Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Book Review: "The Three-Body Problem" by Liu Cixin

20518872Originally published in it's native Chinese in 2008, The Three-Body Problem has now been translated for English speakers to read and enjoy. It is the first volume in a hugely successful SF trilogy that has proved to be a popular seller in China.

No matter what our opinions are on the government of China, we all know that they have a history of controlling the media. It was not so long ago that I was reading articles on how even SF stories may not be published if they contain certain themes or SF tropes that the  government does not approve of such as time travel. Yet here we have a novel that Tor are willing to bring to an international English audience. So is it a matter of government restrictions being exaggerated or is it proof that art defies restrictions?

While I can think about these questions I do hit a brick wall after a short while. I'm no geography or political buff. I have no ideas on these matters. But I do know quite a bit about SF and I know a little more about science and I feel that these are the most import factors when reading The Three-Body Problem. Sure it would have been great to know what the hell was going on in those early chapters during the 'cultural revolution', but I guess I was lucky to follow the story when it delved a bit into quantum mechanics and orbital mechanics. And while a reader without this knowledge would not have a problem following the story at all and could easily skim those sections, they definitely were rewarding and offered a greater depth to the story. And I'm sure that someone with a knowledge of modern Chinese history would have felt the same.

Three-Body is essentially the story of two scientists, Ye Wenjie, an engineer working in a top-secret military base during the 1970's, and Wang Miao, a nanotechnologist in current day China. While events in current day China unfold for Wang, the story of Ye is told in alternate sections. The nature of the top-secret base is uncovered during the intricate story and don't worry, it's not a bad X-Files ripoff at all.

But I did find Wang's story much more interesting and frightening. It explores the idea of the failure of science. What happens if over time scientific endeavors consistently defy any conjectures or postulates, refuse to comply with any previously known laws and just keep on giving random and seemingly supernatural outcomes? It may sound a bit trivial here, but the more you think about it, the more frightening it is. And the author explores this and truly did convey the horror to me as the reader. The events of this book had me tense and on-edge at several points.

There really are some fascinating ideas pursued in this book and it is a thoroughly entertaining and thought provoking read in the style of SF greats such as Kim Stanley Robinson and Asomiv. The style of interchanging stories with historical aspects, as well as some of the style did remind me of Murakami, but I have no idea if this is being literature racist as this is the only other Asian book I have read other than those by Murakami. It also had echoes of Neal Stephenson in that it was an intricate and baroque plot full of subterfuges and technical writing. But maybe I'm just projecting two of my favourite authors onto another book that I enjoyed.

So here is one reader that is converted to the forthcoming volumes and possibly converted to reading more international SF. Both Stanislaw Lem and the Strugatsky brothers failed to take my interest, but Liu Cixin has managed to produce something that I really did enjoy and also made me think big thoughts.

Thanks to NetGalley and Tor Publishing for an ebook in the exchange for an honest review.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Book Review: 'Doctor Who: Lights Out' by Holly Black

The 50th Anniversary of Doctor Who was widely celebrated last year and the Beeb teamed up with Penguin to release 11 short stories celebrating 11 Doctors. A year later and a Doctor later they have teamed up again to provide a new short story featuring the Twelfth Doctor.

22845900The authors of these stories were a selection of high profile childrens authors and the latest is written by Holly Black who has written The Spiderwick Chronicles which I hear is quite well-loved. To tell the truth I did have a mixed response to the previous stories ranging from the utter brilliance of Neil Gaiman's 'Nothing O'Clock' to the utter embarrassment that was  'A Big Hand For the Doctor'. While I do appreciate the Beeb trying something new with written Who, there are already plenty of tried and true Who writers out the who could have done a much better job of the whole enterprise. 

So for completist sake, natural curiosity, hope and love for my Doctor I approached this new volume with some trepidation. How good could a writer capture the new Doctor when we have only just seen him unfold on-screen? And how would they go writing for one of the most complicated Doctors that we have met? There certainly no longer remains the facade of an upstanding moral fighter. There is a lot more ambiguity in the Doctors motivations these days.

Surprisingly 'Lights Out' is firmly set within the series with the Doctor travelling to a famous coffee-specialising planet in search for a couple of cups for himself and Clara after the events in Deep Breath. The Doctor soon finds himself a suspect in a hideous murder and meets a being called '78351' who was also witness to the murder. 78351 becomes his companion for the duration of the story.

While the plot itself is by no means new or original, Holly does manage to bring in some aspects of the Twelfth Doctor and more than just the physical eyebrows joke. The Doctor does seem morally ambiguous and does let events take a different course to what another Doctor may have done. He does seem nonplussed at the deaths themselves. There certainly is the Twelfth Doctor within these pages.

So while this is a light and unsurprising read, the surprise is in how the Twelfth Doctor comes across on paper - much like he does onscreen thankfully. While I have not had a chance to read the three full-sized novels  recently released featuring the Twelfth Doctor, I can say to anyone looking for some Twelve in print that you have come to the right place.