Tag Archives: science fiction

Impressions of “Death’s End,” by Cixin Liu

Death’s End by Cixin Liu is the third book in the Three-Body Problem trilogy, and a truly wonderful conclusion. Death’s End is a wonderful conclusion to the trilogy. It is a wonderful complement to The Three-Body Problem, bringing back the scientific focus and tension and leaving behind the repetition of The Dark Forest As Three-Body implicitly examined the Drake Equation in depth, Death’s End does the same for dimensional projection. What seemed like irrelevant loose ends from The Dark Forest‘s emphasis on the importance of political commissars, such as the fates of the warships Bronze Age and Gravity, become into the main narrative. And, I suspect, it only failed to achieve a second Hugo award for the series because of politics.

Some quick words on the trilogy: The first book, The Three-Body Problem is perhaps the best “hard science fiction” book I have ever read — considering that is the genre of Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and Michael Crichton, that is saying a lot. The second book, a direct sequel called The Dark Forest, is a disappointment. Cixin Liu is writing in a Communist country, and long speeches about the need for political commissars and sudden complete trust in the well meaning and efficient nature of governments implied the book was written to curry political favor. Death’s End is the final installment.

Death’s End explores the idea of dimensional projection, or what an object would seem to be in higher or lower dimensional space-time. This concept was introduced near the end of The Three-Body Problem, but it is the focus in Death’s End. Specific examples of projection or transposition in Death’s End include

  • Projection onto the surface of a black whole
  • Four-dimensional projection into three dimensions
  • Three dimensional projection into two dimensions
  • One time dimensional projection into two dimensions

Cixin Liu is not the first writer to explore dimensional unfolding, but he may be the best to do so in a science fiction context. Realism, the philosophical idea that true reality of an object is the completely folded state was explored by St. Thomas Aquinas. The horror writer Jon Padget does the same, using numerous folded or reduced-dimensional imagery to get the point across: the fog itself, it has so many names: the Origami, Daddy Longlegs, Snavley’s Ultimate Ventriloquist.

And in popular religious writing, dimensional transformation is the same thing that C.S. Lewis called transposition in The Weight of Glory. So for example in my impressions of Weight of Glory I wrote

So when we pray for a miracle, in the past, present or future, we are praying for the projection of time that we see to be in conformance with our request. We are praying for time to be rotated in a specific way, in the way we might rotate a model pyramid to see the triangle, or the square, or the point.

But what Aquinas, Padget and Lewis explored by philosophy, horror, and apologetic, Cixin Liu does through hard science fiction. Relative frames of reference, gravitational waves and quantum entanglement, high and low gravity black holes, and string theory are all introduced in a fun and exciting way.

Each Three-Body book has a primary character who sets the theme. The Three-Body Problem is about Ye Wenjie, a young woman astrophysicist living in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution, and Wang Miao, an applied materials researcher in Beijing during modern times. The Dark Forest is about Luo Ji, a failed astrophysicist turned sociologists. Death’s End is about Cheng Xin, also a young woman astrophysicist.

Of the characters introduced in the series the only well developed and realistic character is Ye Wenjie. She is perhaps the most memorable character I read since Fire from the Sun, also about the Cultural Revolution. Cheng Xin, Death’s End‘s protagonist is almost Ye’s polar opposite — an archetype more than a complex character, she is repeatedly compared to the Virgin Mary as an ideal woman. Indeed, I suspect this is a reason that Death’s End, unlike Three-Body, did not win the Hugo Award. The days where a book about a Catholic monk could win that award are long gone due to an ongoing culture war in that community.

A fascinating article by the author, “The Worst of All Possible Universes and the best of All Possible Earths: Three Body and Chinese Science Fiction, is a must read. To give you a sense of the author’s thoughtfulness, I present these paragraphs from the piece below:

After the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, science fiction became a tool for popularizing scientific knowledge, and its main intended readers were children. Most of these stories put technology at the core and contained little humanism, featuring simplistic characters and basic, even naïve literary techniques. Few of the novels ventured outside the orbit of Mars, and most stuck to the near future. In these works, science and technology were always presented as positive forces, and the technological future was always bright.

An interesting observation can be made when one surveys the science fiction published during this period. In the early years after the Communist Revolution, politics and revolutionary fervor infused every aspect of daily life, and the very air one breathed seemed filled with propaganda for Communist ideals. Given this context, one might have expected that science fiction would also be filled with descriptions of Communist utopias of the future. But, as a matter of fact, not a single work of this type can be found. There were practically no science fiction stories that featured Communism as the subject, not even simplistic sketches to promote the concept.

I read Death’s End in the Audible edition.

Impressions of “The Dark Forest,” by Cixin Liu

The Dark Forest is a sequel to the Three-Body Problem, one of the best science fiction novels I ever read. Three Body starts with a bang, the Cultural Revolution in Beijing, China. Characters were well developed, and both sentimental and ghastly motivations are pained as flowing naturally from surviving the insanity of that era. Three Body also balanced two different time periods, the Cultural Revolution and the near future, as well as a virtual environment that closely connects the other two settings. It is a “hard” science fiction story, where special attention is given to explaining the plausibility and possible mechanics of future technology. And last, Three-Body carefully navigated (and even more carefully, comments upon) the censored and politically-monitored nature of speech in China.

The Dark Forest has none of these virtues. Substantial sections appear to be written by a Communist party literary committee, which they may well have been. Characters are two-dimensional tropes, and social motivation is simply bizarre. The ending is easily guessed. It is twice as long. Grudgingly, I will read the next book in the series and finish the trilogy.

So many things are radically different I wonder if The Dark Forest was originally supposed to have continuity with Three-Body at all. While Three-Body invokes hard science fiction extensively, one could substitute the aliens for Russians, Japanese, or Americans, and the story would make sense. Indeed, that may have been the problem. I’m aware of at least one other award winning science fiction where the original text of the sequel was rewritten to have continuity with the first book (Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead), so it would not surprise me the same thing happened here. While the length of The Dark Forest is about twice the length, a major theme of Three-Body (the difficulty of individuals aligning themselves with the goals of a government organization, from low-level lumberjacks to high-level politburo members) is entirely gone. Every government official appears to be basically productive and well-meaning. “Neighborhood committee” members and “political officers” receive special adulation.

In keeping with the Communist Party discipline that appears to be behind much of the book, religion is almost entirely expunged. The Catholic and Buddhist architecture of Beijing is described in Three Body, as are some contrasts between those religions. Understanding the enigmatic prayer, ‘Lord, save my Lord’ is part of the reader’s motivation to unravel the mystery, and the unique perspective of author Cixin Liu means Three-Body is neither a religious tract nor an atheist screed. That’s replaced with an almost complete absence of religion except as a dressing for basic emotions. Early in the book Osama bin Laden states that the core of all religious belief is simply hatred, while later in the book a character id described as an angel and as God himself for taking military command.

Buried in The Dark Forest is half of an excellent sequel. Three-Body ended in a moment of heightened tension for all characters. In the very last page two characters discuss the situation, and an interesting metaphor is raised. That metaphor is abandoned in Dark Forest, the tension dissipates almost completely, and all important actions are the result of deus ex machina — arbitrary events and decisions that are explained afterwards. The final communication process (for all war is communication) is interesting, but the reader only sees the end of it, as a tremendous amount just happens off-page. In Three-Body intelligent and learned individuals discuss ideas as they are using them. The shock of The Dark Forest‘s ending depends entirely on not being familiar with game theory or bargaining.

Reading The Dark Forest was fascinating, because besides the story and the writing, there is a real-life story about an original science fiction epic coming out of China. Something is happening in our real world, and both The Three-Body Problem and The Dark Forest are part of it. For this reason I will finish the trilogy, and hope it recovers. For now, I am not optimistic.

From the American publisher’s website, I found a link to this fan-made, impressionistic film “Waterdrop,” an homage to The Dark Forest in general and one chapter in particular. The short piece does a terrific job expressing The Dark Forest at its best, without giving away any important plot elements

I read The Dark Forest in the audible edition.

Impressions of “The Mind Parasites” by Colin Wilson

The Mind Parasites is an odd book. Its an easy to read book whose narrative breaks down, and whose bizarre ending makes you think the author began taking mescalin half way through the composition. It’s a very clever Lovecraft homage. Its philosophy is terrifying.

First, to the writing style and story. I’d called The Mind Parasites a combination of The Third Policeman, by Brian O’Nolan, and A Colder War, by Charles Stross. Like The Third Police Man, it is a straightforward narrative that is presented as if it is an academic work from the future. The narrator, one of the characters in the Mind Parasites, is himself the object of study, so for example

You can see that it is all a problem of language. I am being forced to make do with one or two words when I need about fifty. It is not quite analogous to describing colours to a blind man, because no human being is entirely “blind”; we all have glimpses of freedom. But freedom has as many colours as the spectrum.

is footnoted with

The above passage comes from a manuscript written in 2005. (M.F.: WHA-3271). We have included it for the sake of continuity. This whole problem is covered in minute detail in Austin’s monumental Life, Being and Language (2025-2041), particular Vol. 8, chaps 7-9.

And The Mind Parasites is like A Colder War because it presents the Cthulhu Mythos as real. As the story begins, Unknown Kadath is discovered, buried in Turkey. Inscriptions to The Great Old Ones are found, “impossibly” old. And being the real world, the media overreacts. There’s a greatest archaeological discovery every, ever generation or so. And in that sense complaining about an implausible ending perhaps is unfair — I recall how A Colder War ended!

But the best part of “The Mind Parasites” the parasites themselves. It’s the most plausible modern presentation of demonology I’ve encountered. It is as vivid a depiction of the demonic influence as Evangelion Neon Genesis is to angels, or The Great Divorce is to purgatory.

A “mind parasite” is a non-physical creature that obtains energy by eating your thoughts. It replaces some thought or pattern of thought about a person, an action, or a thing with its own. For instance, it may replace a calculated desire for money with greed, or a desire to do more with sloth. The most evolutionary effective parasites are those that leave their hosts alive and in good health. The most successful mind parasite – the most effective demon — are those that would leave the soul in the highest level of purgatory, with the greatest access to the refrigerium.

The mind is considered to be a biological machine, which works around these parasites, and can even incorporate them into its own mechanisms. So the mind of the greedy man, in the example above, might incorporate this greed, using it to other virtues while embedded the parasite in a protective callous, limiting it influence to the business world. Yet while this preserves high mental functioning, it makes the mind parasite more difficult to extract later. Medical doctors use intersecting beams of radiation and chemical treatments to remove such embedded illnesses. God uses fire.

In the worst cases the mind parasites completely colonizes the mind, leaving the victim a zombie of shambling parasitical thought and behaviors. In The Great Divorce, a guide tells the narrator there is hope for a quarrelsome woman, if she is still a murmurer, and not just a murmur. There is hope for any mind infested by parasites, as long as there is a non-parasitical portion of the mind left.

I read The Mind Parasites in the Kindle edition.

Review of “Monsters,” “Long Eyes,” and “The Adventures of Julie Beauchain,” by Jeff Carlson

I first came across Jeff Carlson by reading his story story, The Frozen Sky, an amazing tale of the role of reaction speed, and inhumanity, in battle. Jeff is also a blogger, and he was kind enough to virtually sit for a short interview. Recently, Jeff published a couple of his short-story collections on kindle. They are

In my review of The Frozen Sky, I compared that story to the works of Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. The Frozen Sky really does reach that level of perfection. It is a story that is fully embedded within the science-fiction genre, but the basic questions that it raises (what is the quality of speed? what is the quality of humanity?) are central to all fiction.

Here, I will compare Carlson to Thomas Ligotti… and to Carlson himself!

Two of these books are really horror, in the classic sense. The stories in Long Eyes and Monsters center around degeneration, the theme of all great atmosphere horror, whether by H.P. Lovecraft, Charles Stross, or Thomas Ligotti. Ligotti is perhaps the natural comparison. The problem is that horror — degenerative fiction — is hard to write. Just as drama is unbearable without comedy, horror is unbearable without beauty. Lovecraft’s science fiction novella At the Mountain of Madness, concerning the disastrous encounter between a scientific expedition and weird life-forms at the south pole, is ultimately a story of sympathy and love. Even Ligotti’s short story “Gas Station Carnivals,” is based on that nostalgia for the childhood of early memories, where we can’t quite determine of they are memories of events, or memories of dreams…

In my view, Monsters and Long Eyes fails as horror, because they do not paint the degenerate world as beautiful.

While Monsters and Long Eyes are horrors, Julie Beauchain is war-fiction. Indeed, there are strong parallels to Julie and The Frozen Sky: both feature a female protagonist amid an violently indifferent population , in a hostile environment, connected to humanity only through an emotional distant “Other,” and both books works into the science fiction genre. Between the two, The Frozen Sky is a purer example of the form. Julie Beauchain flirts with both the detective story and apocalyptic fiction, and so is not constrained enough to enable literary freedom.

I am glad I read these three works on my Kindle. The Frozen Sky is one of my favorite short stories (along with Gene Wolfe’s “Mute” and Lovecraft’s “The Terrible Old Man“), and these works help put what works about The Frozen Sky in perspective.

And great news, Monsters and Long Eyes are now available free from Jeff Carlson’s blog!