2019年11月28日 星期四

The Remembrance of Earth's Past Trilogy by Cixin Liu (2014)

"There's nothing wrong, of course.  Existence is the premise for everything else.  But, Princeps, please examine our lives: Everything is devoted to survival.  To permit the survival of the civilization as a whole, there is almost no respect for the individual."

Cixin Liu also wrote The Wandering Earth, a short story collection reviewed here recently.  Along with The Wandering Earth, the Remembrance of Earth's Past Trilogy represents most of Liu's fiction published/translated in English.  This trilogy consists of The Three-Body Problem, The Dark Forest and Death's End.  Another translation of Liu's fiction, Ball Lightning, appeared in 2018.

1. The Three-Body Problem

In The Three-Body Problem humanity makes first contact with the Trisolarians, an alien race inhabiting the Alpha Centauri system.  This book has firm roots in Chinese history, and the debate concerning who the Trisolarians really are and what contact with them means is more informed by China's domestic politics than the concerns of humanity as a whole.  The Earth-Trisolarian Organization (ETO), a resistance group attempting to bring about either the redemption of humanity or its extinction, bears some strong resemblances to the Falun Gong movement in China.  The government's response to the ETO also resembles what the CCP did/is doing to that movement.

The reasoning behind the "sophons" is somewhat ridiculous, and the subplot involving the online game/right of passage wears out its welcome, but this novel has enough interesting twists and turns to be worth the effort.  Also in its favor is the way in which the PLA/UN dispose of the ETO's floating fortress.

2. The Dark Forest

The Dark Forest details what happens with The Wallfacer Project, a plan to save humanity by designating four individuals "wallfacers."  These four wallfacers hatch secret plans to negate the threat posed by the Trisolarian invasion force.  For each wallfacer there is a "wallbreaker," individuals whose sole purpose is to reveal one of the four wallbreaker's secret plans.

This book is WAY too long, and the wallfacers' plans come across as completely arbitrary creations, divorced from any kind of pragmatic necessity.  The manner in which the wallbreakers discover the wallfacers' plans is also arbitrary, rife with a kind of comic book logic.  "Aha!" says the wallbreaker, "I see that you've bought shoe polish today!  Because you've bought shoe polish I can tell you're planning to polish your shoes, and because you're going to polish your shoes you're planning on attending a secret meeting.  Because you're planning on attending a secret meeting I can therefore infer that you're...."

And why even go to the extreme of The Wallfacer Project anyway?  Why not just create a way of "speaking" via touch, and communicate in that way through water, fabric or some other medium?  I can't think of any way for the sophons to spy on that, and it would have been a lot cheaper than making four people into erstwhile messiahs.

Anyway, you get the point.  The distant future seen in The Dark Forest, not unlike the near future seen in The Three-Body Problem, resembles modern China a great deal.  It gets to the point where you wonder why so many of the people have Chinese names, why so much Chinese is spoken, and why the characters are somehow not surprised by how non-international the future is.

I also couldn't figure out why the Earth defense forces didn't try to divine more of Trisolaris' plan from the remnants of the ETO.  They're meeting online, sometimes even revealing themselves to the world, and no one ever thinks to question them on this subject?  It's a fairly obvious thing to overlook.

Liu's answer to the Fermi Paradox is... novel, but not all that convincing.  What he fails to account for is the lifespan of civilizations and other factors behind their extinction.  I do like the "dark forest" metaphor, but it completely discounts the vast age of the universe, its size, and the possibility that many civilizations would encounter either a technological or environmental bottleneck limiting their size and/or duration.  For an author who claims a talent for understanding abstract ideas, the way he glosses over this idea is hard to swallow.

3. Death's End

Now here's a long book.

What happens in it?  Well, humanity spends a lot of time agonizing over "Dark Forest deterrence" and what to do about the Trisolarian threat.  A part of it resembles Neal Stephenson's Seveneves, in that humanity strives to create viable colonies in other parts of the solar system.  Another part resembles Dr. Strangelove, in that humanity holds the threat of mutually assured destruction over the heads of the Trisolarians.  A third part even resembles Superman II, with an undisclosed alien race unleashing an other-dimensional threat against our solar system.

But in general it just goes on and on and on, presenting a rather arbitrary narrative that spans billions of years.  The Wallfacers are replaced by the Swordholders, mankind moves further and further out into space, and yet a group of (by now) ancient Chinese people are continually revived from suspended animation so that they can hold the fate of our species in their hands.  By the end it really does get kind of ridiculous, and while reading it thoughts of Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series kept popping into my head.

For me the weakest point of Death's End was the characters.  They don't really do much aside from observe, and even though they seem to hold the destinies of worlds in their hands the "right" or "wrong" of their choices is only obvious after the fact.  They never lose their tempers, they never get embarrassed, and the worst thing any of them experience is a sense of sadness after accidentally dooming mankind for the fourth time that week.

This is really too bad, because inserting compelling characters into the narrative would have made this trilogy SO MUCH better.  As it is it just fizzles out, and the reader is left to wonder why he or she spent so much time reading The Three-Body Problem, The Dark Forest and Death's End in the first place.

4. Would I Read Anything Else By Cixin Liu?

Sure - if it was shorter.  I maintain that his short story collection, The Wandering Earth, is worth reading.  Not all of the stories in that collection are great, but I do think Liu is much better when it comes to sustaining shorter narratives.

As for The Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy, let's just say that I'm glad I can go read something else now.

Related Entries:

"The Paper Menagerie" by Ken Liu (2016)
"Seveneves" by Neal Stephenson (2015)
"The Wandering Earth" by Cixin Liu (2017)
"Orion" by Ben Bova (1984)

2019年11月1日 星期五

"Suttree" by Cormac McCarthy (1979)

"Supposing there be any soul to listen and you died tonight?

"They'd listen to my death.

"No final word?

"Last words are only words."

Cormac McCarthy has been discussed here many times.  This is the eighth of his novels I've read, and the seventh to be reviewed here.  You're welcome to check the sidebar for other reviews of his books.  Suffice it to say that Blood Meridian remains my favorite.

Suttree is the story of Cornelius "Buddy" Suttree, a fisherman living in a houseboat on the banks of a river in Knoxville, Tennessee.  Suttree lives a somewhat Bohemian existence fishing and collecting an odd assortment of friends.  He spends time in and out of jail, and is content to live life in the moment, no matter how unpleasant that particular moment might be.

As a character Suttree is definitely among the most interesting of Cormac McCarthy's creations, probably because McCarthy modeled the character on himself.  I don't think I've gotten such a sense of personhood from any of McCarthy's other books, and this was a nice change from his other, bleaker stories in which characters who are little more than ciphers ask existential questions and try not to die.  Suttree felt like a living, breathing person, and his story - although seemingly random at times - felt very personal and very real.  There are certainly McCarthy novels that end with a bigger bang, but the depth of characterization that went into Suttree gives it both a beating heart and an easy smile.

This aside, the first few pages of this book are no picnic.  In his descriptions of Knoxville McCarthy pretty much outdoes himself in terms of obscurity, and those unable to skim will find themselves consulting the nearest dictionary.  The good news is that after the first few sections it gets much easier; the bad news is that those first few sections require a well-lit, quiet room where you can think over what you're reading.

It should also be said that Suttree isn't without a sense of humor.  It's not laugh-out-loud funny, but the characters often find themselves in humorous situations, and these situations make the book much better.

All in all I'd recommend Suttree, but only if you've read McCarthy's other novels.  It can be maddeningly verbose, and I was sometimes tempted to skip over certain sections.  I didn't however, and I'm glad I saw it through to the end.

Related Entries:

"Cotton" (a.k.a. "The Ballad of Lee Cotton") by Christopher Wilson (2005)
"The Help" by Kathryn Stockett (2009)
"The Story of My Teeth" by Valeria Luiselli (2015)*
"The Paper Menagerie" by Ken Liu (2016)

*Cormac McCarthy probably wouldn't like the last two books listed above.  He has voiced a distaste for magical realism.