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.