Sunday, August 5, 2018

Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe

Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, though set in the seventeenth century, was first published in 1719. It is the story of the title character. This book is a very famous work, yet this is a first time read for me. I found it to be a fun adventure story that was filled with concepts about religion and society. 

The novel starts out telling us about the young protagonist’s life. Early on, Crusoe defies his father by running off to live a life of adventure at sea. He begins to establish a trading business involving commerce with Africa. While out on a commercial voyage, his ship is captured by pirates, and he is enslaved by Moors. Several years later, he steals a boat to escape. After a few adventures along the coast of Africa, he is picked up by a Portuguese ship and brought to Brazil. There, he becomes a successful plantation owner. A few years later, the ever-restless Crusoe embarks on a slave-trading expedition. However, the ship he is on never makes it out of the western hemisphere and is wrecked on a deserted Caribbean island. Crusoe is the only survivor. 

Most of the narrative concerns itself with Crusoe’s decades-long stay on the island. Luckily, he has firearms and many other resources that he is able to salvage from the wrecked ship. He is able to hunt goats, turtles and birds as well as harvest wild grapes and limes. He eventually plants and harvests corn and barley from seeds that he finds on the wrecked ship. A lot of the narrative consists of descriptions of how Crusoe fashions and builds various things both for both survival and for some comfort. Detailed descriptions of his making of shelters and storage places, boats, clothing, agriculture implements, etc., are included. I must admit that I found some of these descriptions a bit dull. The story is not always realistic, like when wild cats swim out to boats to attack their passengers or when Crusoe manages engineering, agricultural, nautical, and other feats with no prior experience. Prospective readers should also be aware that there is a lot of killing of animals, for those who are faint at heart when it comes to this. Some of this involves Crusoe needing to eat to survive, some does not. 

There are a few interesting things going on in this book. Crusoe starts off as a mostly unpleasant person. He is contemptuous of good advice, and he seems cold. He fails to form any emotional human relationships. Later on, as a castaway, he experiences a religious epiphany where he comes to realize that he has lived impiously. At one point, he has a dream in which he imagines an angel coming down to chastise him. The description seems to me reminiscent of similar passages in the Old Testament. 

“and that I saw a man descend from a great black cloud, in a bright flame of fire, and light upon the ground. He was all over as bright as a flame, so that I could but just bear to look towards him; his countenance was most inexpressibly dreadful, impossible for words to describe. When he stepped upon the ground with his feet, I thought the earth trembled, just as it had done before in the earthquake, and all the air looked, to my apprehension, as if it had been filled with flashes of fire. He was no sooner landed upon the earth, but he moved forward towards me, with a long spear or weapon in his hand, to kill me; and when he came to a rising ground, at some distance, he spoke to me— or I heard a voice so terrible that it is impossible to express the terror of it. All that I can say I understood was this: “Seeing all these things have not brought thee to repentance, now thou shalt die;” at which words, I thought he lifted up the spear that was in his hand to kill me.” 

The balance of his stay on the island, which lasts decades, he faces with acceptance and in peace. He prays and talks to God. Some sources that I read see this book as exposition of the Protestant concept of an individual’s personal relationship with God. That interpretation rings true to me. In fact, I found this theme to be the overriding idea underlying this book. With only a Bible, Crusoe becomes a deeply religious person and even fashions something of a personal theology. I am a nonbeliever, but I can appreciate how eloquently this picture is painted. Many works since have told similar stories. I also find it interesting how such ideas are presented, even when I disagree with those ideas. These works are often preachy, unimaginative and seemingly derivative of this book. 

The novel was written in the age of Colonialism. Yet, there seem to be contradictions for the modern reader on this subject. Early on, Crusoe participates in slave trading. Also, the native people of Africa and South America are described over and over again as ignorant, violent and savage. The people who live near Crusoe’s island are revealed as bloodthirsty cannibals. However, Defoe has some surprises in store. After years of living alone on the island, Crusoe begins to see some aspects of colonialism as evil. At one point, he compares the violent and inhuman behavior of the locals to that of the Spanish conquest in the western hemisphere. He even engages in a bit of cultural relativism, He comes to think that some behaviors engaged in by the local people are the result of a culture that he has no right to judge, having come from a completely different culture. 

“How do I know what God Himself judges in this particular case? It is certain these people do not commit this as a crime; it is not against their own consciences reproving, or their light reproaching them; they do not know it to be an offence, and then commit it in defiance of divine justice, as we do in almost all the sins we commit. in war than we do to kill an ox; or to eat human flesh than we do to eat mutton.” 

And later,

“these people were not murderers, in the sense that I had before condemned them in my thoughts, any more than those Christians were murderers who often put to death the prisoners taken in battle; or more frequently, upon many occasions, put whole troops of men to the sword, without giving quarter, though they threw down their arms and submitted.” 

I found the above passages to be very surprising in light of when this book was written. It sounds very much like arguments that folks have made over the last several decades. I actually do not agree with this level of cultural relativism. 

What to make of this seemingly odd mix of pro-colonialist and seemingly pro-slavery ideas and the questioning of some of these concepts? This book was written at a time when colonialism was in full swing. To expect Defoe to exhibit completely modern sensibilities is not realistic. The fact that he challenges many of these conventions and history to the extent that he does is pretty remarkable. It adds a lot of complexity to this book. 

I should add that despite the very interesting plays on ideas within this book, Crusoe's character is not well fleshed out. Aside from his feelings about religion and colonialism, we rarely get a glimpse into his complex emotions or thoughts about things beyond the practical. This is despite the fact that the reader gets to spend decades of Crusoe's life with him. 

In addition to all this philosophizing and ruminations on the divine, this is such a very engaging story of survival. The book is very readable. It is often fun. This novel works very well as an adventure story as well as a work of ideas. A few laws aside, this is an engaging and entertaining classic.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Silas Marner by George Eliot

Silas Marner by George Eliot was written in 1861 but is set in the early 1800s.  It is the story of the title character.  This novel is a tale of redemption and hope. As such, I think that it has had a great influence on similar stories down through the years. Despite a few flaws, I also found it to be an outstanding book.

Silas is a member of a socially isolated Calvinist Congregation. Early on, he is framed by his best friend for a theft that he did not commit. Silas loses his social standing in his congregation, his fiancĂ© and his reputation. Due to this terrible unfairness and misfortune, he also loses his faith and he flees to the far-off village of Raveloe. There, he establishes himself as a weaver. Silas lives the life of a hermit and is looked on with a strange mix of suspicion and distrust, but also with a grudging acceptance by the community. Years go by. Over these years, as his weaving business is fairly lucrative and he lives extremely frugally, Silas accumulates a fortune, which he hoards in his cottage. He also becomes a miser who worships money. 

Another character, Dunstan Cass, is a young and immoral member of the local gentry. His brother, Godfrey Cass is good natured but morally weak and is bullied and manipulated by Dunstan. When Dunstan steals Silas’s hoard, the miser is devastated. However, this event is a turning point in Silas’s life. The local community begins to feel pity for him. More importantly, he begins to connect with his neighbors. 

One night, a young child wanders into Silas’s cottage. The body of her mother is found nearby. The reader is aware that this is Godfrey’s clandestine wife and child. Godfrey had secretly married when he had gotten the lower-class woman pregnant. Silas connects to the young girl and adopts her. This act of charity further endears him to the community. As more years go by, he becomes a respected member of society as he raises his adopted daughter who he names Eppie. There are additional developments as Eppie’s real father eventually tries to assert himself.  

Though many have described this as a simple story, there is a lot going on in this book. My understanding of Eliot was that she was a nonbeliever who nonetheless admired some religiou ideas. There seems to be a lot of comparison between different versions of Christianity in this tale. The Calvinists, who believe in predestination but are not portrayed as very forgiving or rational, are treated harshly in the text. In contrast, the Anglicans are shown to be easy going, committed to charity and generally portrayed in a positive light. This reminds me a little of Charles Dickens’s or Charlotte BrontĂ«’s depictions of harder, less charitable manifestations of Christianity versus more charitable and forgiving versions.

One thing that stands out here is how common this kind of a story has become. Over the years, in both books and film, we see a lot of cynical or grouchy single individuals who end up taking a child into their custody. After some rough patches, the child subsequently brings great joy and improvement to the previously alienated adult. These stories are often overly sentimental. Eliot’s tale is very well balanced between real and poignant emotions and some serious philosophy and ideas.

There are so many meaningful and well written parts to this short book. One example is how Eppie comes to displace the gold that Silas has lost.  The fact that she has golden hair fits in so well with this concept. Eliot’s wonderful prose also helps to highlight this idea. Early in the narrative, Silas’s love of his hoard is portrayed as a great character deficiency. This deficiency reaches a crisis when the gold is stolen. However, Silas’s love and devotion for Eppie heals him.  The moment when Silas first finds Eppie sleeping in his cottage exemplifies this and is so well written,

“to his blurred vision, it seemed as if there were gold on the floor in front of the hearth. Gold!— his own gold— brought back to him as mysteriously as it had been taken away! He felt his heart begin to beat violently, and for a few moments he was unable to stretch out his hand and grasp the restored treasure. The heap of gold seemed to glow and get larger beneath his agitated gaze. He leaned forward at last, and stretched forth his hand; but instead of the hard coin with the familiar resisting outline, his fingers encountered soft warm curls. In utter amazement, Silas fell on his knees and bent his head low to examine the marvel: it was a sleeping child— a round, fair thing, with soft yellow rings all over its head.”

This work is not perfect. It seemed a bit too short. I thought that some of the ideas seemed too undeveloped. I would have liked to have move philosophy and more character development. Nevertheless, I found the plot and the characters interesting.  At times Eliot's prose style soars into greatness. I liked this book better then Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, but I did not like it as much as Middlemarch. In the end however, I found this novel enjoyable, meaningful and, thus, well worth the read. 

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Brothers at Arms by Larrie D. Ferreiro

Brothers at Arms by Larrie D. Ferreiro was first published in 2016. It is a chronicle of French and Spanish involvement in the American Revolution. I found the book to be well written, informative as well as very interesting. 


Both France and Spain provided a great deal of aid to the American rebels during the revolution. Later, both declared war on Great Britain. Land and sea battles, some of them fairly large, were fought throughout the world between these world powers. This work is primarily a political, social and military history. 

I would only recommend this book to those who already have at least a basic understanding of the American Revolution. The subject matter here is a little esoteric.  However, I think for those who do have such knowledge and are interested in the subject will get a lot out of this book. 

For me, as someone who has read about the revolutionary period throughout my life, the book covered a combination of material that I have some familiarity with as well as material that was new to me. Early American diplomatic efforts aimed at France are covered. The massive aid that France provided to the United States is detailed. 

France and Spain eventually declared war on Great Britain. Later, The Dutch Republic and the Indian Kingdom of Mysore also went to war.  Thi conflict involved fighting throughout North America, the West Indies, Central and South America, Europe and India, as well as on the oceans of the world.  I have been reading about the American Revolution for most of my life. Information about the conflict throughout North America and, to some extent, the West Indies is easy to come by, but beyond this geographic area, not so much. In India, the conflict was called Second Anglo-Mysore War. 

Calling all of this part of the American Revolution strains logic a bit. I think that it would make more sense if this worldwide conflict had a single name like the Seven Years War does. However, there is no real nomenclature that encompasses it all. 

Ferreiro covers all sorts of angles in this book. For instance, he argues that the Declaration of Independence was aimed, at least in part, at France and Spain in order to persuade those nations that American Independence was a cause worth supporting.  The author writes,

"The document that emerged from under Jefferson’s hand, clearly stating that “these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States,” was in fact an engraved invitation to France and Spain asking them to go to war alongside the Americans. The document that was agreed to by the Second Continental Congress on July 4 became known, of course, as the Declaration of Independence, but it was also in a sense a “Declaration That We Depend on France (and Spain, Too)…"

Another one of the intriguing subjects covered was the Battle of Yorktown, which ultimately convinced the British that the war in North America was lost. Ferreiro details how the Yorktown Victory was the result of French strategic planning and was only possible with French ground and navel support.

Marquis de Lafayette, the young Frenchman who volunteered to assist Washington and become one of his most important generals, is covered extensively here, as are many other notable French and Spanish citizens who were involved in the conflict.

The above are just a few examples of the many intriguing subjects that this work covers. This is a chronicle of history that is too often not told. I think that anyone who is interested in the American Revolution will get a lot out of this book. I found it fascinating and well written. I found it to be a treasure trove of hard to find material. For those interested in these I subjects, I highly recommend this one. 

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

The Pickwick Papers was Charles Dickens’s first novel. It tells the story of Samuel Pickwick and the other members of the Pickwick Club. The group is comprised of members who journey around England with a goal of studying human nature. Hence, the narrative is episodic and anecdotal. 

Over the course of their very amusing travels, the Pickwickians encounter all sorts of colorful characters, experience many adventures and mishaps, and consume lots of food and drink. They are an affable but pretentious group. This creates plenty of opportunities for humor. The book reminded me in many ways of Don Quixote. 

The Pickwickians include: Nathaniel Winkle, who claims to be a sportsman, but who generally makes a fool of himself whenever he engages in any sport and Augustus Snodgrass, who is a man who claims to be a poet but who seems to write no poetry. Also included is Tracy Tupman, who is a self-proclaimed ladies’ man but is clownish and overweight. Sam Weller is Mr. Pickwick’s loyal servant. His smart aleck sense of humor and charm makes him, for me, the most entertaining character in the book. For his part, Mr. Pickwick is overweight and good natured but bit silly and pompous. There are numerous additional colorful characters, including drunken medical students and malevolent attorneys. 

There are also many side stories. Often, the characters, both major and minor, tell tales ranging from accounts of everyday events to the fantastical. There are also several underlying plot threads that pop up throughout the novel. One is the misunderstanding and subsequent legal battle between Mrs. Martha Bardell and Mr. Pickwick. Mrs. Bardell is a widow who is Mr. Pickwick’s landlady. She mistakes Mr. Pickwick’s naturally friendly and courteous disposition for romantic interest and a marriage proposal. This leads to not only hurt feelings but to a legal battle that resurfaces at various points in the narrative. Another subplot involves conman Alfred Jingle and his servant, who vex the Pickwickians at several points in the story.

The narrative is, with occasional exceptions, light, funny and entertaining. At times I found myself laughing out loud. Pickwick and his associates are often silly and buffoonish. With that, they all display a sense of decency and act charitably towards others. 

In this early Dickens effort, many of the themes and plot devices that will appear later are present here in a less developed form. Dickens’s contempt for the legal profession, fully developed in Bleak House, manifests itself in this work. Attorneys involved in his legal proceedings are shown to be inefficient, cruel and unethical. The side story of Gaberial Grub, a sexton with a nasty personality, is a precursor of A Christmas Carol. Grub is confronted on Christmas Eve by an army of goblins who excoriate him for his malicious disposition. Motivated by fear, Grub eventually reforms his ways. Like later Dickens, the book is full of colorful and over the top characters. 

I also think that the way that Dickens portrays the world throughout his books can be partially seen in this one. Though the tone of most of this novel is light, something dark in the universe manifests itself from time to time. At one point, Mr. Pickwick is in conversation with “The Dismal Man,” a philosophical but depressed character that the Pickwickians encounter in their travels. 

"‘Did it ever strike you, on such a morning as this, that drowning would be happiness and peace?’ ‘God bless me, no!’ replied Mr. Pickwick, edging a little from the balustrade, as the possibility of the dismal man’s tipping him over, by way of experiment, occurred to him rather forcibly. ‘I have thought so, often,’ said the dismal man, without noticing the action. ‘The calm, cool water seems to me to murmur an invitation to repose and rest. A bound, a splash, a brief struggle; there is an eddy for an instant, it gradually subsides into a gentle ripple; the waters have closed above your head, and the world has closed upon your miseries and misfortunes for ever.’ The sunken eye of the dismal man flashed brightly as he spoke, but the momentary excitement quickly subsided;"

Having read a fair amount of Dickens over the years, I find that the way that he describes the dark aspect of existence to be somewhat similar throughout his writings. Dickens clearly shows that there is a good side to existence. However, this gloomy aspect is always there. 

I also think that it is interesting that Dickens often shows the good side of humanity in the form of charity and compassion for others. In this novel, Mr. Pickwick does show much of that. The positive angle to existence is also shown here in the form of good cheer and fellowship. 

On a related note, Dickens’s social consciousness, which manifests itself so strongly in his later works, also appears in this book. When Mr. Pickwick loses his legal case, he refuses to pay the damages on principle. He voluntarily goes to debtor prison. There, he encounters human suffering and injustice that appalls him. One of many people that he encounters is a man whose life has been ruined after twenty years of imprisonment.  

"The Chancery prisoner had been there long enough to have lost his friends, fortune, home, and happiness… Mr. Pickwick surveyed him with a painful interest. He was a tall, gaunt, cadaverous man, in an old greatcoat and slippers, with sunken cheeks, and a restless, eager eye. His lips were bloodless, and his bones sharp and thin. God help him! the iron teeth of confinement and privation had been slowly filing him down for twenty years."

The above quotes are not representative of this novel as a whole. As stated above, the book is mostly humorous, upbeat and extols the virtues of good cheer and friendship. 

I enjoyed The Pickwick Papers a lot. I found it to be very funny and entertaining. This book was pleasant to read. It also contains Dickens’s signature prose as well as multiple over the top characters.  I also found it interesting how so many ideas that the author used later on seem to originate in this novel. Though this would not be the first Dickens that I would read, it is a fine book for those who have already read and liked the famous author.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Cixin Liu’s Death’s End and Gender Issues




This book was translated by Ken Liu. 

The below contains moderate spoilers. Dramatic events happen fairly early on in this book. I reveal some of them.



Cixin Liu’s Death’s End covers a lot of ground both in terms of plot and themes. My general commentary on the book is here.


At one point in the book, Cheng Xin, the story’s main character, wakes from suspended animation several hundred years in the future. She finds that decades of easy living has softened humans. Violence has almost completely disappeared. There is little suffering or struggle. Life is incredibly comfortable for almost everyone. Something strange has happened as a result. Any ideal related to masculinity has disappeared. Femininity in all its forms has become a model to strive for among both men and women. 


Cheng Xin observes the men of the era, 


“[they] had smooth, lovely faces; long hair that draped over their shoulders; slender, soft bodies— as if their bones were made of bananas. Their movements were graceful and gentle, and their voices, carried to her by the breeze, were sweet and tender.… Back in her century, these people would have been considered ultra-feminine.”

Even the majority men of an earlier era who wake from hibernation from earlier times begin to change,

“Most men from the Common Era tried to, consciously or otherwise, feminize their appearance and personality to adjust to the new feminine society.”

There are also signs that the Trisolarans, the alien civilization that is trying to take over the Earth and who are now in constant communication with Earth, are trying to influence Earth’s culture to soften it up. 

The era is a time of strategic standoff between Earth and the Trisolarians. If the aliens attack a very difficult and tough decision will have to be made. If Earth does not retaliate quickly against a Trisolaran strike, humans will be at the mercy of the aliens. However, if Earth does retaliate, it will likely bring the destruction of both civilizations. The parallels between the nuclear standoff that existed between The United States and The Soviet Union are pointed out. 

A person is appointed called the Swordholder. This is the individual who can launch a retaliatory strike in the event of a Trisolarans attack. Luo Ji, from the previous book, has held the position for decades but his retirement is approaching. All the candidates for his replacement are people from the past who have woken from hibernation. People of the current era are deemed incapable of making the difficult decision as retaliation likely means the destruction of both Trisolaris and Earth. 

Cheng Xin, who is a candidate herself, describes the other candidates, who are men, who have woken up from hibernation and who have not taken on feminine characteristics of the time.

“She could see no sunlight in their eyes; their expressions appeared as masks that disguised their true feelings. Cheng Xin felt that she was facing a city wall built from six cold, hard rocks. The wall, roughened and toughened by the passing years, chilled her with its heaviness, and seemed to hint at death and bloodshed.”

Cheng Xin is eventually chosen as The Swordholder. Though she is a sympathetic character, this turns out to be a terrible mistake. When the Trisolarans attack, she does not launch retaliation. It later is revealed that the only reason that the attack occurred, was because Trisolarans had evaluated her personality and determined that it was unlikely that the would launch a counterattack. At one point it is observed, 

“In Cheng Xin’s subconscious, she was a protector, not a destroyer; she was a woman, not a warrior.”

As a result, though they are thwarted before the worst effects of their plan comes to fulfillment, the victorious Trisolarans begin to engage in what will be a nightmarish scenario for humans. 

It turns out that later on, Earth’s counterstrike does get launched. However, it is initiated by an Earth ship whose crew had been in suspended animation and who came from an earlier, pre – feminized era. 

The plot takes place in multiple timeframes, it is interesting that in a later timeframe when life for most humans has become a little harder, most men go back to a more masculine appearance. However, another time period is mentioned when living became comfortable and men began to also feminize.

Later, when humanity has recovered, Cheng Xin makes what be another error, when she averts a war but puts all of humanity in danger. 

Another character, Thomas Wade, is portrayed as ruthless and possibly a sadist. At one point he tries to murder Cheng Xin. However, it is later revealed that based on psychological evaluations he would have been the best candidate for Swordholder. His appointment would have forestalled the Trisolaran attack altogether. Later on, his plans for development of light speed ships is shown to be the best path for humanity’s future. 

With all of the above, Liu has set up a dichotomy in this book between masculine and the feminine traits. 

Poking around Google a bit, it seems that a fairly poplar idea coming from some Chinese commentators and opinion makers that modern men are taking on too many feminine qualities and that this will lead to bad outcomes in the future. I know that this strain of thought is also present in the West also, but it seems more prevalent in China. Obviously, this thinking influenced Liu in this book. 

Liu seems to be saying that an extremely comfortable society, completely free of violence  and suffering will lead to the extinction of masculinity. He tries to show that ultra-femininity will be a draw to people when living conditions become very easy. Even men from more masculine eras are drawn to the feminine ideal. The book portrays this as a natural, but in many ways, undesirable, progression. In the end, a feminized world would be unable to defend itself against external threats. 

More Google searching reveals that some are reading this book and are concluding that Liu is a sexist. I am not sure that this is the case. I think that gender issues are so complicated and that when authors stick their necks out with opinions on it they will inevitably ruffle from feathers. I think that when science fiction authors try to tackle it the results are usually interesting, even when I disagree with what they seem to be saying. 

I think that it makes sense to put masculine and feminine traits in their own buckets. These traits can range from dress and other aspects of physical appearance, mannerisms as well as less superficial traits like aggression and perhaps recklessness. I also think that most men and women display a combination of masculine and famine traits. Most men exhibit more masculine traits, most women exhibit more feminine traits. There are exceptions. Furthermore, while I think that culture can have a big impact on how certain traits are expressed, there is a major genetic component behind many of these traits. Though certain cultural trends might encourage more men to exhibit more feminine traits, I think that biology is too strong for the society that Liu envisions to form. 

Liu depicts the society of The Swordholder as unable to counter the Trisolaran threat because it has become too feminized. My take is that I think that humanity is in a kind of a balance, with most people exhibiting a combination of masculine and feminine traits. I think that if either masculine or feminine attributes were to universally disappear the outcome would be bad in all sorts of ways. Thus, while I think that there is no chance that masculinity will disappear like Liu envisions, the results would be very undesirable it they did. The same can be said however, if feminine traits were to disappear. 

I love it when science fiction authors dig into these issues. The genre of science fiction gives writers a vehicle to go into all sorts of directions on these issues. This is only a small part of what this book is about. Death’s End is filled with all sorts of interesting speculations on this and other issues. Folks who like science fiction and such speculations would do well to read this series. 

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Death's End by Cixin Liu

This book was translated by Ken Liu. 

The below contains moderate spoilers. Dramatic events happen fairly early on in this book. I reveal some of them. 


Death’s End is the last book of Cixin Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past Trilogy. Like the first two novels of the series, this is realistic science fiction that covers humankind’s struggle against alien civilizations that wish to either colonize or destroy Earth. The book goes on to touch on humanity’s fate millions of years into the future. At over 600 pages, this work is the longest of the three books, and it novel covers a lot of ground. 

The protagonist of this book is Cheng Xin, a woman who is an aerospace engineer born in what is roughly the present day. We meet Cheng Xi during her university years. A young man, Yun Tianming, falls in love with her. Unfortunately, in the years after graduation, Yun Tianming contracts a terminal form of cancer. Before he succumbs, he volunteers to have his brain sent via a probe to intercept the Trisolaran fleet that is planning to invade Earth. The fleet will take several hundred years to reach our solar system, and human technology is only capable of accelerating something as small and light as a brain on an intercept course. At the same time, Cheng Xin becomes a key figure who helps to shape the future of humanity. Yun Tianming returns later to play major part in the story.

An important plot device in this novel is the fact that Cheng Xin and other characters go into hibernation, or suspended animation, several times over the course of the story. Later, space travel at relativistic speeds mean that a short time can pass for characters on board spaceships while thousands or millions of years pass for the rest of the universe. As a result, the narrative takes place in multiple eras that comprise humanity’s future. Thus, the plot follows Cheng Xin and others during multiple periods in the future. 

So much happens in this book during the various eras. At one point, the Trisolarans destroy Earth’s deterrence system. They gain the upper hand because Cheng Xin is unwilling to launch a counterstrike that will likely destroy both civilizations. Next, The Trisolarans, having only robot probes in the solar system, but also human collaborators, begin a genocidal campaign to cull Earth’s population down to 35 million people through starvation.  Before the worst of the horrors commence, an Earth ship manages to launch a retaliation which is known as “The Dark Forest Signal.” This signal means that the location of Trisolaras, and eventually Earth, is transmitted out to the Galaxy, where malevolent civilizations will likely destroy both civilizations. The Trisolarans evacuate as they try to move their ships as far away from both systems. Humanity is spared, at least until it is destroyed as a result of the transmission. All this is fairly early in the book. Much of the remainder of the story concerns itself with humanity’s attempt to stop or survive the coming strike. 

In a later time period, Cheng Xin wakes up to find that most of humanity has resettled in giant space habitats beyond the orbit of the asteroid belt. This is in anticipation of the destruction of the sun from maleficent alien civilizations, who now probably know Earth’s location. In an even later era, Cheng Xin travels in a starship to other star systems where all sorts of fascinating things are described. At one point, she even encounters Luo Ji, who was the protagonist of the first book. There is also a lot of pathos and sadness experienced by Cheng Xin. Though most of the other characters are not well crafted in this book, I thought that Cheng Xin was captivating, as she showed some nuance, interesting traits, and real emotion. 

There is so much going on in this novel. One of many significant themes is humanity’s and the individual’s insignificance in the face of time. The novel actually opens during the fall of the Byzantine empire. The end of this great civilization underscores the temporary nature of all human endeavors. At several points in the narrative, the fact that high tech, digital electronic recordings have a limited lifespan is emphasized. Later, a mishap with a spaceship traveling at close to the speed of light means that millions of years pass while Cheng Xin experiences only a two-week interval. This means that she will essentially lose people close to her who she loves. So much time has passed that she realizes that an entire civilization might have arisen, died and wiped out on the planet that she is orbiting. She would be able to detect no trace of such a civilization due to the immense passage of time. The enormity of it all hits Cheng Xin,

“She finally understood how she was but a mote of dust in a grand wind, a small leaf drifting over a broad river. She surrendered completely and allowed the wind to pass through her, allowed the sunlight to pierce her soul.”

Later on, Cheng Xin and other characters find some solace and meaning in other ways, but the passage of time is still oppressive. This is just one of the fascinating themes floating around this novel. I am going to devout a separate blog devoted to Liu’s exploration of gender which he also manages to fit in here. The work is filled with many other themes as well as imaginative and speculative science which I found fascinating. 

This book is not self-contained. I would only recommend reading this after reading the first two books of the trilogy. My commentary on the Three Body Problem is here . My commentary on The Dark Forest is here.

While I was reading this book, I thought that this could have been the best book in the series. It was trending that way. It is filled with believable descriptions of wonders, the plot is epic and compelling, and, as per above, I thought that the characterization was stronger than in the previous books.  However, it was marred by an inconclusive ending. After three books, and millions of years, I thought that this work needed a firmer, more solid conclusion. Ironically, the second book, The Dark Forest, had what seemed like a firm and definitive wrap up. 


This book is marvelously inventive science fiction. Liu goes into all different directions here and covers an enormous chunk of time. The story is fascinating. In the end, I thought that the book, especially the ending, was not as focused as The Dark Forest, which I thought was the best of series. With that, this is still very much worth the read for fans of the earlier books. 

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

My Reading Tastes Over Time

I think that most people would say that their reading tastes have changed over time. I am no different. When I think about this subject, it turns out that I appreciate a lot of books now that I did not appreciate when younger.

Some aspects of my tastes have stayed consistent. I still tend to like the types of books that I liked when I was younger. I read a lot of history, science fiction, and I enjoyed much of the Classic Literature that I was assigned at school. I think that these early, high school and college reading assignments whetted tastes that would develop over time. 

Here I wrote about my science fiction reading when I was young. Here I wrote about my lifelong reading of history books. Here I wrote specifically about reading books centering on The American Revolution.

What has changed the most for me is that many books that I like or love now, are books that I would not have enjoyed when I was younger. 

One category of books that I have come to love are works that deeply delve into human relationships and personality.  When it comes to Classic novels of this type I was exposed to authors like Charles Dickens and Fyodor Dostoyevsky in school. I liked these books more than most of my peers liked them.  With all that, I did not move on to reading this type of book on my own until I was older. However, there are other books in this general category that I would just not have liked when younger. Jane Austen novels are a good example of this

I was never assigned Austen in school and did not try her books until I was in my 40s. Since then she has become one of my favorite writers. However, I would have felt differently when younger.  I would have found her works too feminine and too romantic in my youth.  Her stories center around establishing of romantic relationships. There was a time when this would not have been for me. Though I prided myself on bucking trends and expectations when I was younger, I would not have read or enjoyed these books. I also would not have appreciated Austen’s keen insights on life. Perhaps one can say that I was a little shallow.  Like many people, as I have gotten older I came to appreciate different kinds of stories about different kinds of people. Compared to what I exposed myself to when I was younger, Austen’s books are very different. I would not have accepted them. Austen is just one example of how I came to appreciate this kind of story over time. Other examples of this would be Anthony Trollope, E.M Foster, George Elliot, The Bronte sisters and others. 

 In a similar vein, there were books that I thought had potentially great plots, but that developed them in ways that I did not appreciate. A good example of this is Heart of Darknessby Joseph Conrad. I had heard the plot description from many sources. Many things about this book sounded appealing: A journey down an African River to remote places; A man at a isolated outpost who is behaving out of control, but who had developed a dangerous, cult – like  following; this all sounded like something that I would love. However, when I first tried to read this story as a teen, I was put off by Conrad’s very dense descriptions and what seemed like the slow pace of the plot. I had not developed an appreciation of innovative and artistic prose or character development. I was also an impatient reader. I have since come to love Conrad’s style. Writers like James Joyce and Victor Hugo also fit into this category. 

Other books seem to be naturally written for older people. Philip Roth’s Zuckerman series centers upon a man over the course of his life. Those that take place in his middle age would have flown over my head if I read them when younger. 

I think that many people develop an appreciation of different and varied books as they get older.  I do not want to claim this as universal as some folks seem to show very mature reading tastes when young. However, as per above, I am one of those who experienced an expansion in my tastes as time went by. In the end I am happy that I have come to appreciate so many more types of books. The only downside is that now, there are even more books that I do not have time to get to. 




Saturday, May 19, 2018

The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu

This book was translated from its original Chinese by Joel Martinsen.

The Dark Forest is Cixin Liu’s sequel to The Three Body Problem and the second book of The  Remembrance of Earth's Past Trilogy. My commentary on the first novel is here.

Taking place in the years following The Three Body Problem, this book concerns itself with the coming alien invasion of Earth. The Trisolaran fleet is 450 years away from reaching the solar system. However, the governments of Earth, working together to deal with the threat, have serious problems. First, The ETO is an organization of humans who are working to assist the aliens. Second, the Trisolarans have managed to send subatomic particles called sophons to Earth ahead of the invasion force. Sophons are basically protons containing supercomputers. They are capable of shutting down all of humanity’s research into particle physics, thus stopping human technological progress at a certain point. This puts a limit on propulsion, weapons and computer technical advancement and means that humans will be unprepared to meet the Trisolaran fleet in the future. The sophons are also capable of spying on humans anywhere, thus allowing the aliens to know everything the humans are doing in their attempts to thwart the invasion.

In response, the governments of the world appoint individuals known as Wallfacers. The Wallfacers are people who are given unprecedented authority to coordinate resistance to the invasion. The Wallfacers work alone and do not communicate their plans to others, as the  sophons can eavesdrop on all communications and conversations. Thus, the Wallfacers plan alone, and they are expected to use subterfuge and work on massive diversions in order to hide their strategies from the Trisolarans.

Luo Ji is the main character in the book and a Wallfacer. Other Wallfacers include: Bill Hines, a former president of the European Union and a brilliant neuroscientst who plans to enhance and manipulate human intelligence to fight the Trisolarans; Frederick Tyler, a former American secretary of defense, who plans to fight the Trisolarans with a fleet of tiny spaceships; Manuel Rey Diaz, the former president of Venezuela, who plans to build massive nuclear weapons that can send planets off of their orbits to use in opposing the aliens.

There are many additional characters, including various members of humanity’s new space fleet. Zhang Beihai is a naval officer who joins the new space fleet and becomes instrumental in its development. Shi Qiang, the rough-around-the-edges detective from The Three Body Problem, is back. He plays a major part as Luo Ji’s protector.


Luo Ji is a fascinating character. Initially, he is chosen as a Wallfacer for inexplicable reasons. He is a mediocre scientist, a womanizer, he is corrupt and hedonistic. He initially tries to refuse the role. When refusal fails, he uses his position to live a life of luxury and excess and does nothing to formulate plans against the Trisolarans. Luo Ji’s behavior is initially taken for a ruse meant to fool the aliens into believing that he is doing nothing while really formulating plans against them. When authorities realize that he is actually just milking the system, they use coercion on him. This prompts him to take action that becomes a true threat to the Trisolarans who, it turns out, have always feared his potential.

As the plot advances, the various plans of the Wallfacers develop along with counter plans of the ETO and the aliens. Later on in the story, many of the main characters go into suspended animation to oversee the plans as they advance over the course of centuries. The depiction of Earth’s future is imaginative and intelligent. Eventually, the humans face a Trisolaran probe that enters the solar system. Everything comes to a head as an enormous fleet of Earth’s spaceships goes to confront it.

This is a serious work of science fiction. Though some of the science seems farfetched, it is mostly based upon real principles. While things like sophons probably could not exist in real life, they are based upon actual theories and at least educated speculation. Future depictions of advances in suspended animation and spaceflight are depicted in scientific literate ways.

There are also references in this book to various science-fiction novels and films, including works by Isaac Asimov and Author C. Clarke. There are references to the writings of Carl Sagan. The plot and themes are also reminiscent of the works of these and other writers. This book, like The Three Body Problem, is a treat for fans of older science fiction as well as those who are interested in science and technology.

There are strong humanistic and positive themes here. As the plot unfolds, it becomes apparent that the universe is filled with advanced civilizations. Due to the need to survive and compete for resources, civilizations are quick to destroy other civilizations in order to eliminate threats and competition. Hence, the “Dark Forest” of the title. The dark nature of the universe is further illustrated when several Earth starships begin a joint, multi-generation journey out into the galaxy in order to escape the alien invasion. Crews of two of the ships murder the crews of the other ships in order to obtain fuel and spare parts. These actions are presented as the only possible way that the ships will be able to reach their destinations. The picture of a very bleak universe and existence is painted here.

However, better tendencies of intelligent life begin to shine through. At one point, a Trisolaran who has attempted to save humanity from destruction speaks to Luo Ji about a future universe that is based upon love as opposed to genocidal survival of the fittest.

“I only wish to discuss with you one possibility: Perhaps seeds of love are present in other places in the universe. We ought to encourage them to sprout and grow.”

Luo Ji replies,

"“That’s a goal worth taking risks for…I have a dream that one day brilliant sunlight will illuminate the dark forest.”

The sun was setting. Now only its tip was exposed beyond the distant mountains, as if the mountaintop was inset with a dazzling gemstone. Like the grass, the child running in the distance was bathed in the golden sunset."

The above seems to encapsulate what are ultimately positive motifs embodied in this novel."

There are also anti-totalitarian themes contained here. As the narrative takes place over centuries, long term trends in human history are fair game for the author.  Both right wing and left wing totalitarian regimes and solutions are shown to be harmful to humanity. Collectivization under strong governments is initially tried on a worldwide basis in order to mobilize human society against the aliens. This leads to catastrophe. Famine and social decay are the result. Eventually, a more open system brings world prosperity and a real chance to oppose the Trisolarans.

I am always hesitant to label a sequel superior to the original. However, as compared to The Three Body Problem, this book has a more interesting plot, more focused themes and more nuanced characters. I think that this novel is better.  With that, it may make more sense to consider The Three Body Problem and this book as one work. The first book ended without a resolution to the alien invasion threat. Though this book is the second in a trilogy, this novel seems to have wrapped up the entire story very neatly. In a way, these two works together make up a single, strong science-fiction story that is worthwhile reading for fans of the genre. This work really does not work as a standalone. It only makes sense as a follow up to The Three Body Problem.

In terms of plot, technology and science, it is a superb book. The characters are interesting and some show complexity. As I mention above, I think that readers of the first book would do well to continue on to this one. I have one more book, Death's End, in the series to go. I am very much looking forward to it.

Monday, May 7, 2018

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu was originally published in China in 2006.  This book won the Hugo award for best novel as well as several Chinese science-fiction awards. The novel is an example of what I call hard science fiction. I agree with the many commentators who contend that this book is already a science-fiction classic. The “classic” descriptor has a double meaning, as this book resembles much of the classic science fiction of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. 

The narrative alternates between China in the 1960s during the cultural revolution and twenty-first century China of the very near future. This novel pulls no punches in regards to the horrors of China’s cultural revolution.  That period is depicted as a time of brutality, when irrational forces were destroying truth, science and peoples’ lives. Ye Wenjie is a young physicist whose father is murdered in front of her by a state-sponsored mob. When she gets into her own trouble with the government for reading forbidden books, she chooses a life where she must permanently reside at a secret government base called Red Coast as an alternative to prison. This base is dedicated to sending transmissions to potential extraterrestrial civilizations as well as to searching for signals from those civilizations. This narrative continues through the 1970s and into the 1980s. Signals from an alien civilization, dubbed by humans as Trisolaris, are eventually received. The initial message is a warning from a Trisolaran pacifist that as the Trisolaran civilization is threatened by unstable stellar events, further communications from Earth will likely trigger an invasion of Earth by Trisolarians’ looking for a new home. Ye manages to keep these transmissions a secret and begins communicating with the aliens. Ye has experienced the horrors of the cultural revolution, and she is also convinced that humanity is causing the destruction of Earth’s environment and fears that nuclear war may be coming. Though the aliens’ intentions are not benign, she looks to the Trisolarisarians for salvation. 

In the twenty-first century, the narrative centers on Wang Miao, a young scientist. Wang begins to experience strange events. He discovers messages in photographs that he takes and observes bizarre data from scientific instruments. Wang discovers a strange virtual reality game that simulates a world that orbits three stars, like the Trisolaran home world. He eventually encounters a much older Ye Wenjie, who is now leading a bizarre organization called the Earth- Trisolaris Organization, or ETO. The ETO is trying to actively help the Trisolarisare takeover of Earth. The ETO members have become completely disillusioned with humanity. 

Wang eventually gets pulled into a secret alliance of world governments that are battling the Trisolarians and their human allies. Shi Qiang is also an important character. He is a police counterterrorism expert who is gruff and abrasive, but who provides invaluable assistance in thwarting the alien threat. 

The book is filled with hard science. Current day human technology and science is interwoven into the plot. This includes physics and astrophysics, virtual reality, nanotechnology and more. Extremely advanced science and technology of The Trisolarisarian’s are described. Even wondrous innovations are based upon real physics and current theories. At times, the text becomes a little technical. Though I found it interesting, I think that readers who are less interested in these technical passages can easily skim over them without losing much in this book. 

Though published in the last decade, this book very much resembles works of older classic science fiction. The author clearly was influenced by such writers as Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. As mentioned above, the science and physics are all plausible in this work. Even when describing mind boggling alien technology, Cixin Liu provides a scientific basis. The story is also logically consistent. This is a work of hard science fiction. The writing, at least in translation, is straight forward. Most of the story’s characters are scientists. The alliance of world governments uniting to fight off an alien invasion is right out of so many earlier works.

The fact that this was influenced by earlier works is not to say that this is not a very creative book. This novel is filled with creative speculation and imaginative situations. For instance, The Three Body Virtual Reality Game is original and full of unprecedented touches. The way that the Trisolarisarians attempt to undermine human civilization by using just radio and electromagnetic transmissions is wildly inventive. The philosophy behind the story is also original, as will be explained further below. 

The novel has environmental, anti-war and anti-totalitarian themes. Humanistic values are championed.  While the Trisolarisarians attempt to destroy Earth’s civilization, they worry that transmissions from Earth might undermine their own oppressive system. Two members of their leadership observe,

“The humanism of Earth will lead many Trisolarans onto the wrong path. Just as Trisolaran civilization has already become a religion on Earth, Earth civilization has this potential on Trisolaris.” “You’ve pointed out a great danger. We must strictly control the flow of information from the Earth to the populace, especially cultural information.””

Cixin Liu seems to be illustrating how harmful environmental damage, totalitarianism, anti-literacy, etc. are to humankind. However, the message of the book seems to be that people should not fall into despair and to give in to gloom and doom. The members of the ETO do this as they betray humanity and court a cataclysm.

“The most surprising aspect of the Earth-Trisolaris Movement was that so many people had abandoned all hope in human civilization, hated and were willing to betray their own species, and even cherished as their highest ideal the elimination of the entire human race, including themselves and their children.”


Ironically, when the aliens seem so very omnipotent, it is the politically incorrect Shi Qiang that rallies the protagonists with a message of hope and defiance. The Trisolarisarians are able to invade the visual cortex of the members of the group fighting them with a message that they are all forced to see - “You’re bugs!” This completely demoralizes the scientists and the military leadership trying to fight the aliens, but Shi brings the main characters to a region being devastated by locusts and observes, 

“Look at them, the bugs. Humans have used everything in their power to extinguish them: every kind of poison, aerial sprays, introducing and cultivating their natural predators, searching for and destroying their eggs, using genetic modification to sterilize them, burning with fire, drowning with water. Every family has bug spray, every desk has a flyswatter under it … this long war has been going on for the entire history of human civilization. But the outcome is still in doubt. The bugs have not been eliminated. They still proudly live between the heavens and the earth, and their numbers have not diminished from the time before the appearance of the humans.”

The book is not perfect. While several of the characters are interesting to read about and Ye shows a little complexity, they are for the most part simplistic. Better crafted characters would have made this book so much stronger. The writing, at least the translation of it, is at times a little flat. 

This English translation by Ken Liu restored the author’s original sequence of chapters which was changed by the book’s editors upon original publication. It also contains a fair number of helpful notes relating to Chinese history and culture. 

I highly recommend this work to anyone who likes the older science fiction.  Such readers will likely enjoy this book a lot. It is a great piece of science fiction. There are follow-ups to this novel. The Remembrance of Earth’s Past Trilogy refers to this novel and its two sequels. I will likely be reading the remainder of the series soon.