What I’ve Been Reading, October 2019

The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, translated by Ken Liu — This book made waves a few years ago when it was first translated into English, and became the first Asian novel ever to win the Hugo for best novel. I’ve been meaning to read it for awhile, attracted to it because it is 1) a work in translation, 2) hard SF that takes after the golden age works of Clarke and Asimov, and 3) an exemplar of the thriving Chinese science fiction tradition. As well, I’ve recently become attracted to stories where humanity has to undertake massive, global projects to prevent existential threats—one such story being Liu Cixin’s “Sea of Dreams”, translated by John Chu. In that novelette, I was captivated by Liu’s titanic vision and cool, sharp prose. On all of these expectations, The Three-Body Problem delivered in spades.

The Three-Body Problem is a book about first contact, and the ever widening implications of that contact. It takes place in three major narrative strands: the Red Coast Base, a secretive military facility established in Inner Mongolia during the cultural revolution sporting an enormous antenna; the presentish, as various scientists are suffering strange fates or spiraling downward in existential depression; and, also occurring in the presentish, the VR landscape of a surreal game titled Three Body.

Just like the novelette I mentioned, Liu’s prose is clean and sharp (I guess that goes for both Lius—Ken, the translator, and Cixin, the author) with a great deal of emphasis placed on dialogue, especially in sections where some scientific concept is being explained. Against the simplicity of this prose, Liu crafts surreal and gargantuan images that stand out in striking relief, images that are burned into my brain like iconic photographs after having read this book—the towering antenna of Red Coast Base, the ominous countdown superimposed over the sun, the one-eyed corpse of a Red Guard revolutionary (this image, at the very beginning of the book, yanked me in without even beginning to approach the sci-fi elements.) And nowhere are these captivating images against stark backgrounds more present than in the game, Three Body.

Three Body is almost like a parody of Asimovian science fiction—a deserted world with only a few characters, all intensely focused on solving one problem. The problem (the Three Body problem you might say) is this: they wish to create a reliable calendar of the erratic days and seasons of the game world, which sometimes form stable, periodic patterns, and sometimes defy any patterns at all.

Despite the intense, singular focus on this one abstract conflict, which seems to have no real-world stakes, the problem is so perplexing (as well as the problem of: what even is this game?), and the solutions so intriguing, that the Three Body sections of the game soon became my favorite parts. Liu presents an enchantingly brutalist, anachronistic landscape that forms it’s own little story, a story of scientific progress, within the heart of the novel, and its no wonder that this game shares the title of the book—三体, literally Three Body.

Beyond the writing and the intriguing pull of all the mysteries Liu presents, within the game and in the rest of the book, I loved the atmosphere of the novel, the constant sense of dread—that something cataclysmic is arriving. It lends a greater sense of urgency to solving the problems these characters are faced with, and a greater sense of gravity to the book’s eerie, alienating imagery.

Oh! That’s a good way to put it! This book is Brechtian! Yeah, there you go. Or, at the very least, the Three Body game is. Its obvious artifice and sheer bizarreness just makes it all the more captivating. And there is something rather theatrical about the barren desert of the game—its sparse set and limited props. Yeah. Anyone looking for a thesis topic, there ya go.

I listened to the audiobook for this, narrated by Luke Daniels, who did a fantastic job maintaining distinct voices for a broad range of characters, and imbuing the dialogue (even when merely scientific) with a lot of attitude. If you love golden age SF, you should absolutely check it out. I loved it, and am currently working my way through the sequel.

The Dark Forest by Liu Cixin, Translated by Joel Martinsen — And what do you know, now I’ve read it! Spoilers for The Three-Body Problem I guess? This book picks up where the first left off, describing the years after first contact with the Trisolarans, but before the main bulk of the Trisolaran fleet arrives. A major part of this time period, and a major focus of the book, is the Wallfacer Project, wherein four people are selected by the UN to have unmatched, almost unchecked power, reminiscent of dictators in the Roman Republic. The idea is that, while the Trisolarans can spy on every other aspect of military operations, they cannot spy on people’s thoughts. So the four Wallfacers are tasked with planning and executing their own projects for the survival of humanity, without ever making clear their ultimate goal, keeping their plans secret and inacessible within their minds. The book also tracks the development of an international space force, and the efforts of one officer, Zhang Behai, to steer the military in the direction he thinks best.

Overall, I feel like the book lacks the urgency of the first one. The Trisolarans are always centuries away from reaching the solar system, and while the clock keeps ticking down, it doesn’t tick down that fast. This changes in the final section of the book, when there finally is a potential threat approaching quickly, but that threat isn’t really foreshadowed in the rest of the book, and none of the characters work as though their lives depend on their every action, every second—with the exception of Zhang Behai, whose storyline I found the most compelling.

An extreme threat calls for extreme measures, but we don’t really see much of that. Even with the Wallfacers, while they come up with some wild ideas, they don’t move quickly or drastically on them. I enjoyed the concept of the Wallfacers, and its implications (e.g. because they have to maintain total secrecy on their plans, they can just ask for incredible amounts of resources without offering any justification or explanation), and I did find the various twists and reveals surrounding them pretty fun, if a bit hokey. That said, I kept waiting for stakes to increase, for another shoe to drop, and until the final third of the book, it really didn’t. Honestly, other than one Wallfacer who serves as the book’s sort of main character, I think all the Wallfacer stuff could’ve been cut without losing anything. Set it aside as just, like, a separate novella or something, I don’t know.

I’m also of two minds on Liu’s depiction of the world here. It’s really cool to see the middle years of a crisis, the time spent preparing, the time when everything is fine but everyone knows it can’t last. How does a civilization facing annihilation function? What freedoms might it give up? How is the issue of fight or flight handled? How is defeatism dealt with? How do the old power structures of the world, the currents of international politics, continue in an era of supposed unity? But, Liu skips over the most compelling part of this, the “Great Ravine”! It’s like going straight from 1930s Europe, re-armament, rising tensions, all that, then jumping right to the Cold War—why?

Also what is happening with the women in this book? While the first book took clear inspiration from Golden Age SF, it fortunately left that period’s sloppy development/total absence of female characters behind, for the most part. This book though, there’s like … one decently written major female character? All our main protagonists are dudes? The most mainest of main characters has this weird Angel in the House type wife????? Why??

Don’t get the wrong impression—I really enjoyed this book, particularly the final third. It just feels like everything is slightly out of focus, just a bit muddier, less urgent, less sharp than it could be. Of the five protagonist characters, I only found two really compelling, maybe a third just because his plot-line is interesting. I’m definitely interested in reading the final book in the trilogy, and if you loved the first book you’ll probably get something out of this one. I don’t know that it’s a must-read though.

Is That a Fish in Your Ear? by David Bellos Is That a Fish in Your Ear? is a collection of essays about translation and interpretation. It’s not a book about how to translate, though translators and interpreters may find it useful, or at least interesting. I think the best way to summarize this book, which covers everything from language parity in the EU to biblical translation, is that each essay tackles a thorny question regarding translation, and endeavors to answer it, even if there really is no single answer.

That’s what makes this book so great. Translation is one of those topics which, for some reason, people without any knowledge of it have all kinds of ideas about it. You know it, the superficial schtick—”you can’t translate humor,” “some words exist only in one language, are untranslatable,” even “you can’t translate things word for word,” which is true but about the most vapid observation you could make about translation. David Bellos dives deep below the surface, dismantling the myths, and showing where even sensible, straightforward axioms of translation can become twisted.

Bellos doesn’t truck with mysticism, but a clear enthusiasm for translation, even an idealistic belief in its necessity, shines through in each chapter. Again and again, Bellos emphasizes the political implications of translation (for instance, the way translators somewhat create the “standard” for the language they are translating into), and the way political realities can influence translation (the chapter on the EU language regime is a trip.) Bellos isn’t doing this to show the mundanity of translation, but rather to show what an intensely human endeavor it is, with everything being human entails—errors, bias, individual expression, eh, art.

Some of the chapters are more focused on the practice of translation—simple quirks that you might not think about immediately—which I also found intriguing. Bellos’s explanation of symptomatic meaning is something that has stuck with me ever since I first read it years ago (it’s taken me awhile to finish this book), something I’ve been able to apply to translation, writing, and even just life in general countless times since.

All of this is written with perfect lucidity and a nice dose of humor—without ever compromising the complexity of the topics. For instance, in the simultaneous interpretation chapter, I mean, look, look at this:


The fact that Bellos is able to explain this and make it make sense is an incredible feat, making the book accessible to more than just academics or seasoned translators.

And like I said, I’ve been able to apply concepts from this book to more than just translation. I would recommend this book to any writer, and especially anyone writing SFF with heavy worldbuilding so that you can please for the love of god think about language for even half a second. I know I will be going back to it many times.

Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle — Hey, another book with an eerie, surreal game at its center! Wolf in White Van is narrated by Sean Philips, the creator of several play-by-mail adventure games, which form his main connection to the outside world. Only one game, Trace Italian, is still popular enough to bring in a regular income, with dedicated players continuing to make their way through the game’s devastated, post-apocalyptic setting, winding their way to the safety of the Trace Italian fortress. As the reader soon learns, Sean really began developing the game’s world when, at 17, he was hospitalized after shooting himself in the head.

The book moves non-chronologically, discursively, with narrative strands from the present, when Sean is an adult, and strands from his teenage years. One idea the novel is interested in is how the way people engage with a work of art (e.g. Trace Italian) reveals bits and pieces of their life, their interior. Sean comments on the pleasure he gets in reading the brief asides in the letters his players send, their thought process working itself out on the paper. At the same time, the book itself, Sean as a narrator, spends a lot of time on art, describing covers of VHS tapes or comic books, describing Conan the Barbarian as he appears in Robert E. Howard’s books, and as he appears in Sean’s childhood imagination, surveying a cruel, bleak, backyard kingdom. If I may bust out my newly-minted English degree for a moment, Darnielle’s ekphrasis is absorbing, almost to the point that I wondered if some of the art he described was fictional, and it provides subtle glimpses into Sean’s mind—just the same as the letters provide small glimpses into the lives of Trace Italian‘s players

As with Darnielle’s second book Universal Harvester, which I loved, there is also a focus on the banal. At one point near the end of the book, Sean describes talking to his mom when he was a teenager, and says, “I felt one of those urges I always got when I was younger, and that I still get sometimes, to just say something for the explicit purpose of blasting a hole through the conversation.” And that’s what this book feels like at times, a conversation with a hole blasted through it, and intrusive thought punching all the way through. Childhood memories of watching a Christian TV station because it was the only thing on at all hours, a rerun of a talk show discussing rock and roll and the devil, a phrase supposedly audible if you play a certain Larry Norman song backwards—and then a hole appears—

“Wolf in White Van.”

Something about that phrase breaks out of its familiar surroundings, for young Sean and for me as a reader, something about that image transcends its hacky Christian programming origins. And the book is full of lingering, slightly (or, in a couple cases, greatly) disconcerting images like that, gaping holes in otherwise mundane settings, mundane characters. Not boring, but mundane, mundus, of this world, explainable and common, and even comfortingly so at times. If you liked Universal Harvester, you’ll probably get a lot of this book too—and if you like this book, go check out Universal Harvester.

I listened to the audiobook version, narrated by Darnielle, with frequent musical interludes by him as well. The music is great, I mean just the fact that it’s included at all, I’m really gonna beat this drum till I die, AUDIOBOOKS ARE AUDIO NOT TEXT AND AS SUCH THEY SHOULD TAKE FULL ADVANTAGE OF THE MEDIUM and this one does, so that’s great. Also, Darnielle’s narration is great. He has an odd stop-and-start cadence, sometimes rushing through a sentence, sometimes pausing long at each comma. Maybe it would bother some people, but I found it very refreshing. Most professional narrators have a fairly similar rhythm, so it’s nice to hear someone who sounds like an individual human—and that works great for the book’s intimate, 1st-person narration. I highly recommend the book, in audiobook form or otherwise, and I’m eagerly anticipating whatever Darnielle writes next. (And in the meantime I’ll try and get his 33⅓ book, read that.)

2 thoughts on “What I’ve Been Reading, October 2019

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s