Reading Habits

Reading Habits

Work right now is a speeding freight train, if every box car was actually a dumpster filled with burning tires and every bridge was under frantic construction as the smoking, metal beast approaches; I labor madly at each bridge to cobble something together that barely supports weight if nobody looks too closely, before speeding off to the next. Fingers in dikes, etc. Reading time has slowed to a turgid crawl, and with it easy blog topics. I’ve started several posts, only to abandon them two paragraphs in as boring and self-indulgent. Into the breach comes an emergency post from Far Beyond Reality, which gives me a chance to prattle about myself while I put together the next award-winning essay. Enjoy, all.

1. What was the last sf/f/h book you finished reading?

The Bonehunters by Steven Erikson, as any faithful Two Dudes follower would know. Almost done with Alastair Reynolds’ On the Steel Breeze.

2. What was the last sf/f/h book you did not finish reading and why?

Toshokan Senso, because it was an awkward love story set in a barely tenable future Tokyo, which glossed over everything I thought might be interesting in favor of annoying people having hate-crushes on each other. Incidentally, my wife enjoyed it greatly.

3. What was the last sf/f/h book you read that you liked but most people didn’t?

I have no idea. David Brin’s Existence sparked the most heated discussion I guess. I can’t think of anything else I staunchly defend against an ignorant majority.

4. What was the last sf/f/h book you read that you disliked but most people liked?

Probably either Name of the Wind or Game of Thrones. They may be very good, but I bounced off pretty hard and didn’t press on with either.

5. How long do your single-sitting reading sessions usually last?

Maybe 20 minutes, unless everyone else is asleep and I’m really into something.

6. What are you currently reading?

The aforementioned Reynolds, The Burning Dark by Adam Christopher, and Interstellar Patrol II by Christopher Anvil. The latter two are mostly on hold while I finish up library books (Reynolds). Oh, and I have a few pages left of Saraba Yurei, which I cheated and wrote about anyway last January.

7. Do you like it so far?

Um, referring only to the Reynolds at this point, yes, though I wish he’d stop being pastoral and go back to being weird. Those books were more fun.

8. How long ago did you buy the book you are currently reading (or the last book you read)?

Library. I mostly read library books, ARCs, or something I bought in a book sale grab bag.

9. What was the last physical sf/f/h book you bought?

Good question. Probably a pile of Japanese SF when I was there last November. I buy very little, except at the Half Price Books warehouse sales. ($20 bucks to fill a bag! That’s potentially 50 paperbacks!)

10. What is the sf/f/h sub-genre you like the most and why?

My heart belongs to Hard SF. In my younger days, I wanted to be an astronomer until calculus destroyed any illusions I had about my competence. Hard SF satisfies my brainy side while giving me the outer space that I will never get to experience in person. I also enjoy cyberpunk and space opera a great deal.

11. What is the sf/f/h sub-genre you dislike the most and why?

Er, romance? I guess? Horror, if we’re including it in the speculative family. I have enough worries in my life without intentionally scaring myself.

12. What is your favorite electronic reading device?

I have the cheapest Kindle available. There’s probably better out there.

13. What was the last sf/f/h eBook you bought?

I don’t think I have ever purchased an ebook.

14. Do you read books exclusively in one format (physical/electronic)?

As with music, it is the content that concerns me, not the medium. I will read whatever is available, though I confess to favoring the Kindle for anything over 400 pages or so. Wrist fatigue and all. Oh, and the Kindle is the business when I travel to Japan. To think that I used to haul around 20+ CDs and 5-6 books in my carry-on.

15. Do you read ebooks exclusively on a single device, ie. an eBook reader, a smartphone or a tablet?

I periodically read on a computer. I own a Kindle. I have no smartphone, the kids and wife dominate the tablets. I would guess that I’m running a 70-30 print to ebook ratio right now.

The Bonehunters

The Bonehunters
Steven Erikson

I started reading Gardens of the Moon, the first Malazan Book of the Fallen, is 2007 or so. Many years later, I am through Book Six, though I have yet to write about any of them here. This is partly because I was already a third of the way in before Two Dudes even got off the ground, but mostly because I don’t know how to approach a ten volume epic in a single blog post. In fact, I’m not sure how to approach the whole of the Malazan series as a reader, let alone a critic. I believe the longest series I have read to this point in my life is six books long, when series is defined as a single narrative arc, not just stuff written in the same universe. Ten volumes, each a thousand pages or so each? I forget stuff inside a single book while I read, let along something I read four years ago.

Excuses aside, it’s time to talk about Malazan. My silent blog partner swears by the series, and any of our conversations about fantasy inevitably return to Erikson. I am not nearly the fantasy gourmet that he is, but I read many of what are now considered the roots of the genre. I am less up on current hits, but feel qualified enough to take on something major like Erikson’s Malazan and start to assess its position in fantasy. If the author ultimately succeeds at what I think he’s trying to do, Malazan will rank as one of the great, defining fantasy series of this era.

Before we dig in, I have one quick question. With all the outrage and arguing about grimdark, why does Erikson seem to get a pass? I rarely if ever see Malazan mentioned, though untold thousands have suffered grisly, horrid deaths and plenty of “bad’ people are viewpoint characters. Maybe the relative lack of rape? Too few f-words? I admit a hazy understanding of correct grit usage in fantasy, but these books seem a touch darker than, say, Shannara. Maybe I’m missing something crucial, or maybe it’s actually a pointless and silly argument.

Anyway, time to pull our heads out of the metaphysical clouds of genre. For those who are unfamiliar, Malazan Book of the Fallen is a ten volume fantasy series centered on the fictional Malazan Empire. The plot starts some time in Book Three, but doesn’t really get underway until Book Six. I suppose it demands a certain level of patience, but things are always entertaining enough to keep my attention. Erikson’s background in anthropology gives weight to the world building, which is stunning. Nothing in here is bland cliché, from the races and kingdoms on down to the salt of the earth types that form the core of the viewpoint characters. The world benefits from many years of gaming by the author and his collaborators, which is not normally the case. I can think of few bits of advice I would rather give to an aspiring author than, “Don’t novelize your role playing sessions. Nobody cares about them.” In this case however, Erikson’s deep experience within his own world is a huge plus.

One reason I waited so long to write is that figuring out what Erikson is after took me six books to get a handle on. (Or at least to think I have a handle on it.) My take goes back to some talks Jose, the other Dude, and I had about fantasy as a genre. We speculated, and I think most of us would agree, that fantasy offers the most freedom to the author of any genre, because anything is possible so long as some form of internal consistency is maintained. No constraints of the real world, of science, of history, or anything else. We just say, “Magic!” and nobody can impose any limits that the author doesn’t already set out. This may also be fantasy’s great curse, since the lack of walls makes it all the more frustrating when so much fantasy follows the same conventions. This tendency is at its very worst in epic fantasy, with its elves, dwarves, and farm boys of destiny.

Erikson seems to have looked at this situation and made two decisions. First, he is going to blow up every cliché possible. Second, he is going to write the epic-est epic fantasy ever. Sick of elves? How about Jaghut and T’lan Imass instead? Love battles between giant armies? What if the gods are physically joining in? Enjoy that thrill of the world possibly ending? How about the world, and all the parallel realms attached to it burning down? I’ve used the guitar amps turned to eleven joke before, but Malazan sets new standards. It’s like the Texas of fantasy – everything’s bigger – if Texas was a continent-spanning empire peopled with eight foot tall, invincible warriors, Houston burning down, Dallas decimated by plague, Tim Duncan (famous San Antonio basketball player) ascending to super-mortal status and slaying dinosaur-sized ravenous dogs, and mad wizards running rampant through Waco.

Come to think of it, this is a Texas I can get behind. Can we make this happen?

Anyway, Erikson keeps this insane contraption running through thousands and thousands of pages, with the operatic pathos plowing full steam through people’s souls, but just enough jokes and sidelong glances to convince me that he is utterly self-aware about the whole thing. Every time I think Erikson’s maxed out the chaos, he finds another dial marked “EPIC” or “AMAZEBALLS” to crank up. In the wrong hands (*cough* Michael Bay *cough*), it would all just be tiresome. With Malazan? Tremendous fun. It’s about time someone tossed out close European analogues and blew everything up. If we can make all of our own rules, why not go crazy? Why not push everything to the logical and narrative limit? Isn’t this why we read fantasy after all? Jose maintains that this is the whole reason the genre exists, and he will fight and die on this hill. We read fantasy for the jaw-dropping moments that turn our brains to jelly, the instant when horizons explode out past anything we’ve dreamed of prior, and the scenes of our wildest imaginings put down on paper. Or at least I do. Named swords and lost princes are cute, but I think it’s my right to demand more.

More in this case is Malazan, and it’s probably something every fantasy grognard should read. It is not however one of those places that any reader would want to visit. Malazanians must breed like rabbits to maintain the population, since the average lifespan in this place is about seventeen minutes. The series might have the highest horrible deaths per capita of anything I’ve read. Yes, yes, Game of Thrones, GRRM killing everyone, I know, I know. My understanding though is that he mostly targets people’s favorite characters. Erikson is more indiscriminate, randomly torching, plaguing, butchering, or magicking entire cities. The body count (and detailed descriptions thereof) may not be to everyone’s liking. That aside, it’s maniacally entertaining stuff. High level to be sure, since the reader is thrown to the wolves with no, “As you know, Bob…” breaks to catch anyone up, but a landmark bit of writing.

I will probably write more about this as I get closer to knocking out the whole ten books. There’s lots to say, especially if I turn the spoiler filter off. I’ll leave it here for now and hope that other readers sound off with comments that spark scintillating conversation.

The Straits of Galahesh

The Straits of Galahesh
Bradley Beaulieu

I’ve been fighting with this post for several days, but it stubbornly resists any kind of hook or angle. I still want to talk about The Straits of Galahesh though, so in the absence of profound or witty concept to hang this post on, I may have to write a straight up book review. Heaven forbid.

I read and reviewed The Winds of Khalakovo some time ago, and named it one of my best reads of 2013. Beaulieu’s unique world fit well with the sympathetic characters and non-stop action; I burned through the book in a couple of days and was immediately ready for more. However, despite the author graciously providing me with ebooks of the next two volumes, one thing or another got in the way and I didn’t start into Book Two until early 2015. Straits took much longer than Winds to complete, something I initially chalked up to changes in my reading habits. Thinking more and poking around other reactions, I’ve decided that it wasn’t just me. Straits is a deeper, more complex book that demands more effort than the first. It takes longer to set up, longer to get into, and longer to pay off, while dealing with the dreaded Middle Book Syndrome.

While Winds was big on swashbuckling in a comparatively small geographic and chronological area, Straits takes the time to expand the story both further into Beaulieu’s world and deeper into the history of Anuskaya. There are still plenty of swashes to buckle this time around, but in more kingdoms (Istanbul analog!) and with more and better bad guys. Anuskaya, with its windships and islands in the sky, is even more beguiling than in Winds. Beaulieu has created one of my favorite fantasy worlds here, improving it vastly by introducing new places. I didn’t think it would get much better after the first book, but the author surprised me. Yes, this remains the ever popular Seek and Slay the Evil Wizard storyline, but now we have the philosophical underpinnings to his dastardly plot! On the whole, the series benefits from the broader view. There is a trade-off as Beaulieu has to spend a substantial pagecount in the setup, but once things finally get rolling the momentum is undeniable.

It’s hard to assess the plot and write the sort of convoluted, analytical stuff that Two Dudes normally presents without first seeing where everything ends up in Book Three. Eye rolling and accusations of having entirely too much spare time will have to wait. The wait shouldn’t be too long though, since I am eager to wrap this up and find out what happens. The world might literally end, if the author is feeling so inclined, and the body count is just high enough that favorite characters may have to make the ultimate sacrifice to stop the evil, if vaguely well-intentioned, Evil Wizard from unleashing a hellish nirvana on everyone. True love will likely prevail however, just because it always does. That said, anyone who liked the first book will find no reason to skip the second. My expectations for the third are high.

The Goblin Emperor

The Goblin Emperor
Katherine Addison

I haven’t written a book review in quite some time, so Katherine Addison’s newest seems a good place to pick back up. I didn’t initially plan on reading this, as everything about it screams “tween book,” from the name to the cute cover. The Goblin Emperor has steadily drawn good reviews though, so I decided to check it out. I”m glad that I did – this is a lovely, charming book. It’s hopeful, positive, complex, and beautifully written. In other words, Mom, since I know you’re reading this, go get The Goblin Emperor from the library. I think it’s what you’ve been looking for.

The plot has been well-covered elsewhere, so I will be brief. Maia, our erstwhile hero, is the half-elven, half-goblin son of the elven emperor, banished to a remote outpost and mostly forgotten. Within a paragraph or two however, the emperor and all his heirs are killed in an airship crash, leaving Maia next in line for the throne. Maia is dragged back to the palace, crowned, and forced to learn his way around a court that never cared much about him or expects even the barest hint of competence from him. This being the happy tale that it is, Maia slowly grows into his role, finds his way around the stupendously detailed and intricately described elven kingdom, and engages in mild hijinks. Addison gives us many fascinating characters along the way, with their factions, conspiracies, friendships, and pasts. It seems like a setup for adolescent Life Lessons, but is actually much more. The worldbuilding is first rate, the politics have depth, and the author doesn’t shy away from many realities of imperial rule. Bad things happen to some people, but never gratuitously or gleefully, and the vibe remains hopeful throughout.

Let me just mention a few expectations I had for the book that were happily betrayed. Biggest of all is the deceiving YA veneer, a quick way to put me off. (Nothing wrong with YA, I just have no patience for reading about children while I spend so much time worrying about my own.) Maia is eighteen and coming into adulthood here, but his late adolescence is mercifully not the focus. In fact, there are plenty of situations and issues that I think would go over many teens’ heads, particularly the politics and culture of Maya’s kingdom, which can be dense and unforgiving at times. The book is rightfully not marketed at youth, title and cover art notwithstanding. Semi-related to this is romance. No love triangles to deal with, minimal angst caused by the opposite gender, no moon-faced longing, and a coldly realistic portrayal of royal marriage. (Again, nothing wrong with romance, I simply have no desire to deal with anyone else’s broken heart. I’m long since done with all that falling in love crap.) Finally, and perhaps most surprising, this isn’t a tale about racism. Everything is primed for an allegory of the mixed ethnicity child gaining everyone’s grudging acceptance as we all learn a bit more about tolerance, but the train veers off these tracks quickly and decisively. Maia’s goblin blood is an issue to be sure, but not in any way that we might expect. Elves and goblins are roughly equals in this world, with their own kingdoms and cultures, but a relationship that seems to be generally free of hierarchy. What could have been a story about racial subjugation, immigration, or some other contemporary problem instead portrays a relationship roughly as fraught as the modern day English and French. My feelings about diversity in SF are much more positive than romance or teen-agers, but I still enjoyed the gentle subversion of my predictions.

On the other hand, Addison digs at some fascinating questions with what the book really is. David Brin is on record multiple times with his opinion that we humans somehow crave feudalism, that something in our lizard brains secretly loves kings and emperors. I am generally skeptical of this, but then I look around at pop culture and the news. We won’t even start with Disney princesses, but what really kills me is the British royal family. I live in a country that was founded in opposition to hereditary rulers, and yet I see thousands of Americans, many with ancestors who died fighting for (a form of) democracy, getting all weepy over Princess Kate and her stupid weddings and babies. It makes me want to don a tricorn hat, cross the Delaware River in the snow, and put some Hessian mercenaries to the sword while waving the Declaration of Independence in my non-bayonet hand. Maybe Brin is on to something after all.

This digression has a point. I wonder if part of the broad appeal to The Goblin Emperor is the young emperor himself. He is, in a way, the idealized projection of ourselves as a just king. Maia espouses tolerance, gender equality, respect for learning and the sciences, and the good of the realm above self-aggrandizement. He has his flaws, is awkward with pretty women, occasionally crumples under stress, and really just wants a friend, not unlike many of us. He is aware of the inequality, poverty, and suffering in his empire and seems to want to do something about it. I quite like Maia and think he would be someone to admire, were he actually running a neighboring kingdom. Canada, for example.

And yet, while Maia is an Everyman, he is an Everyman born to an emperor. Maia is not the head of state because he is qualified, or because the voice of the people chose him, but instead through the luck of birth and a deeply tragic transportation mishap. Can he really wield supreme executive authority just because some watery tart threw a sword at him? Haven’t we done away with most royalty precisely because Maia is such an aberration? I doubt that Addison wrote this purely to question our views of government, but this is the sort of thing that occupies my brain during descriptions of royal finery or ceremony. I admit to possibly being a weirdo.

This is the scenic route to my conclusion, which is that The Goblin Emperor is utterly charming. There is a set of readers that will no doubt demand more action (flying heads!), more magic (fireballs!), or just more wide screen drama (epic battles!), but they will miss the charms of this relatively quiet book. I hope there is more to the story here, because I cared about the people involved and want to spend more time with them. They felt real, which is more than can be said for far too many stories out there.

Translation Wishes

Translation Wishes

So I recently wandered past a place called Smartling, a website translation business, and saw a question about books people want to see in translation, the nature of language, communication across cultures, and other weighty things. As a blogger who regularly deals with Japanese books in translation, this made me think a bit. The original question may have had more noble novels in mind: Dickens, perhaps, or Proust. This blog being what it is however, thoughts quickly went in more, shall we say, exciting directions. We have our reputations to uphold after all, and what would the masses think if something called “Two Dudes in an Attic” suddenly transmogrified into a sock puppet for Camus? That said, it seems wrong to just give up and search for pulpy space opera about carnivorous, spacefaring arachnids who molest scantily clad, but daintily nubile maidens, so some middle ground must be found. In that spirit, Two Dudes presents Two Things in the Attic that we would love to see in Japanese, if they have not already somehow been translated without either of us realizing it.

First up is the imminently respectable 2312, by Kim Stanley Robinson. Long time readers will remember this as my pick for best book of 2012, longest review of 2012 on the site, and one of my most-cited books out there. I want this to be translated because I find 2312 to be the ultimate in science fiction. It is ten pounds of wild but plausible future imaginings in a five pound bag. It is warning about our current foolishness, but paints a wildly optimistic picture of how we might rise above the looming disasters. It has progressive and challenging gender concepts, and is one of the few voices out there urging a progression past capitalism to something better and more sustainable. There are cities that move across the surface of Mercury on tracks powered by the Sun and space elevators on Earth with participatory opera. Hollowed asteroids with all sorts of habitats and cultures hurtle through orbit while extinct animals parachute through the Earth’s skies. There is a deadly mystery and an intrepid romance, both spanning the Solar System. If there is one book out there that says, “Hey, pay attention to SF! It shows a new way forward,” it would be 2312. I can’t think of another book that deserves more attention and conversation.

As a potential translation, 2312 has the bonus of being fairly straightforward. There are lots of big ideas, but nothing we don’t have plenty of words for. It doesn’t depend on humor or cultural references, nor is it excessively poetic or dense. Just lots of fascinating topics that can cut across any language or society, and so eminently translatable.

Now that the high culture stuff is out of the way, I present my next translation dream: Star Control II. Plenty of obstacles to this one, not the least: who has the spare time and money to translate a 20+ year old computer game? Once available, who is going to play it? Another massive challenge would be somehow making this game as funny in Japanese as it is in English. I like to think of myself as a relatively humorous guy, and I can get Japanese people laughing with the best of them. (No mean feat, that, especially Japanese from outside the Osaka region.) But even I am at a complete loss when it comes to translating the Spathi or Umgah. The Mycon? Forget it.

I don’t know that one could pick a “best” computer game of all time, but SC2 has to make the Top Ten. The Ur-Quan are some of the best villains in SF history. The exploration aspect remains unmatched. The future history and denizens of the SC galaxy are both among my favorite in all SF, not just games. There is an entire generation of gamers in the West that should play this game, and there must be millions of gamers around the world that will never have the chance due to language. Star Control II translation is the humanitarian service project that gamers everywhere owe it to the world to undertake, if for no other reason than to put “I grow turgid. Violent action ensues” into as many tongues as possible.

And there you have it. I don’t know if Smartling had this foolishness in mind when they wrote to me, but I can pretty much guarantee that nobody else will give these answers. Now, on to the translating!

Tilting at Rainbow Windmills

Tilting at Rainbow Windmills
or
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Sad Puppy Hugo Ballot

It’s that time of year again and I am thrilled – THRILLED – to see another Sad Puppy Crusade being launched. One year ago at this time, I went through predictable cycles of outrage, despair, and trepidation until the Nebulas were announced (sweep for the ladies) and then the amazing 2014 Hugos happened. For those not current on genre politics, the so-called Sad Puppy ballot is the brainchild of certain Baen Books writers (who else?) that tries to roll back the encroachments of women, brown people, and gay people into our once pure community. In this case, it is by gang nominating politically acceptable entries for the Hugo Award. Last year there was an impressive ruckus about the whole thing that concluded in a crushing Sad Puppy defeat at WorldCon and victory for people like Kameron Hurley. One imagines the results will be similar this year, though the 2014 host city, London, is a cosmopolitan, urbane, and cutting edge city and the 2015 host, Spokane, Washington, is … erm … none of those things.

This was originally going to be a scathing take down of an article linked to on The Fantasy Review Barn, especially the part where the author condemned the Nebula Award for leading readers down unsafe and apostate pathways. The more I think about it though, the more sympathetic I become. This year, Grand High Eternally Saddest Puppy Larry Correia appears to have anointed Brad Torgerson the 2015 Saddest Puppy. The torch has been passed for a season to brave Brad, who must lead the (suicidal?) charge to Take Back the Hugos. Let us all spare a thought for valiant Brad, who is faced with a most thankless task.

And this is where my snark drained a bit. See, Brad and I have a lot in common. We are both Mormons from Utah. We both love SF. We both left Zion for the first time as missionaries, as we spent two years proclaiming the joys of Utah to people who didn’t care. (That was my experience at least. I don’t know if he was a missionary, though I assume he was, and I have no idea where he might have gone.) Brad joined the Army Reserve and I taught JHS English, which is kind of the same thing. There are a few crucial differences, i.e. though born in Salt Lake, I was actually raised in Idaho, which has a much better state song. He is a famous author, and I am … not. Still, I think we would recognize facets of ourselves in each other. Thus I am confident that Brad is a genuinely nice guy, because most Utahns I know are genuinely nice people, who go out of there way to help others more than almost any other group. Most people I know from Utah also have political opinions that make me physically ill, so there is that small issue.

So I feel a touch of melancholy as Brad leads the Charge of the Old White Dude Light Brigade against the ever globalizing forces of the SFF community. After all, he is a representative of my people and my heritage, the very same that mourned Mitt Romney’s unfortunate encounter with a steamroller known as The Future during the 2014 Presidential Election. Heritage or no, is it wrong to be gleeful when I think of the final vote counts we are likely to see in Spokane? Part of me wants to cop Aragorn’s speech at the gates of Mordor: “There may come a day when the strength of humanity fails, when angry and fearful white males lurch forward and reclaim their overlordship of nerd communities and vaguely phallic awards statues, when all those creepy colored folks and women and transgendered types and other minorities, who now together might claim a majority, are relegated to the back benches and closets and kitchens and possibly once again forced to endure harassment, BUT TODAY IS NOT THAT DAY!” And then everyone cheers and rushes forward with, well maybe not swords, but maybe glitter and pan-Asian cuisine, and casts their votes for City of Stairs or The Peripheral or maybe even, heaven forbid, The Three Body Problem, and all of the sad puppies are forced back into wherever it is they usually hang out. Montana, possibly, or Georgia.

Which is not to say that Brad Torgerson is an orc. John Ringo might be, but I’m pretty sure Brad and I could hang out at a board game function, sip root beer, and swap stories of our kids. I wish we didn’t feel quite so differently about some of my favorite books and authors, but such is life. The Culture for me and Galt’s Gulch for the puppies.

Honestly though, where would you rather live?

The Three Body Problem

The Three Body Problem
Liu Cixin

Everyone, read this book. Then tell a friend, or write an article, or take some action to make more people pick it up. Tor Books has given us a rare opportunity and it is up to us, the reading public, to show them (and other publishers) that we want more.

The cost to purchase rights and pay translators makes non-English books considerably more expensive to publish than locally crafted stuff. A market saturated with English authors and famous names means noticeably more risk for these more expensive books. These and other travails of the translated book market have been well documented, so there should be no surprise that we English speakers see so little SFF from the rest of the world. (And really, with our TBR piles teetering under their own massive weight already, who clamors for even more books? Oh wait.) It may be that Tor found some reason to believe that Liu Cixin would be a goldmine for the company, but I have to imagine that they are making a sizable financial gamble to bring not just one book, but an entire trilogy across the Pacific. I commend Tor for this, and am well aware that the gates will shut just as quickly as they opened if The Three Body Problem settles without a ripple.

For background, I recommend checking out interviews with popular author Ken Liu, who translated this and the third volume of the trilogy. He has spoken widely about the book, the author, and the process of translating from Chinese to English. (As a part-time translator myself, his insight is invaluable and fascinating.) I’ve seen several reviews of Three Body in notable venues like Locus and Tor.com, and while they are heavy on praise for the book, they are light on detail. I hope to change that if I can, though the greatest pleasure comes from watching the book unfold in unexpected directions. It is, at heart, a first contact story, but Liu takes a rather different path to get there and spoiling the details of that path would be a great disservice.

The central argument of the book is summarized by a single sentence in the afterword: the author’s recommendation that we assume the best in our fellow humans, but maintain healthy suspicion about anyone we may meet from other stars. We are often quite the opposite, giving way to cynicism about other people while maintaining utopic visions of grand, interstellar civilizations. (I am guilty as well.) This is not to say that the people in Three Body are good and the aliens are bad, but people thinking the worst of each other drives most of the conflict in the story. This can happen at a state level between governments, at a society level between classes, or a personal level between individuals, but the characters are continuously expecting others to be selfish and stupid. The shadowy group behind most of the action is convinced that humanity can’t be trusted to take care of itself and is working to remove our agency; this embodies the ultimate expression of the author’s stated fear.

Liu’s secondary theme is the necessity of science. On its own, this is no surprise in a science fiction novel, but China’s history presents a very different lens than the Western rationalism that pervades our SF dialog. The novel opens in the Cultural Revolution, with that particular orgy of anti-intellectualism setting the stage for the above mentioned desperation and hinting at what a completely anti-scientific society would be like. Two digressions: First, I don’t have my finger on the pulse of Chinese politics, but I am surprised that Liu could be so blatantly critical of the Cultural Revolution. We all know it was a catastrophe, but one has to tread carefully with criticism. I did note that he never condemned any leaders, least of all Mao, but I didn’t expect something so honest. Second, we Americans shake our heads sadly at the Cultural Revolution, but really need to be more vigilant. Of any developed nation, I think the US has the most open hostility to intellectuals. I doubt it will get out of hand, but it’s plenty bad enough already.

Anyway, back to science. One of the prominent bad guy groups specifically targets science, finding any way they can to discredit it in the eyes of the public. Their intention is to weaken humanity by driving them in more Luddite directions. The main character in the book finds himself targeted specifically because he is on the cutting edge of nanofiber development. It’s not all clear cut though. Many of the disenchanted are there precisely because they are smart enough to see what’s going on around them. Their own superior understanding of the world leads them to despair, and, eventually, betrayal. Things are very complicated.

Some highlights of Three Body: the online RPG that initially draws the protagonist into the conspiracy is mind-bending and almost worth a novel of its own. The Hard SF aspects of the novel are suitably crunchy, whether the eponymous math problem, the Three Body star system itself, or the ways the Chinese deal with SETI questions. Finally, the Chinese setting is everything that a reader could want from translated SF. The historical background and society wherein the characters operate is different enough to be exotic, but carefully explained and never bewildering. (Ken Liu’s footnotes are impeccable and never intrusive.) Three Body brings the new perspective that SF veterans look for in their books and the glimpse into another culture that international fiction can provide.

Three Body also tells a fascinating story that is clearly going places in the upcoming sequels. Even without the international appeal, this would be one of the premier Hard SF releases of 2014. I don’t know the exact rules for translations, but if eligible, this is going on my Hugo ballot and has rocketed into the top three or five books from 2014. Tor made a solid decision to publish Three Body and should be rewarded for it with all the sales and publicity we can give the book. If the community can make a big enough ruckus for Three Body to be a money maker, we may see a steady stream of translated SFF, and hopefully not just from Asia. Tor was brave enough to take the first step here, it’s up to us push things to the next level.