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.

Reading | The Three-Body Problem (Cixin)

The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin (2008)

Rating: 8 out of 10.

I’m a sucker for big ideas.

Go ahead, book, blow my mind. Bring it on. Melt my preconceptions of the universe in a firey hot crucible and reforge everything I think I know about your topic into something new and interesting.

That’s definitely not the default position of many people who read. Reading is a comforting thing. Reading is an escape, and to most (I would argue) that escape is best when it is to somewhere exotic but relatable, far away but with echoes of the familiar.

I read The Three Body Problem a few years ago and the first of this trilogy was off in another galaxy, weird, unsettling, and confusing. Couple that with me reading the English translation of a Chinese novel, and… “we’re not in Kansas anymore!”

My approach for 2021 is to pick up new (to me) books or books that I think deserve a second attempt (because they are big and complex and I stumbled through them the first go) and add them to my reading list. I want to read twenty-one novels for twenty-twenty-one, and having just finished Dune (my goal of completing it before New Years Eve) I skipped ahead a few days and started NOVEL.2021.01, a book about politics, science, intergalactic communications, far-flung technologies, and our place and status as participants in the universe.

My latest attempt at Dune was a success, in that I completed the novel and after my third… fourth… maybe even fifth attempt at that tome, the story got some traction in my brain. I don’t want to come across as simple, but I think many people are fearful of admitting that complex tales often take multiple passes through our minds. I read it when I was in my teens and it was incomprehensibly full of big ideas laced together with subtle wordplay. I tried again a decade later and could not relate it to anything worth measuring in my own life, and skimmed through with a shrug. I gave it more a respectable attempt about five years ago and as I wrote in my previous READING post it gained some clarity of focus as I rounded through the second part and finished the third. This time, I paged along the story and clung to the clues and complexities. Perhaps it is arrogant to claim that I “got it” but I see the beauty of that tale now, the story of distant-future political strife, the blossoming of a religious fanatacism from the power struggle play of haughty people, the role of scarce resources and interpretation of science against the forces of the universe, economics, and history, all of it dancing across a sand-swept stage where life fragile and cheap, and mouring loss is an elitist’s extravagance.

So, onto something equally heavy?

As I wrap up this terrible, no good, very bad year I decided to read a Chinese science ficiton novel, translated into English (because my second language skills are limited). And in so much as the world is a web of interrelated ideas, The Three-Body Problem begins with a tone of precient recounting of history. The cultural revolution in the 1960s, the execution of a university professor by a crowd, stoning him in the street for teaching scientific ideas that don’t conform to the extremist perception of proper thought, and fanaticism inadvertantly creating a character that will go on to do extraordinary things to shape the future history of humanity.

I don’t see a morality parallel here at all. /s

On a side note, as I dive into 2021 I have this plan to write more here. I have an ever-sharpening distaste for the social media platforms that have played a role in the past couple years of socio-poltical strife faced by the world. The Internet is being parcelled into chunks and sold to the highest bidder at a cost we’re just beginning to comprehend. It’s more important now than ever for people with the means and ability to build places where something that is not part of a massive platform can still exist in the cracks between. No matter how small.