Reading | The Dark Forest (Cixin)

The Dark Forest by Liu Cixin (2008)

For the first time this year, unlikely the last, I’ve shelved the previous read and moved on.

It was almost three weeks ago when I picked up The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson, an alternative history novel set against the context of a pandemic that wiped out a huge piece of the European population five hundred years ago.

I have not real excuse besides it was a bit of a slog.

Grand ideas, complex characters, and a twisting narrative across multiple story-lines spanning time, space and the afterlife… meet my short attention span, I guess.

I always feel a little bad when nearly two hundred pages into a novel I pick it up, sigh, and then read. Analogously, it feels like walking down a beach, looking for a trail in the sand, while the waves wash away the footprints, while knowing that if you could just find a hint of some other traveller it would lead you to a treasure… or at least a good seafood restaurant.

It also makes me feel a bit numb because set against the backdrop of our own global pandemic, I’m mentally drained and I know if I had less anxiety about the universe I could probably find that trail in the sand and I might actually enjoy The Years of Rice and Salt.

So, perhaps saying I’m shelving it is a little extreme. I’m going to leave it on my table beside my comfy reading chair, and if I feel particularly focussed some day I’ll dig into it again (and check in here if I ever finish it.)

Instead, I pulled the second book in the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy The Dark Forest by Liu Cixin, a sequel to The Three Body Problem which I finished just over a month ago.

As I dive back into this story of a slow motion alien invasion of Earth, the plot has jumped ahead by a few years as humanity spins up a variety of reactions to the event.

A recap (and spoilers) in the first novel a civilization from a planet from a nearby star system is revealed to be in a bit of a pickle as their triple-sun solar system creates chaotic and cyclically destructive environs for their continued survival. It turns out that some rogue humans replied to some space spam and now the aliens know we exist and are coming to take the planet away… but in four hundred years because even a few light years is a hulluva long way to go. As an advance invasion they’ve sent ahead things called sophons which are advanced computers curled up inside the higher dimensions of elementary particles. The sophons are extremely tiny, but are able to disrupt humanity’s ability to progress technologically by ruining advanced physics experiments that would give us technology capable of defending ourselves four hundred years onward. Also they allow the aliens to snoop on our communications, so … no secrets for us. What’s a species to do!

I guess that’s what I’ll find out in part two of this trilogy.

Hopefully the characters have a longer attention span than I do.

Reading | The Years of Rice and Salt (Robinson)

The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson (2002)

Recently, I searched up and through a variety of online books lists. The point was to get some perspective on my quest to read more this year and to add some titles to my own prospective reading plan.

“Fifty books to read before you’re fifty.”

“The 100 best books of all time.”

“The twenty best books of 2020.”

Or, where I saw mentioned my next read…

“Great books to read during a pandemic.”

A pandemic, huh?

I’ve had a paperback copy of Kim Stanley Robinson’s alternate history novel The Years of Rice and Salt sitting on my shelf for years. It caught my interest once, but stacks of unread books are not an uncommon sight at our house. Apparently, it was waiting for a global pandemic for it’s moment to shine. It is, after all, about a former global pandemic, one that in the fourteenth century wiped out a third of Europe’s population. But what if, Stanley proposes, the plague had wiped out ninety-nine percent of Europe’s population? Just Europe. Everywhere else had a tough time, but mostly pulled through. And thus the ascendency of Western Europe… um… never happened?

In fact, only last night I completed a very European-ascendant-type novel. Prelude to Foundation offers a far future glimpse of mid-twentieth century Western values transposed many thousands of years into the future. I don’t think it was the point of the book that pretending that the social growth from the 1950s through the 1980s stalled. Yet, Isaac Asimov was telling a light backstory to one of his more famous characters crammed in between a few of his more popular works. What emerged from my perspective was casual social commentary. That book (as I explained to my wife in my frustration between chapters) was as much a dissertation on late twentieth century counter-culture social hang-ups as it was an exploration of any of the fantastic ideas from the Foundation series itself. Prelude to Foundation wowed me as a teenager because I lived in a small city with conservative ideals during that era. The twisting story of a fortune-telling mathematician fleeing those who would use him for their own political means dabbles broadly but simplistically in tackling concepts like gender equality, social movement, and even sexual prudishness as the protagonist blunders through a diverse society. I think it blew my mind that people were questioning this stuff… and in novel form, to boot. But that was thirty years ago. Thirty years later, and having lived through and participated in a variety of social movements, I’d like to believe that I’ve questioned ideals that are far more complex… and that I still am. So, as a recommended starting point for a modern perspective, even if it is a quick, fun read, Prelude to Foundation would not be my go-to.

With my latest pick, NOVEL.2021.03, I’m continuing questioning big ideas about our place in the modern world. For insight on the events of the past that have shaped us I’ve turned to some alternate history fiction. The Years of Rice and Salt as a recommended pandemic read has some obvious parallels to living in a time of contagion-fear.

The vibe I got from the first couple chapters, though, was that fool-hearted self assurance we Westerners all take for granted of that ascendency of Western Europe. It happened, sure. But I think Robinson is going to push hard on the you do know it wasn’t inevitable angle.

Maybe in thirty years those ideas will be just as quaint and simplistic as Asimov getting hot and bothered and writing a full chapter about a secondary character taking her shirt off in public… but we did just watch an attempted (failed) fascist coup of the US government so who can say. Maybe the impacts of Western European culture go a little deeper.

Ok, a lot.

Reading | Prelude to Foundation (Asimov)

Prelude to Foundation by Isaac Asimov (1988)

Rating: 6 out of 10.

I’m sticking with a strong science fiction motif for this year’s reading list.

So far, at least.

When Prelude to Foundation was first published I was in the seventh grade and was about to have my mind blown by the writings of Isaac Asimov. I went through a personal friendship renaissance in junior high and ditched the kids I’d been hanging out with for a few years to find a whole new friend clique that would define the remainder of my time in education all the way through University and beyond. One of my new junior high pals (who is still the guy of think of whenever someone mentions “child genius”) remembered my November birthday and tho we’d only been friends for a couple months gave me a crisp new paperback copy of The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov and said “read this, you won’t be disappointed.”

(…or however teens in the 80s spoke. I assume all my memories of this time period have been overwritten by binge-watching episodes of Stranger Things.)

Thus, I was introduced to the worlds of author Isaac Asimov, whose books became the de facto science fiction yardstick by which I measure all robot-based or space-based literature.

It’s also very likely about the same timeframe in which I came into possession of the first edition hard cover of the novel Prelude to Foundation which I found on my bookshelf as I was thinking about what to read next.

As it was, I had just in the past hour plucked my way through the concluding chapters of Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem. Over the week I’d been reading that particular tome, I had ordered and received the third and final book of the trilogy and was pondering the trio of books on my shelf as I united the first with its companions. The Three-Body Problem had gripped my attention as the pandemic holidays of the 20/21 season wrapped, but reading about the impending doom of the human race (at the hands of a nearby alien culture slightly out-competing with us for our precious resources) demanded a break between instalments.

The word “Foundation” caught my attention.

Talk about a worthwhile re-read. Why? In parallel to all this reading, I’ve just binge-listened the whole of the 1973 BBC radio adaptation of the Foundation trilogy for what is likely the tenth time through. The eight episodes are a mix of “someone just invented synth sound effects” paired with solid British acting, but if you can tune your ears past the cacophonic clash the underlying story is still the genius work of Asimov brought to life in one of the few dramatized versions of his work worth its salt.

And then there it was, the prequel (or specifically the Prelude) sitting on my bookshelf as a first edition hardback novel I’d bought when I was younger than my daughter is right now. I’d certainly read it then, but unlikely have I touched it since.

I have however steeped myself in the breadth of Foundation stories frequently since.

Plucking through the official introduction and backstory of Hari Seldon, the character-who-is-barely-a-player in the main series, but who is also the man whose action set the course of the whole tale in motion, that instantly seemed like a fantastically interesting prospect for my second read, NOVEL.2021.02, of this year.

A Blog Divided

This is my first post of the New Year.

Here.

Planning two weeks off gave me the impression that I would be super-productive and that I would write, read, play, and focus on some new things. Instead, I watched a lot of television, sat on the floor with the dog for hours at a stretch, and bounced between lazing around to eating back to lazing around.

It was not a total loss. I needed the break.

I did set my mind to the purposelessness of the last year though. I got to thinking about all the pointless work that I didn’t accomplish, and as I’ve done in years past, I vowed to focus on new projects and new things.

Blogging was high on that list. More blogging. Because as decidedly untrendy as it is right now in the era of tiktok superstars and youtube channels, I am very cozy in spilling words into the internet and I think I can keep focus on it for a while.

But I had this dilemma.

I want to write serious, long-format, in depth and wordy things on this space. And weeks can go by without me having anything long-format-worthy to write about. Also, long-format takes a long-time to put together. It is a worthy goal, yes, but it simply does not allow me to push forward with the catharsis of free-form blogging that I am aiming for.

I’ve tried this sort of thing in the past.

A couple years ago (and this links back closely to how I wound up owning the pixelazy.ca domain) I decided I was going to do a daily photo with some associated blogging. I would be a daily photographer and write about technique and style and… blah blah blah. That worked for about two months.

A few years before that I concocted the idea of long-form blogging around randomized topics. I had an A-list and a B-list and by merging one idea from each (at random) I could write some long-form bit of inspirational text about whatever poked through the veil of that mashup. That was swell and I held on, again, for a couple months. But it was hellalotta work.

Four days ago on January 1st I kicked off a different daily blogging project. See, I own this other domain where I had planned to write about cast iron cookware (long story involving beer, but read the “about” page if you are interested.) I didn’t ever do much with it, but I own the domain: castironguy.ca

So… what to do with a domain where I claim to be a guy who is really into cast iron cookware??

Here’s my take.

After all, what better single object to sum of my philosophy of life than a beautiful piece of iron that improves with care, attention, and food.

What I’ll be writing here on this blog may not be exclusively about cast iron cookware, but it will certainly come up. Maybe it even all connects back somehow. And I suspect the type of people who would be interested in reading my ramblings, likely are the same folks who cherish a good camp cookout, too.

The Cast Iron Guy

Over there I will write, simple short and daily, about things that inspire me to be positive, live well, eat good, and be the best sort of person I can be.

Over here I will write, less frequently and as the mood strikes, about things that I create, learn, play, think about, read, and work on.

It is a blogger divided.