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.

Fifty (one) Thousand Words

For what it’s worth, and to close off the first real series of articles on this blog on the first day of December… I crossed the NaNoWriMo finish line on Sunday evening with nearly a thousand words more than the goal.

NaNoWriMo 2020 is in the bag. Complete. And I sit at my desk as we roll into the final month of this insane year having written what I can humbly, but proudly claim, is probably one of the best first drafts of anything I’ve ever cranked out through a keyboard.

I guess that means I won, right?

The planning and plotting in October was a significant reason I am where I am.

Having sketched out a step-by-step outline of the plot, rather than simply forging ahead with a vague idea and hoping it worked out, as well as setting up a very defined cast of main characters, focusing on key locations, and wrapping it around a big broad theme, all made it so that when I sat down to write each day (usually leading late into the evening hours) my map was draw. I found I was simply filling in the blanks.

The success is definitely making me consider how I can build on the process for a next project, maybe even well before next November.

I assume if you are reading this, and have made it this far, it is because reading about the writing efforts of others is of some interest to you.

And after spending the last month with this book, being specifically coy about how much I shared here, it is only fair that I elaborate on the actual plot that I propped into existence.

Having lived through the better part of year in a pandemic lockdown I was feeling two things.

First, I was stressed that I hadn’t been part of that cadre of people who had “taken advantage of the bad circumstances and accomplished something.” In the cloud of bad news and being wrapped in a daily dose of the inner workings of a government pandemic response, my days had leaned heavily on the negative side of the pandemic … which is arguably the larger, more relevant side of it. Yet, personal mental health and trying to find a beacon of light in the dark left me searching for something personally fulfilling I could do to find that balance. Writing was on a very short list of ideas, but for seven months I had actually become less productive than more.

Second, I was working from home, and becoming more entrenched in the lifestyle the longer it went on. I used to spend my days going up and down elevators to different floors of multiple office high rises for meetings. Then I would spend my lunches trying out the numerous amazing hole-in-the wall restaurants and food stalls. In August I went downtown to get some files and the place was a ghost town, and I went to one of my favourite food vendors and was struck by how they were just barely getting by. I ordered a large portion, gave them a generous tip, and apologized that I wouldn’t be around much anymore.

This inspired me to write something, and that something turned out to be something I was living with, thinking about, and wondering how it would all turn out. My scenario, fanciful and fictional, grew from that.

What happened to all those empty towers? In my novel, fifteen years has passed and countless floors of vacated office space has been turned over to a local agency which has turned it into what is essentially a collective of makeshift tenement shelter housing.

What happened to the kids that wound up there with there pandemic-ruined parents? They grew up and got stuck in a system that drained them of hope, bullied and oppressed them, and fed them terrible food.

What happened to all the small food vendors and other businesses? Most of them vanished, but a hardy few hung on and built a rogue, travelling food court that was hidden away in the dark corners avoiding detection while they plotted ways to bring better food to the thousand of people living in the forgotten towers.

My main character is one of those kids, on the the verge of adulthood as he comes of age in pursuit of a better life for himself and his small family, chasing down the mythical roving food court, and … well… no spoilers.

My draft was called Dutch and the Midnight Grill and it turned out far better than I would have hoped when I started playing around with the idea. It has character growth, it has love and tragedy, it has recurring themes and connected bits, and if Chekhov had wandered by with his gun I would have found a way to shoot it.

December is time to let it rest and settle in my mind, but in January I will be thinking about how to edit this into something I can potentially publish.

And that’s why I’m calling myself a NaNoWriMo winner this year.

Nineteen Thousand Words

When NaNoWriMo 2020 is all over and I’ve moved onto other creative thoughts that don’t fall into the category of “writing a frantic novel in one month” I will likely divert the topics of this blog into other avenues.

For example, we are getting a dog in less than a week.

Or, y’know, this whole working-from-home during a pandemic lifestyle collapse that I’m coping with.

For now, however, my spare moments are largely connected with a single effort: putting words onto a screen in the shape of this weird little story I’ve come up with.

For those who remember or even just read archives, I kicked my plotting (literal) off this year with a simple jog around the Dan Harmon story circle. The point of that being to break your tale into eight concrete phases, work through those phases, and .. voila: story. Those phases are:

  1. A character is in a zone of comfort,
  2. But they want something.
  3. They enter an unfamiliar situation,
  4. Adapt to it,
  5. Get what they wanted,
  6. Pay a heavy price for it,
  7. Then return to their familiar situation,
  8. Having changed

Nineteen thousand words (and change) into the writing effort (and careful planning of the plot around this structure in advance) leaves me with a completed first draft of the first three phases on that list.

We did some character introductions, set the scene, built some simple motivations, and opened a few curtains to let the light in.

Then I exposed some frustrations and piqued some curiosity, making it clear that the characters were motivated to strive for something besides what they already have.

This kicked off the third phase, which was a small search for something that was essentially under their nose if they had bothered to look for it. They found it, and it captured their imagination and cracked open their reality.

As I set off to write on day twelve, chapter twelve (because roughly that’s how this thirty day effort is shaping out — one chapter per day) they are due to be given a glimpse behind the scenes, asked to adapt to that, and offered a chance to let it envelop them.

In other words, things are moving along nicely with a clear and satisfying momentum. And I should probably be actually writing instead of explaining it on a website.

Seven Thousand Words

On the morning of day five, before I’ve even written a single word towards my day’s goal total, I pause for a moment. Just a moment.

Between keeping an eye on the American election results, learning that we’ll be welcoming a new puppy into the house in less than two weeks, and simultaneously trying to write a NaNoWriMo novel in a single month it has been a whirlwind of action around here.

And that doesn’t even account for my usual schedule of working full days, playing dad-taxi, fitting in a bit of fatherhood work, and still trying to fit in a run every couple of days.

Yet I thought it worth pause for long enough to write a post, first because I’m still trying to re-start a consistent web presence for myself, but second because cheering on one’s own little successes when sharing the results of those successes (ie having someone else actually read my writing) would likely derail everything.

So, in there was the answer to the question that you never asked: no, you cannot read my novel, at least not until December. And maybe then I might want to skim through it once or twice first with an editor’s mindset.

My progress feels remarkable. I write that previous sentence under my own evaluative perspective knowing that I’m both negatively and positively biased towards myself, and that the sense of feeling good is winning from the mess of self-doubt and self-congratulation and steady word counts and huge looming word goals — that’s a good thing… question mark.

I’ve drafted four chapters (one chapter per day for thirty days which is exactly how I framed everything before starting) containing a little over seven thousand words (which is about three hundred and fifty words ahead of the required daily pace.) I have some distracting days ahead, including a day booked for some travel, a new puppy arriving, and (to be completely honest) I’m sure to hit a burnout moment eventually. But for now (fingers crossed) I’m feeling good.

Characters are forming. Hopes. Fears. Relationships. Wants. Needs. Strengths and weaknesses blurred into some reasonable actions and dialog.

A plot is priming up, like a ball on a string being lifted to it’s apex and ready to be let loose.

Tensions are taking shape.

Story is emerging.

And that’s about all anyone can ask from a crazy (but possibly epic) attempt to write a novel in just thirty days. Right?