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Sci-Fi Book Notes

14 Dec 2014


I read a lot and rarely take breaks for book reviews. Many books I read are throwaway thrillers, read to study my craft; they deserve little mention. But others, such as true literature, special science fiction and non-fiction, are worthy of at least a note. Let's play catch up with a few.

At the Mountains of Madness is the first and perhaps only story I will read by H.P. Lovecraft, the Victorian age horror writer whose influence pervades modern horror but whose actual works remain largely unknown, perhaps for good reason. Mountains is the original story of monsters in Antarctica, inspired by the early South Pole expeditions of his time. Sadly, Lovecraft knew nothing at all of the Antarctic, except that some people went there and it was exciting because it was one of the last real frontiers on Earth. As a result he filled the book with impressionistic depictions of a place he would never see, depictions he could never validate. That must approach have been far more impressive in his time than it is today, when hyper-scientific realism is required in all but fantasy. Much of the book is incomprehensible for just this reason. Worth a read only as a historical curiousity, because it is shorter than the shortest Stephen King "short story", and because it is out of copyright and hence quite cheap.

Red Rising by Pierce Brownis the first of a new series set 700 years in the future on a terraformed, colonized Mars. The humartian (my term) society is stratified into rigid castes, strictly defined by function and associated by color. The Golds, for instance, are the CEOs of the world; the Reds are the miners, born and raised underground. Underground is where the Reds live, work and die, never to see the sky. Seen through the eyes of middle-aged miner Darwin, who is sixteen, we learn that Reds are controlled by the myth that Mars is not yet been terraformed and that the miners are doing crucial work, making the sacrifices required to make Mars habitable for future generations. A revolutionary cabal recruits Darwin after revealing to him the truth behind the myth. Through surgery, training, and identity fraud they insert Darwin into Gold society, where he is trained alongside born Golds who think he is one of them. The goal: insurrection and revolution. Darwin finds himself, along with his new classmates, subjected to a strenuous role-playing scenario with a medieval setting that escalates to modern weaponry, complete with war, rapine, and death. At one point we find ourselves wondering whether Red Rising is really a YA novel with fantasy elements, but the book is skillful enough to keep us going without being distracted by these never-quite-realized possibilities. Whether the series can sustain the fa├žade remains to be seen, but so little is resolved in book one that we can be assured of ample opportunity to find out. This solid three-star read merits reading at least one more in the series. I'm curious: will book two also be about Darwin, or will it be from the point of view of an entirely different caste, as Piers Anthony did in each book of his Incarnations of Immortality series?

Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu is translated from Chinese. This alien invasion novel is unique in its Chinese settings, with roots in the anti-intellectualism of the Cultural Revolution. A young female scientist persecuted by the Red Guard gratefully accepts the opportunity to participate in a top-secret program that could imprison her for the rest of her life. What does the project do? Monitor the plans of an alien civilization to come to Earth, because its existence on a planet in a three-star system - yes, that's right, the nearby Centauri system - is jeopardized by their inability to predict future solar configurations and weather, which are catastrophic more often than not.

Read this novel and be astonished by the secret goals of a cabal of Chinese scientists: to encourage the Trisolarians to take over Earth, not to fight them. Discouraged by their view of humanity, living in a totalitarian society, they see no hope for the future. Could life under the Trisolarans be any worse, they reason? So they send a signal inviting them to our world. What happens when they arrive? We'll have to read the sequels to find out, in the original Chinese, since they remain untranslated. Try it out anyways: it's a rare alien invasion novel that fails to feature BEMs (bug-eye monsters). The method used to introduce new Chinese scientists in the project, and new readers to this book, is too unique to spoil here with a description. This work of hard science fiction toys with fantasy without really going there. For many, this is the best of both worlds.


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