Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Dark Forest

Cixin Liu
Completed 4/22/2017, Reviewed 4/23/2017
4 stars

I picked this book up at the library when I realized that all the Hugo nominees except the one I was holding in my hand were checked out.  I got this crazy notion up my butt to read all the Hugo nominees this year.  As I looked through the list, I realized some were the second books of series of which I hadn’t read the first book, and one of the nominees was the third book of a trilogy of which I only read the first book.  That first book was The Three-Body Problem which I read for book club and gave four stars.  So since the library had the second book, I decided to pick it up and give it a try.  It was better than I expected for the second book of a trilogy.  Usually, I find the second book to be a coasting, a long setup for the denouement of the third book. This book, though a tough read, was nearly self-contained and had a very interesting plot. 

The story continues with earth reeling from figuring out that it will be invaded by the Trisolarans in 400 years.  Any attempts to come up with a resistance or solution is undermined by the existence of sophons, particles with the dual role of spying on humanity and suppressing technological development.  Because of the eleven-dimensional sophons, the Trisolarans know instantaneously what kind of resistance Earth may be devising.  So it comes up with a plan to choose four individuals to devise counter plans that only they know the full extent of.  Called Wallfacers, the plans are safely locked in the minds of these people, unshared with anyone.  Three of the four are well-known leaders.  The fourth person is Luo Ji, an astronomer and sociologist who doesn’t want to be a Wallfacer.  The book mostly follows Luo in his attempt to come up with some kind of plan to repel the invaders.

I found the plots of the Wallfacers to be very interesting and entertaining, in a very dark way.  Each Wallfacer is given all the resources and power they want to setup their plans.  Their only resistance is the Wallbreakers, people chosen by the ETO, the Trisolaran sympathizers, to figure out and reveal the secret plans.  Each Wallfacer has a Wallbreaker, except for Luo.  He is his own self-destructive Wallbreaker.  In addition, for some reason, it appears that out of the four Wallfacers, the Trisolarans want Luo dead.  Is it true, or is it just the paranoia of the narcissist that Luo is?  With everything stacked up against the Wallfacers, is there any hope for Earth at all?

What I didn’t like about the book is my same criticism from the first book, characterization.  I felt that I didn’t get to know most of the characters, and what little I knew about them told me what they were doing, but not really who they were.  The only characters I really felt I knew were Luo Ji and his sidekick, Shi Qiang, aka Da Shi, a cop who takes a liking to Luo.  Despite being a narcissist and misogynist, I liked Luo as he became a reluctant messiah, multiple times, grew to love a woman for who she is, and learned to have some compassion for the people of Earth.  And there was something warm about Da Shi, who reminded me somewhat of Jiminy Cricket, a sort of moral guide to help ground Luo. 

There was another character who I didn’t get, Zhang Beihai.  He was a naval officer that became an officer in the resistance space military effort.  His storyline was a hard, military SF plot that had me lost through most of the book.  Whenever I got to a Zhang section, my mind fuzzed over and I lost interest.  Finally at the end of the book, his plot came together, but the reading of his plotline before the end was just painful for me.

The biggest criticism I have of the book is that there are no major female characters.  There are only a few women in the books and they have secondary or nearly non-existent roles.  They don’t interact with each other, breaking the second part of the Bechdel test.  This was disappointing considering one of the major characters in the first book was a woman. 

Lastly, there were quite a few times in the book where there was info dump.  Some of those were tough reading.   Even the part that explains the significance of the title was a long, tedious passage.  

Still, I give the book four stars out of five.  I was surprised at how engrossed I was in the book despite the problems.  It was a heavy, tough read, and the third book is longer by another hundred pages, which is daunting.  But I look forward to reading it and seeing if it is really Hugo worthy or not. 

Sunday, April 16, 2017

All the Birds in the Sky

Charlie Jane Anders
Completed 4/15/2017, reviewed 4/16/2017
3 stars

I really wanted to like this book, and I began really liking it. But about halfway through, it dissolved into an uneven plot that got less and less believable and interesting.  It’s been nominated for several awards as of this writing and I’m not sure it’s deserving.  There are a lot of great reviews for this book and a fair number of haters.  I’m just mixed.

The story begins with the young Patricia and Laurence.  Patricia is a witch, Laurence is a brilliant techie.  Both have families that don’t understand them.  Both are outcasts at school.  They meet up and become friends, until Laurence realizes that Patricia really does have powers, abandoning her.  They meet again in San Francisco as adults, both trying to do something for the world that is collapsing around them, each using their own talents. 

I really liked the two main characters, particularly as children.  It is easy to like outcasts, feeling sorry for them, identifying with them.  Right from the start, you cheer for them even though you know that everything they do will be interpreted wrong.  And as the plot becomes more convoluted, you still cheer for them, hoping that they will find each other and fall in love.

It’s roughly the second half of the book that is its downfall.  Patricia has grown up to be a gifted healer.  Laurence is working on a wormhole generator.  The world is being devastated by superstorms and earthquakes. The plot gets convoluted with story lines like destroying the generator, giant robots, the “unraveling”.  It actually got hard to follow, even though the book is really an easy read.  Maybe I wasn’t willingly suspending enough disbelief, but it just seemed like subplots were thrown in to create as much difficulty as possible for Patricia and Laurence to get together and be in love, rather than for what should be the plot of the book, saving the earth and the falling in love being a natural outcome. 

I also didn’t like the grammar.  There were a lot of sentence fragments.  That might have been an editorial choice, or maybe not.  I found it really distracting.  I find sentence fragments to be useful when you want to slow the reader down to make a point.  I found as the book went on, I noticed them more and more and felt like they were stylistically pretentious rather than organic to the overall writing style.

There are a lot of good things about the book, mostly in the first half.  And the very end pulls everything together nicely.  It’s just everything else that I found difficult.  I’m giving the book three stars out of five on the strength of the first half.  It just could have been so much better.