that was first published; Heinlein later restored material cut by his publishers in a separate edition that’s about 30% longer.)

Where Heinlein succeeds, however, is in crafting a sci-fi story that’s powered by the plot, not by the scientific details. None of the action in the book takes place on Mars; we meet Smith on earth, and for a time it’s unclear whether there’s anything different about him beyond his experience. He has psychokinetic powers learned from the Martians, and some very different ideas on death, but Heinlein uses that to drive the story – how would Earthborn humans respond to the appearance of a man with these abilities? It’s a twist on the Second Coming, but rather than playing it straight, Heinlein adds the interplanetary twist. There’s also an ancillary subplot, never fleshed out, about what the Martians might do to earth, having previously destroyed a nameless planet and civilization between Mars and Jupiter, but it feels unnecessary and unfinished, especially since the novel stands just fine on its own without that attempt to justify Mike’s return to earth.

Stranger in a Strange Land is a big novel of ideas – or perhaps a novel of big ideas – and whether it works may depend on your acceptance of some of the more mundane aspects of the philosophy Mike preaches to his followers. And it is preachy – there’s no question that Heinlein is advocating something here, which I thought caused the last of the novel’s five sections to drag until the last few pages. The real power in Heinlein’s concepts here, as voiced by Smith, is how absurd human conflicts, from war to prejudice, would appear to someone who fell in from the sky and wasn’t raised among the rest of us. If there’s a lasting message to take from this novel, that should be it.

EDIT: Oh, I forgot to mention the one absolute nails-on-chalkboard line in the book, where one character (Jill?) says that nine times out of ten, a rape is at least partly the woman’s fault. I know it was written a half-century ago, but it’s absolutely cringeworthy, and knocked the book down a full grade for me.

Next up: I knocked out Thomas Hager’s non-fiction book The Alchemy of Air, about the invention of the Haber-Bosch process, and have just started Ben Fountain’s 2012 novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction that year.

A Fire Upon the Deep.

Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep shared the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1993 with the vastly superior The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, a “tie” that beggars belief if you’ve read both books. Willis’s ranks among the best novels I’ve ever read, period, and comparing Vinge’s to it is unfair to the latter book, which is certainly ambitious and epic in scope and theme. Where A Fire Upon the Deep falls short of the greatest sci-fi novels I’ve read is in the stuff that makes a novel a good one: Vinge can’t give us compelling, well-drawn characters, despite his imagination and remarkable ability to create a complex, textured universe within his book.

Set millions of years into the future, A Fire Upon the Deep finds the Milky Way populated with numerous races, including humans, who can travel faster than light – but only if they’re in a zone sufficiently far from the galaxy’s center. These “zones of thought” affect everything from technological and philosophical progress to speed of travel, so a spaceship that moves from the Beyond down into the Slowness (nearer the black hole at our galaxy’s core) can go from traveling at several times the speed of light to a mere fraction thereof.

The story opens in confusing fashion, but after a hundred pages or so it becomes clear that the main plot thread revolves around an ‘ancient’ threat unleashed by the humans of a planet known as Straum, who appear to have found a dormant AI routine, implemented it, and opened Pandora’s Box on a “perversion” that attempts to take over huge swaths of the galaxy. One ship survived the apocalypse at Straum to jump to the Slowness, where the ship lands on an earthlike planet that, it turns out, is populated by a race of wolves, later called the Tines, who have the ability to think in groups: an ‘individual’ Tine is a pack of four to eight wolves who operate with one mind. The Tines attack the ship’s denizens, a family of four, killing the parents and taking the two kids as captives, one to each of the Tines’ two warring camps. These two plot strands are connected in a way that isn’t immediately obvious, spurring a cross-galaxy space chase, an exploration of predetermination, and a story of the intrusion of modern combat technology on a primitive society.

This is a space opera, with shifting timelines, multiple perspectives, intersections between several alien races, and even a pit stop that might as well be the book’s Mos Eisley, with no shortage of sci-fi wizardry. Vinge’s Rainbow’s End, which foresaw the era of wearable technology, was bogged down by his need to give us extraneous details, and A Fire Upon the Deep isn’t much different, especially when it comes to details of the operations of various spaceships – we don’t need any of this, and it brings everything to a crawl (like we’re stuck in the Slowness). Here, this problem is compounded by a plot that can only have one ending: there is no question that the people working to stop the ravenous “perversion,” known as the Blight, are going to win out in the end. The story would just end abruptly if there were any other resolution, and if I tell you one or more heroes will die in the effort, you can probably pick them out before the halfway point.

The other core problem here is that Vinge expends so much effort on crafting this brilliant, imaginative universe that the characters are all far too thinly drawn to create any emotional investment on the reader’s part. The kids are actually both kind of annoying, even though they’re orphans on a strange planet with no other humans around, and for almost the entire book each thinks the other is dead. If you can’t generate any empathy for those characters, you have a serious problem. Another character finds out her home planet has been basically blown up and her whole family annihilated; it’s a ho-hum moment that passes without any real emotion in the text or, obviously, off it.

I didn’t actually hate this book, although it may sound that way; I just wouldn’t recommend it that highly. It’s an achievement in scope and vision, but not as a work of cohesive fiction. I assumed that the Blight would lose the race, and that certain characters would survive, but I can’t say I particularly cared about any of the characters, and there was nothing specific to their individual story arcs beyond mere survival. The mark of great fiction, genre or otherwise, is more than mere plot; without strong characters or good prose, it’s just a story, and that’s all A Fire Upon the Deep was for me.

Next up: I’m halfway through another Hugo winner, Robert Heinlein’s classic Stranger in a Strange Land.

Way Station.

Clifford Simak’s Way Station was an early Hugo winner, a mixture of the soft science fiction with some more technical details than most of its contemporaries would include, but still focusing primarily on the core story and grand themes of cultural and racial understanding. It probably felt more progressive at the time that Simak published it, and today appears a product of its era (published in 1963) even if some of its themes of tolerance are timeless.

Way Station‘s protagonist is Enoch Wallace, a Civil War veteran who now operates an interstellar way station in the backwoods of Wisconsin, where alien races from across the galaxy pass through en route to other destinations outside of our solar system. Wallace is the only human aware of these other races’ existence, and he does not age while he’s inside the station, so he’s well over 100 years old at the time of the story even though he appears to be about 30. While this has elicited some gossip from his few neighbors, he’s reclusive and far enough away from any kind of town that he’s been able to exist merely on the fringes of civilization, instead spending much of his time reading science journals and occasionally communing with some of the aliens who pass through his station.

That alone would likely have made for a solid novel, a sort of slice of galactic life where Wallace meets a cast of eccentrics and tells a few tall tales to keep the neighbors from denouncing him as some spawn of Satan and burning down his house. (As it turns out, they couldn’t do so if they tried.) Simak instead creates a pair of crises – one from the human world, one from the alien – while also exploring what Wallace has had to give up to take on this life and responsibility, including the entirely fictional friends he’s created using a software tool given him by one of the travelers. (Apparently, when passing through an interstellar way station, it’s polite to bring a gift.) The world is teetering on the brink of catastrophic war in this novel as it was in Simak’s life, while the treaty that holds the galaxy’s various races in peaceful coexistence is also on the verge of breaking down, and one reason is something that happened on earth that Wallace finds himself forced to try to fix.

The narrative jumps around a bit, especially early in the book, which made it a slow title to grab my attention; it starts with a government agent, presumably CIA, who’s caught wind of Wallace’s strange existence and wants to investigate it further, whatever it might mean. Simak then shifts perspective to Wallace’s present and some of his past, mixing accounts of his quotidian duties as station manager with flashbacks to how he got the gig in the first place. These threads come together by mid-book as Simak crafts the twin-crisis plot that drives the finish – with one of the most obvious plot twists you’ll ever see – which ties up all of the various strands with a bit more hope for the future of our species than I can usually muster.

I think Simak was going for some pretty grand themes here, from racial tolerance to man’s alienation from the world, but gets a little sidetracked by some of the details, including the imaginary friends Wallace cooks up with the help of one of the gifts he’s received. The strongest part wasn’t the big stuff, but Wallace’s friendship with Ulysses, the alien who first appeared to Wallace and offered him the post as station master, a bridging of an impossible gap made possible through small gestures and handfuls of words. I found that kind of hope, that any two individuals can find some common ground or kinship, much easier to believe.

Next up: I’m nearly through Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz’s TV: The Book, where they incorrectly rank the top 100 shows in TV history.

Doomsday Book.

Connie Willis is one of the most decorated science fiction writers ever, with eleven Hugo Awards and seven Nebula Awards, as well as induction into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. Her 1998 novel To Say Nothing of the Dog, a Hugo winner, is one of my favorite sci-fi novels, a tight mash-up of a comedy of manners and a time travel story along with a send-up of a classic Brit Lit novel. That book was set in the same universe as her 1992 novel Doomsday Book, which won the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Awards for best sci-fi novel, and explores much darker subject matter: how we respond to unthinkable disaster and human suffering.

Willis has crafted rules around her fictional time travel that manage to give it sufficient plausibility so that suspending your disbelief isn’t really an issue. Her time travelers are historians heading into the past for research purposes (usually), and do so under tightly controlled conditions. Heading into the past to alter history isn’t permitted by spacetime itself; anyone heading through to create such a paradox simply won’t be allowed to enter the “net” of time travel. And there’s “slippage” in time, the difference between when you arrive and when you were trying to arrive, which the researchers attribute to spacetime’s attempts to avoid even minor incidents like having you appear out of nowhere in the middle of a crowd of people who’d think you were an alien or a witch.

In Doomsday Book, a young woman in Oxford’s history department named Kivrin is heading back to 1320 England to examine village life of the time and as a prelude to a future research trip back to the Black Death, which began in England in 1348. Unfortunately, as soon as she steps through the net into the past, the main technician who organized the drop, Badri, falls horribly ill with a new strain of influenza, touching off an epidemic in modern-day Oxford … with Kivrin unfortunately falling sick as she arrives in the past. Something has gone wrong with the drop, but Badri is near death and unable to tell anyone why or to explain how they will retrieve Kivrin at the scheduled rendezvous time and place. Kivrin, meanwhile, ends up involved in a separate epidemic, as the plague arrives in the village where she’s staying, and since she’s been vaccinated she is the only person there with immunity to the disease. Her response, as the only person in her time and place who understands the nature of the plague, and the responses of those in the modern time are the real focus of the book, from those thinking first and foremost about the victims to those stuck in the mindset of adhering to policy or those unable to give up their own goals even when it puts others at grave risk.

Willis is an outstanding writer in every aspect of the term, from plot to pacing to character development, but two things particularly stand out in Doomsday Book. One is her ability to still weave humor into a story that is incredibly dark and full of tragedy, with many deaths of named characters in both timelines. William Gaddson, an undergraduate who is rather successful with the young ladies but whose overbearing mother thinks he’s a fragile, innocent boy who studies too hard, provides regular comic relief and even plays a real role in the plot. The American bell choir stuck inside the quarantine zone is almost absurd in its zeal to put on a show regardless of conditions. The assistant Finch’s obsession with “lavatory paper” is similar in its “oh my God is he still on about that” nature.

One of the first symptoms of this influenza strain is mental confusion, and Willis manages to impart that to the reader without actually confusing the reader about what’s happening. That is, when the character at the center of the action gets sick and begins to suffer the confusion, Willis gets that across in ways that don’t cause the reader to lose understanding of what’s happening. I found I realized some things weren’t making sense, so the character’s confusion was tangible, but I also could follow what was happening as an observer (since it’s written entirely in the third person) rather than just getting lost myself. That balance is a neat trick and takes a skilled writer to pull off.

Doomsday Book touches on some significant themes, notably some of the characters’ difficulty in reconciling their belief in God with the horrors of the epidemics before them and the deaths of friends and family members. Some fall to disbelief, others to superstition or belief that it’s God’s vengeance. Those who remain after the epidemics have ended, however, seem to all have come to some appreciation of the kindness and mercy of others, even those facing their own deaths, in the face of unimaginable fear and difficulty. Kivrin’s final encounter with a dying plague victim provides the most moving, insightful scene of the book, even though both characters see the situation from almost perfectly opposed perspectives.

As with To Say Nothing of the Dog and Willis’ shorter novel Bellwether, which I read in June and loved but never had time to review, I couldn’t put Doomsday Book down, reading its nearly 600 pages in just over a week. I’ll have to get to her most recent novel in the Oxford universe, the 2010 two-part novel Blackout/All Clear, which also swept the major awards and runs over 1,000 pages in total.

Next up: I read Philip José Farmer’s Hugo winner To Your Scattered Bodies Go this week and hated just about everything about it. I’m about to start Laurent Binet’s World War II novel HHhH today, which has to be better.

The Forever War.

Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, winner of the Nebula Award for best novel in 1975 and Hugo and Locus Awards in 1976, has the biggest disconnect between its value as a metaphorical take on a real-world event and its value as a straight work of fiction. While Haldeman manages to create a unique way of looking at the then-ongoing conflict in Vietnam, a war without apparent end, the story itself is dull and rote, enamored of its own technological descriptions of battles to the detriment of plot of character development.

The war in the book comes about because humanity has discovered “collapsars,” relativistic oddities in space (not that dissimilar to black holes) that allow for travel at speeds approaching that of light, leading to a brief period of exploration that hits a wall when one ship is attacked by an unknown alien species called the Taurans. The protagonist and narrator William Mandella is a physics student and conscript for one of the first strike forces asked to go out first to the fictional planet of Charon beyond Pluto (the book was written before the moon of Pluto given that name was discovered) and then to attack the Taurans in a suspected base on a hostile planet beyond one of the collapsars. Due to time dilation, Mandella and the other surviving soldiers have aged just two years but return to an earth vastly changed by several decades, a bombastic, unintentionally comic vision of an overpopulated planet under a one-world dictatorship that seized power in response to the Tauran threat. The novel then deals with Mandella’s difficulties handling the gaps in time between his returns to civilian life and the harsh reality of fighting an enemy for unknown reasons with no apparent goal or exit strategy.

Haldeman had served in Vietnam, and it’s only possible to read this book as a thinly-veiled autobiographical novel that serves to lampoon the military structure that sent American boys to die in a war without purpose while also displaying the effects the war had on the soldiers who survived. The war against the Taurans is a dull one, and Haldeman is not, here, much of a storyteller: the prose is dry and the descriptions technical, with lengthy explanations of futuristic weaponry and tactics that suck energy even out of the battle scenes, let alone the lengthy description of the soldiers’ training on the impossible world of Charon.

The sequence back on earth several decades after the soldiers have left reads like a short story inserted into a novel, bearing little resemblance to the story before or after, and on its own is just bad dystopian fiction by someone who read The Population Bomb. Haldeman drops in the usual food-shortage stuff along with the fear of authoritarian governments, but where he gets really bizarre is when he has “homosex” rising first as a natural consequence of the overpopulation and eventually something encouraged by government, becoming the new normal for humanity further into the future, with heterosexual urges treated as a mental illness. It seems to treat homosexuality as deviant and repulsive, using it as a tool to show the awful future of the human race.

Viewed as allegory, however, The Forever War seems to hit its mark. The war itself is as pointless as it gets: Humanity’s immediate response to the possible attack on one of our ships – which was somewhere else in the galaxy than our solar system – is all-out war, along with building up terrestrial defenses against an attack that isn’t threatened or even particularly likely. There is no attempt to communicate with the Taurans, or even any idea what they look like; soldiers are sent out to kill and destroy. The subsequent war becomes one of attrition, with battles waged over lifeless rocks that have no meaning to either side, and with neither side ever gaining anything like an advantage in the overall battle – with gauging advantage made especially difficult by the time dilation, so ships are sent off in one stage of the war and return in another entirely. (Haldeman obeys the laws of physics to the point of omitting faster-than-light communications.) Soldiers are given posthypnotic suggestions to make them want to kill the Taurans on sight, treating the aliens as enemies regardless of what actually happens on the field of battle.

One could make the historical argument that the Vietnam War was justified because the United States was trying to prevent a hostile dictatorship from taking over an entire country, subjecting millions of people to what turned out to be twenty-plus years of poverty and suppression. The U.S. justified it at the time by invoking the domino theory that each country that fell to communism further enabled the next revolution; perhaps showing the Soviet Union that funding additional insurgencies would cost them more because we were willing to spend to fight them. The war against the Taurans in The Forever War can’t even rise to those levels of reasoning, because the Taurans aren’t clearly threatening anyone; the metaphor works in the sense that neither the Taurans nor the Viet Cong were threatening “us,” so why were we trying so hard to kill them, putting our own men at risk by doing so? At best, the logic extended to protecting our ships if another should encounter the Taurans randomly beyond another collapsar, but without understanding what caused the first incident, even this – given the enormous expense involved – seems specious.

Books that seem to work strictly on that metaphorical or allegorical level generally leave me cold because of how much they miss, and The Forever War did just that, more than anything else because the characters are so one-dimensional. Mandella is intelligent but hardly wise or smart, and his return home after his first tour of duty – into the dystopian section of the book – is surprisingly emotionless. The closest thing the book has to another core character is his girlfriend Marygay, who has no personality to speak of, and of necessity disappears for a few chapters at a time. Without a compelling individual character at the heart of the book, the read becomes stolid and dull, even when we should be feeling the intensity of a battle scene. So for all its accolades – and the book’s cover has some very impressive quotes from other authors – The Forever War fell very short for me.

Next up: I’m currently reading Jeff Passan’s The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports.

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.