Tianming‘s Fairy Tales from Death’s End bought me to this 1884 born extended grandfather of science fiction.
In this proto science fiction story, Poe’s Narrator recalls his miraculous escape from a whirlpool(Moskstraumen), with chilling accounts of his terror and helplessness against natural forces. But instead of succumbing to the morbidness, narrator tries to make sense of the danger he is in, with reason, hence the sci fi / math fi categorization. Readers do have the usual incentive and freedom to consider this as a horror story in conventional sense, or to question the reliability of narration, with its prevailing story inside a story structure.
Poe even star notes an Archimedian work (obviously fake), as his reference material for floating body dynamics in fluid vortex. Still, I somehow kept expecting some weird supernatural or unknown horror from Nordland, till the last word, like in Algernon‘s Willows of Danube.
Maelstorm II by Arthur C Clarke
This short is Clarke’s space homage for Poe’s proto sci-fi survival story A Descent Into the Maelstorm. Due to some electric failure on launch rail, the freight catapult is handicapped from attaining lunar escape velocity and Cliff Leyland, the sole passenger on board is stranded on moon. While he is contemplating on life, universe and everything, Ground Station engineers a daring escape plan that could turn his hair white.
For some reason, Clarke’s agrarian reminded me more of Weir’s Watney than Poe’s fisherman in this brief space caste away. The short story can be found in the compilation edition –The Wind from the Sun.
This short story is centered around Slow Glass- a futuristic glass that slows down light passing through it, there by enabling people to save old memories and places in them, like a live painting. The story deals with human emotions, sense of loss and art of letting go; than the implications of slow glass on a global scale.
Slow Glass sounds like a realistic sci fi plot, something that might happen in future, though I am an absolute dummy on how. Maybe a futuristic metamaterial with tinkered refractive index. Light traverse differently through different medium and refractive index(the ratio of the velocity of light in a vacuum to its velocity in a specified medium) is the property of the material that determines its propagation. With a metamaterial of negative refractive index and stuff, the slowing down of light is probable. The science I postulated above is very primitive and probably a weird explanation as I mostly flunked my masters, yet keyword searches would help you pelt along.
If you strain yourself a little more, slow glass is an earthbound black domain, an escape strategy explained inDeath’s Endthat involves slowing the speed of light below solar system’s escape velocity and thereby creating a hypothetical shrouded Dyson sphere for humanity to escape to . Though spoiled midway, this short story will leave an everlasting impact on you.
“Light of Other Days” is the title of a 1966 Hugo– and Nebula-nominated short story by Bob Shaw. It was incorporated into a novel in 1972, Other Days, Other Eyes, which also dealt with issues of surveillance and privacy. The title for both the novel and the short story is drawn from the poem “Light of Other Days” by Thomas Moore.
Death’s End is by far the darkest, longest and the most expansive of three books and is a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy, but in its own terms. When you wrap your head around the scope of this cosmic saga and ruminate on it like the title says, the intricately engineered story line, where everything was seeded in with careful future consideration, feels all the more epic.
While the 3BP opened with Red revolution and Dark Forest with detailed scanning of Chinese alphabets, Death’s End prefaced on a more familiar non eastern account – the fall of Constantinople. This western centric or rather international approach was a prevailing characteristic of the narrative, though story kept transcending inter gallactically. Wake of the novel is the failure of deterrence between Earth and Trisolaris under the new ‘sword-holder’ Cheng Xin, a female rocket scientist, and humanity’s efforts to evade annihilation in the Dark Forest universe. ‘The Staircase project’ is the first brain child out of this desperation, which sends a human brain for Trisolaris to intercept. Like the propagation mechanism of staircase project, readers are taken through the splintered timeline of Universe’s history, via main protagonist’s hibernation cycles, with divulged informations and throwbacks to previous legacies.
I didn’t have much patience after Liu’s direct reference to Bester-‘The Stars our Destination’ project, and my initial taking a sip of the book got elevated into full course dinner. Destruction of 187J3X1 by Luo Ji’s spell reminded me of Clarke’s Star, the Twilight Zone version in Dark Forest and original interpretation in this installment. The message in the bottle and unfolding of Universe from Garden of Eden state were reminiscent of The Last Question, though not directly referenced. Jovian space stations resembled Cooper Station of Interstellar or Rama in construction, and Liu traced it as far back as Poe’s Maelstrom. The initial existential questions of how natural nature is, and how much life has structured the universe offered interesting pov’s to the way we usually see things. The beauty of Liu’s writing was incorporation of all its Gordian knots into a comprehensive narrative, with invitation to view them from both sides of the equation. The obvious setback of this centenarian narrative was neglect for infos on galactic humans or decision making of humanity or relationships where the previous installments did well. And though imparted with understandable metaphors and detailing, much of book’s science felt like expositions.
For a book about higher dimensions, characters were a bit 2D. I actually prefer story/idea driven book where plots are way bigger than characters, but here, Cheng Xin and AA had little flesh on them. Unlike Ye Wenjie or Luo Ji, who propelled the plot, Cheng Xni felt like a badly written trope with a cardboard sidekick, whose sole existence was to provide a narrative perspective. Acknowledging the sheer scale of story might be one way to evade this, for the Deterrence, Bunker and Galaxy Eras were highly different from Crisis Era of previous installments, which shared a lot with the CE we are in, both in terms of science and events. But the pity I felt for Xin’s mother like attitude to hang in and avoid risk probabilities, changed eventually after getting through the brand new universe, brand new life concept. Like the first person who send out the message towards Trisolaris out of her frustration towards cultural revolution, one cannot blame Xin solely for her decisions without considering the circumstances and cultural eras she was in. Like Yifan puts it “A single individual cannot destroy a world. If that world was doomed, it was the result of the efforts of everyone, including those living and those who had already died”.
Tianming’s fairy tales deserves a special mention, for if read individually, they are quite Hugo worthy. Though well elucidated later, Liu urges readers to form a educated view, along with characters trying to debunk it. The metaphors in the story made great sense and offered an enriching experience on possible evasion strategies for humanity with black domain, curvature travel or using laws of physics as weapons, when revisited after finishing the book.
I couldn’t help but look back and wonder how perfectly titled the books in this were. In this retrospection, the title of trilogy, is all the more spectacular. Though the immediate response would be to attribute it with Cheng Xin’s ‘a past outside of time’ epitaph, Liu has been remembering or paying homage to epochal moments of Earth’s past as we know it, as well. The Great Ravine was a visible metaphor for Industrialization and Renaissance in general, Dark Forest deterrence stood for the nuclear stalemate and cold war history, Resettlement of humanity in Australia represented colonialism and genealogical migration. Sophones standing for Totalitarian regimes and welfare states, and the whole Trisolaran thing offering existential questions in Theocracy, were few other accounts where I suspected philosophical implications. The multitudes of universe was staggering as well, offering unlimited possibilities of ideas and persons, like diversity within a civilization, and in this grand scale Death itself wasn’t any fair or an ending for that matter.
3BP and The Dark Forest were slow burners for me, which I savoured over considerable time, but Death’s End hit me like a Trisolaran droplet. There was a part of me that wanted the darkness to be done with, and another part that couldn’t put the book down due to the cliffhangers and constantly mind blowing concepts. And, towards the end of the read, I found myself more eager to interpret the light at the end of tunnel as a speeding train than rescue dawn.
“The ultimate fate of all intelligent beings has always been to become as grand as their thoughts.”
Considering ‘Remembrance of Earth’s Past’ series, Cixin Liu is more close to this ultimate fate, by vacillating his ideas with probability and game theory, urging readers to think scientifically while constantly blowing their mind off.
I am highly inclined to tag this one as ‘The Empire Strikes Back‘ of series, notwithstanding the fact that the third book is yet to be covered. And Liu’s ultra-pragmatic Dark Forest deterrence theory, among many other things, blew me away to such an extent that I might not look the Fermi Paradox, the same way ever again.
Though Dark Forest picks up exactly from where Three Body Problem had left us, by roughly building its premise from and post events of its predecessor; the novel can stand alone well on its own, with maybe, a tweaked preface. Humanity is still under the threat of Trisolaris, who have now mobilized their fleet in Earth’s direction, expecting an interception in four centuries or so. And Earth’s defences are widely exposed in strategy and crippled in scientific progress, by ‘sophones’ who do the dual job of enemy recon and deterrence. I was surprised by the way Liu lightened this seemingly grim premise with constant introduction to mind-blowing ideas and concepts, without breaking their continuity with everything that has happened in the fictional universe and actual science so far. The Wallfacer project, for example is the first domino in his contraption, which grants four individuals unbounded freedom and resources to engineer strategies over Trisolaris on projected Doomsday, even if entire humanity is kept in deception. To me, the whole wallfacer idea, the ultimate intelligence vault, was one of the most fascinating concept, in my reading history. And the book had more of the sort, only if bigger and better, up its sleeve.
It may be unfair to judge a translated work for its literature merits, and the writing here is absolutely within limits of criticisms, that cannot be evaded by the lingo cultural card. Yet, Liu‘s style was highly committed to its course, strictly following Chekhov’s gun policy, except maybe for a few misplaced McGuffins. Thing is, during the long time span of novel, reader might forget more than a few of those probable digressions, only to have it reminded by Author further during the read. In my opinion Three Body Problem was a bit demanding, with its groundwork in remote history and near future scientific principles; The Dark Forest on the other hand, felt more accessible, as an extended reaction towards the First Contact story line. Also, Liu’s inoculation of scientific ideas made me think in a discursive course during the read than being intuitive about the plot. As a reader, I never felt under equipped to understand the rocket science; For the author has been, subtlety instilling the required science and philosophy, without them ever appearing like expositions. I found this treatment very restorative.
The book encapsulates in essence the paranoia and defeatist pessimism, when people have to make peace with the possibility of an impending doom. The future where environmentalism is a luxury and nationalism is insignificant reminded me of Forever War and Blade Runner. The perplexing escapist question is whether to save for upcoming generations at the expense of current, while the future of very civilization is uncertain. But the way, Liu painted this bleak ‘inequality of survival’ scenario, which ideally should have been drained of morality and resources, was pretty bright. Along with the Chinese citations that are bound to go over our head, this book offers passing references to a lot of popular sci-fi from Verne to Asimov, with careful consideration on basic science. A good illustration would be the explanation for something as a space ship reaching escape velocity from our solar system, or possibility of detecting a star system or deploying a space fleet. A casual reader would hardly question any of those, but Liu‘s narrative attaches decipherable details and delightful interconnections, rather than leaving them as convenient plot devices. His practice of carpe diem, in story and writing, has my utmost respect. I badly want to discuss the axioms of cosmic civilizations and other mind blowing concepts in this book, but like a Wallfacer, I am compelled to keep them to myself, or else I would be spoiling the reading experience.
I’ve been keeping myself off from reading for a few days, after finishing the book, just to extend the unaltered excitement little more, and to perhaps, formulate an unbiased opinion. One might nitpick on pace, narratives and characters; but, to me, they were perception checks to appreciate the genius of Liu. For, over the grand scale of story, The Dark Forest felt like the work of a higher being like Trisolran than a normal human in creativity.
A very immersive and atmospheric Lovecraftian sci fi, with an ethereal narrative that doesn’t intercede a strict boundary between surrealism, post modernism, adventure, horror and suspense.
Area X is a Visitation Zone, an Arkham blasted heath, somewhere along the tropical coast line, presumably in America; For its obfuscating transitional alien ecology, the area is demarcated for exploration, by a shadow (non)government agency called Southern Reach(VanderMeer’s Umbrella Corporation or Dharma Initiative or Wayland Yutani). Our narrative follows the 12th expedition to The Tower, by a team of 4 members, all women, who are identified by their respective roles- a biologist, a psychologist, a surveyor and an anthropologist. What we read in its entirety, are survey notes by the Biologist – an after incident relic, with obvious missing information, like the shaky camera footage from Blair Witch Project. The setting is similar to the classic premise of Lovecraft’s A Mountain of Madness or its space cousin Randezvous with Rama, where a group of individuals are exploring the unexplainable. But here, VanderMeer’s after event narrative doesn’t trust the readers, nor can it be trusted absolutely.
If you are invested in clear cut explanations and conventional character developments, this book is going to disappoint you colossally. Our Biologist is an unreliable narrator, exploring a HouseofLeaves, too strange for her brain cells to intercept. The narrative won’t let you identify with any of the characters, except for the biologist, who in turn is openly critical towards the readers. A man might need a name, but clearly these women don’t. In its HardBoiledWonderland treatment, none of the characters are addressed by their names, not even among themselves, like they have already detached their personal attachments for the higher purpose of Area X happenings. I found author’s philosophy eerily similar to that of Strugatsky Brother’s Roadside Picnic – explorers investigating stuffs they can’t or will ever possibly comprehend, like cats and dogs trying to make sense of leftovers from a picnic.
For its ‘plot far bigger than the characters’ treatment, I found the biologist monologue genuinely heartfelt, almost in lines with that of Chiang’s Story of Your Life. The digressions in her monologue, the seemingly gratuitous past life side quests, in course of reading, added to the mega narrative confusion, often making sense. VanderMeer’s writing was well crafted, layered and well engineered with fragmentation, anxiety and growing paranoia. The log entries were prosaic yet poignant, and kept definitive character traits of the biologist, from the adjectives she use, to her working explanations of Area X. It corroborated with the unreliability of narrative, for our manifestation of the place, was solely through the biologist pov, who kept detailing the physical and psychological aspects of Area X, as unraveling of some eukaryotic alien biology. Assuaging this limited available research was his highly efficient wordplay, with minimal embellishments; every word and occurrences served a purpose, from the critical linguistics of hypnotic suggestion to the strange writings at Area X, like they were part of a bigger conspiracy. And they were.
Permanence, I believe, was the biggest luxury in this novel, for all the five(including biologist’s husband) characters, well within their ulterior motives, were found to be perpetually transitioning throughout their progress in survey. Their perception of the alien environment was shaky(the tower? the tunnel?), with memory vacuums created by psychological suggestions. The Area X in itself was full of radically different ecosystems in overlap, constantly rearranging themselves, and the map, the equipments and sponsoring organization were severe misdirections to even begin with. But there was one character that enjoyed the luxury of permanence in this transgressional narrative, The Lighthouse Keeper, though he was finally absorbed by the Crawler. The real time Crawler writings seemed allegorical and biblical to certain extend in its archaic style, luring individuals to a personal purgatory. All these could be taken as suggestions towards a meta-fictional approach, where the unreliable ever expanding nature of Area X can be potentially argued as an allegory towards encroachment of fictional world over author’s imagination.
A lot of the novel felt like playing Alan Wake, or Silent Hill, or like binge watching first season of Lost. Though the environment was unfathomable, the writing kept me on the edge like reading ThenThere Were None for the first time. But unlike the detective novel, there was no postscript message in the bottle that explained the mystery, and I was left with more questions than answers. Still in a weird way, I found this love letter to the dread and uncanny, thought provoking, excitingly dark, intensively suspenseful and oddly satisfying.
Annihilation is the first installment in Southern Reach Trilogy and is followed by Authority and Acceptance. A 2018 movie is under work as per wiki, with Natalie Portman as the Biologist. So brace yourself for , “oh, this was where Dr. Foster been” Thor jokes.
This noveletta explores an alternative history scenario where Cold War escalates to full fledged nuclear confrontation. Both US and Soviets move to Underground bunkers, from where they control(barely) the Fallout universe through radiation resistant Terminators called ‘Leadys‘ (I think their name has more to do with radiation shielding element Lead than the verb lead).
Like all other PKD stories this one also offers strong philosophy to contemplate on, from irrationalities of war to dangers of automation to extreme nationalism. The Leadies are proxy soldiers, fighting a war while humanity is safe in their bunkers, much like soldiers fighting for the nationalistic interests while leaders enjoy comfiness and safety. There is a far greater idea of peace through homogenisation implied in the story, and author uses robots(human creation) as mediums to convey it.
This ‘melting pot’ solution, in my opinion, might be able to resolve issues within a demographic of closer cultural ties, but would easily fall short on a global scale of co existance. A more rational and tolerent society that celebrates cultural heterogenity would be my prefered line of world peace.