2019年9月20日 星期五

"The Wandering Earth" by Cixin Liu (2017)


"The moment at which Curse 2.0 appeared online found Cixin and Pan next to a trash can in the vicinity of the Taiyuan train station.  They were fighting over half a pack of ramen that had been fished from the garbage only moments before.  They had slept on floorboards and tasted gall for six years, until at last they had produced one three-million-character, ten-volume work of science fiction and one three-million-character, ten-volume work of fantasy.  They had titled their works the Three-Thousand-Body Problem and Novantamililands, respectively."

Cixin Liu is a science fiction writer from China.  All of his original works are in Chinese, and this short story collection, The Wandering Earth, is an English translation.  What follows are synopses of each of the short stories in this collection.

"The Wandering Earth" inspired the blockbuster (?) movie of the same name.  I put a question mark after "blockbuster" because it was really only a phenomenon in China, where audiences rallied around its imagery of a Chinese-led race to the stars.

The movie, however, bears little resemblance to the story that inspired it.  Humanity is threatened, the Earth wanders, but on the whole the story is more about the changes that humanity undergoes during its flight from the solar system, and less about a specific nationality or family unit.  If, like me, you were underwhelmed by the movie, you should check out the story, which is much better.

"Mountain" might be the trippiest story in this collection.  It begins with an alien visitation, and then proceeds to a description of a very, very different corner of the cosmos.  It's hard to describe this story without giving too much of it away, but I highly recommend it.  It's a wonderful marriage of lyrical/classical Chinese imagery and one of the most interesting attempts at world-building I've ever seen.

"Sun of China" is about the development of an "artificial sun" over China.  It starts out well, but it degenerates into a kind of sentimental nationalism.

"For the Benefit of Mankind" is the kind of story that would make William Gibson proud.  In it a trained killer is offered a fortune to kill three people in the wake of an alien invasion.  It would make a great movie IF that movie could make it past Mainland Chinese censors.  As it is I doubt they'd touch it with a ten-meter pole.

"Curse 5.0" is the story of a virus.  It's a more lighthearted, more tongue in cheek effort, something like Doctor Strangelove in a second-tier Chinese city.

"The Micro-Era" tells an alternate history of how humanity survived the solar flash which triggered "The Wandering Earth."  There's not much of a plot to this one, and the comparison of cultures isn't enough to drive the story forward.

"Devourer" is hampered to some extent by its obviousness.  The minute "Fangs" arrives it's fairly evident where his species has come from and what they mean to do.  This is, I think, a story that overreaches itself, and the speculations concerning competition vs. cooperation in a biological context could have been expanded upon.

"Taking Care of God" like "Curse 5.0" above, is a more lighthearted effort, yet if any science fiction story ever reflected day-to-day life in communist China this is that story.  The gods who arrive to burden humanity are compelling characters, and it also ties into "For the Benefit of Mankind" above.

"With Her Eyes" is the story of an unfortunate accident.  I can't say more than that without giving the whole thing away.  It's very forgettable.

"Cannonball," the last story here, is great science fiction in the tradition of Jules Verne.  One of the characters even mentions Verne's From the Earth to the Moon near the end.  I'm still not entirely sure why humanity felt the need to revive - and single out - the main character twice, but the idea at the center of the story is very interesting.

All in all, a very worthwhile read and also one of the best science fiction collections I've read in a long time.  While Liu's science fiction may strike some readers as less "grounded," his disregard for scientific verisimilitude is firmly in the tradition of writers like Stanislaw Lem, Jules Verne, or even Italo Calvino.  There's a wonderful spirit of play in Liu's work.  He knows that some of the concepts used in his fiction are ridiculous, but he also knows that they're fun to think about just the same.

I'll be reading his trilogy (The Three-Body Problem, The Dark Forest and Death's End) just as soon as I finish up a few other titles.  I've been very happy to make an acquaintance with Mr. Liu's fiction, and I'll be renewing this acquaintance in a month or so.

Related Entries:

"Orion" by Ben Bova (1984)
"The Artificial Man" by L.P. Davies (1965)
"They Shall Have Stars" by James Blish (1957)
"Out of the Sun" by Ben Bova (1984)

2019年9月13日 星期五

"Orion" by Ben Bova (1984)


"I am Orion.  I am Prometheus.  I am Gilgamesh.  I am Zarathustra.  I am the Phoenix who dies and is consumed and rises again from his own ashes only to die once more."

Several of Ben Bova's books have been reviewed here.  You can check the sidebar for these reviews and assorted biographical details.  This will probably be the last of his novels reviewed here for some time.

Orion isn't really a science fiction novel.  There's a brief discussion of lasers near the beginning, but after that point it's firmly in the realm of fantasy.  It's in the tradition of Michael Moorcock, an author I was never that fond of, and perhaps also in the tradition of Robert E. Howard, a much earlier author who could've told this same story better.

Those familiar with Moorcock's concept of an "eternal champion" will find Orion easy to relate to.  In a world where the dual gods of the Zoroastrian pantheon are real, a human champion is created to stave off the apocalypse.  And of course he's handsome.  And of course he's strong.  And of course the love interest falls instantly and irrevocably in love with him.

The only real twist here is that time travel is involved.  The hero travels backward in time to four different historical epochs, while the villain travels forward in time to those same four historical epochs.  The hero is attempting to preserve the "space-time continuum" by ensuring that history remains the same, while the villain is trying to disrupt this continuum by altering key events in human history.  In terms of causality it really doesn't make a lot of sense, especially given the fact that the book starts in the modern day, but the author (thankfully) doesn't give the reader much time to reflect on that fact.  Instead he moves the adventure steadily forward - or backward - depending on your point of view.

Athough it might have been more fun (and less open to debate) if the author had made Orion the pinnacle of human development, and if he'd also made Orion's interventions in human history less about the species and more about ensuring that Orion himself is born at some point in the distant future.  This would have made his speculations regarding Ormazd's "plan" even more fruitful, and would have also given the novel a lot more depth.  Then again, Ben Bova obviously wasn't trying to write that kind of book.  Frank Herbert could have written the shit out of that kind of thing, but Ben Bova's a more literal type of writer.

Orion also resembles Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light, though Bova's take on gods-made-real is less technologically-based, and more a straight-ahead swords and sandals adventure.  I think this straightforward approach makes the material more accessible (hence the many sequels), but fans of Bova's science fiction will probably feel alienated by this one.

For my part I thought it was brainless fun.  Could it have been better?  Certainly.  Could certain parts of it have been thought through more?  Yes.  But if you're looking for a light adventure story in which good battles evil, you could do worse than Orion.

Related Entries:

"The Artificial Man" by L.P. Davies (1965)
"They Shall Have Stars" by James Blish (1957)
"Out of the Sun" by Ben Bova (1984)
"Mindhopper" by James B. Johnson (1988)

2019年9月6日 星期五

"The Artificial Man" by L.P. Davies (1965)


"She was oddly relieved that his loss of memory had been caused artificially and not intentionally.  Now she was to meet and become one of the people he had told her about."

L.P. Davies?  Who the hell is L.P. Davies?  Well, to start with, he was British and he died in 1988.  He was active from the late 60s to early 80s.  He was never famous.  This book, The Artificial Man, is perhaps the best-known entry in his bibliography.

The Artificial Man opens with a man waking up in his country house, talking with various neighbors, and then setting out for a walk in the hills.  Then begins a slow process of realization.  Everything around him, this man learns, is not as it seems, and the people in his life may have sinister intentions.

Paranoia, in other words.  And not too far out of Philip K. Dick's wheelhouse.  Like a lot of PKD's fiction, it's not so much based on scientific concepts as conjecture based on the psychological theory of the day, and also on a certain willingness to venture into the ambiguous nature of the self, one's relation to other people, and on the role of the individual in a society where good is never all that good, and evil is only a bad decision away.

This would seem to imply a novel of great depth.  This is, however, not what I want to say.  No, The Artificial Man isn't Ubik.  It isn't Dune.  It isn't The Eden Cycle.  It's more a tale of weird science, of powers of the mind gone astray, and perhaps also a tale of spies working within a geopolitical reality very similar to our own.  If it seems deep that's probably more of a coincidence, although the author is to be given credit for his way with words.

My only complaint is the plot twists near the end.  In the last fourth of this novel there's a plot twist every ten pages or so, and after the third or fourth plot twist I found myself losing interest in the story.  It would have been better, I think, to have ended the thing 50 pages or so earlier.  No need to over-complicate what was already working.

Just the same I enjoyed this book.  I doubt I'll be coming across other titles by the same author, but if I ever do I'll be glad to give them a go.

Related Entries:

"They Shall Have Stars" by James Blish (1957)
"Out of the Sun" by Ben Bova (1984)
"Mindhopper" by James B. Johnson (1988)
"Coyote" by Allen Steele (2002)

2019年9月2日 星期一

"They Shall Have Stars" by James Blish (1957)


"The hugest loss of money the whole Jupiter Project had yet sustained had been accompanied by such carnage that it fell - in the senators' minds - in the category of warfare.  When a soldier is killed by enemy action, nobody asks how much money his death cost the government through the loss of his gear.  The part of the report which described the placing of the Bridge's foundation mentioned reverently the heroism of the lost two hundred and thirty-one crewmen; it said nothing about the cost of the nine specially designed space tugs which now floated in silhouette, as flat as so many tin cut-outs under six million pounds per square inch of pressure, somewhere at the bottom of Jupiter's atmosphere  - floated with eight thousand vertical miles of eternally roaring poisons between them and the eyes of the living."

James Blish had a checkered career in science fiction.  It wasn't so much that he fell out of favor as dropped off the radar.  He wrote several inventive stories in the 50s, later combined these stories into a series of novels, and then went on to become a noted critic in the genre.  In this respect his career overlapped that of Damon Knight - another author who never quite realized his full potential - at several junctures.  Blish would end up making most of his money from a sequence of Star Trek novelizations, and I think it's fair to say that he's not well-remembered among modern readers of science fiction.

In They Shall Have Stars, the first book in Blish's Cities in Flight series, two scientific discoveries converge to trigger a new chapter in human evolution.  The first of these discoveries is a cure for aging; the second is the development of faster-than-light travel.  Both of these discoveries are made against the backdrop of Western collapse, in a society fraught with suspicion and paranoia.

In stylistic terms this novel is first-rate.  Blish really had a way with words, and his impressive vocabulary and command of characters are about as polished as you can get.  His skill with regard to the written word again brings his contemporary Damon Knight to mind, and even a casual perusal of this book brings home the fact that many science fiction writers of Blish's time were writing at a much higher level.

Blish was also a stickler for scientific accuracy, and that comes across in They Shall Have Stars.  He was writing at the forefront of scientific developments in 1957, and his background in microbiology is very apparent.  Sure, he writes about cells in the absence of DNA, and he writes about faster-than-light travel in the the absence of time dilation, but given the time in which he wrote I think he can be excused on both counts.

If I have a complaint about this book it's that it doesn't quite come together the way it ought to.  At the center of the story is a bridge some of the characters are building on Jupiter, and this bridge is intended to symbolize - at least to some extent - the decay of Western civilization.  But the book doesn't quite merge the Jovian bridge, the cure for aging and the faster-than-light narratives into a single theme, and as a result the conclusion feels very rushed.  Summarizing the end of the Cold War, the discovery of immortality, a revolution in space travel, and the possible End of History is always going to be a tall order, and even a writer of Blish's skill isn't going to be able to do that in 159 pages.

With this aside, I still think They Shall Have Stars is one of the best science fiction novels I've read in quite a while, and I plan on reading the other Cities in Flight novels whenever I have the chance.  Blish's intellect and interests were clearly wide-ranging, his writing ability was beyond question, and I'm eager to see what else he came up with during his brief career.

Related Entries:

"Out of the Sun" by Ben Bova (1984)
"Mindhopper" by James B. Johnson (1988)
"Coyote" by Allen Steele (2002)
"Slow Apocalypse" by John Varley (2012)