The Dark Forest

The Dark Forest
Liu Cixin

The first book I finished at the beginning of 2016 will, unless it is a truly amazing year, be on my Top Ten list at the end of 2016. I rated The Three Body Problem highly; its sequel does virtually everything better. For those not already aware, The Dark Forest is the second book in a translated Chinese trilogy that Tor is publishing. The author, Liu Cixin, has a huge following in China and these seem to be his most popular books. They are a take on the familiar alien invasion trope, but one that is most inventive and unpredictable. The Dark Forest is thorny enough that some readers will probably bounce off of it, but a particular sort will find the book hypnotic.

The action kicks off shortly after the end of the first book, but mostly with new characters. The Trisolaris are coming, leaving their ravaged homeworld with intent to wipe out and displace humanity. Worse, they have the overwhelming technological edge to do it. They have dispatched quantum particles in their vanguard that are capable of simultaneously monitoring everything that happens on the Earth. These particles act as a form of instantaneous communication across the light years, and are also blocking certain avenues of humanity’s scientific research. Plants and double agents in both Earth’s world government and the sects of Trisolari collaborators ensure that most secrets are eventually revealed to all involved parties. We also learn early on that Trisolari forms of communication render them unable to lie, a strange chink in their otherwise impenetrable armor. They are incapable of guile and misdirection, which gives humanity its only chance to resist.

At this point, Liu could have gone in several directions. Things are set up for a very typical “Plucky underdog humans use their wits and emerge the unlikely victors” type of story, or even some sort of epic space battle with the fate of millions on the line. Liu teases both of these, but makes another, unorthodox, choice. This is where he may lose some people, because Liu does not follow the rules of Western novel writing. The book is hardly a taut narrative, it doesn’t conform to the usual three act structure, and he completely ignores injunctions to show not tell. I wonder if this is a reflection of different standards in Eastern literature, though I don’t feel like I can speak authoritatively on this. Rather than tension-filled, lean prose, Liu elects to take a comprehensive look at the Earth as it responds to the Trisolari threat. And by comprehensive, I mean exhaustively so. The plot covers a few hundred years and looks at everything: society, military, economics, religion. There are a few main characters that act as our guides, but they are largely overshadowed by the currents of humanity.

The characters are not three-dimensional and alive in the way we sometimes demand of our fiction, but their role is one of Liu’s most mind-bending creations. Knowing that the Trisolaris are guileless creatures, the UN selects three of the most distinguished thinkers in the world – a scientist, a revolutionary, and a political leader – as well as one Chinese dude that nobody has ever heard of, and names them Wallfacers. The Wallfacers are each to conjure up a plan to stop the Trisolaris, but they are to cloak it in misdirection and lies, obscuring the true projects from anything that would give it away. (That would be pretty much everything.) They are given whatever resources they ask and never required to justify, since nobody can know what exactly they are working at. In response, collaboration forces on Earth name Wallbreakers to devote their lives to revealing the secret plans.

Meanwhile, the Chinese military is taking their own countermeasures, endeavoring to plot four hundred years into the future, somehow guessing at where technology will be, how society will change, and what strategies will emerge. Both storylines move along draped in layers of deception and extrapolation, all while humanity adapts around them. It’s very complex and somewhat unforgiving, dry at times, and difficult to comprehend in its entirety. For me, at least, the wild ideas were enough to power me through the first few hundred pages, but I’m sure others will have trouble. It is worth it to persevere however, as the last quarter of the book offers massive and unrelenting payoff. One scene in particular, wherein a Trisolari probe encounters Earth’s space navy, is brilliant in its austere violence. Those few pages alone are worth the price of admission.

Close behind it is the dark forest analogy that gives the book its title, and the resolution that emerges from it. This is the best rush that SF has to offer. Looking more at the dark forest and the way it powers Liu’s thinking offers further windows into the text.

My former coworker has two degrees in International Relations from Chinese universities. He was telling me recently, from one IR wonk to another, how Realism is all the rage right now among the Chinese political science crowd. Realism, for those who haven’t kept up with other IR related Two Dudes ramblings, is the family of foreign policy theories that describe the world as a zero-sum, amoral, competitive environment wherein each country acts as a discrete unit, in its own self-interest, and in constant conflict with every other country. They are opposed by the Liberal theories, which agree that the world is competitive, but also find patterns of cooperation and interdependence that attenuate the tendency towards open conflict. There are various schools of thought within each, but these are the fundamental battle lines. Liberalism is ascendant in the US and Europe as a result of globalism, intertwined economies, and the reluctance of democracies to go to war with each other. China is a rising power, still fascinated with the possibilities of coercion and violence, and locked in multi-polar struggles with its neighbors for regional dominance. I was not surprised to hear about the philosophical leanings of the intelligentsia.

Towards the end of The Dark Forest, Liu explains the galaxy and its denizens as a dark forest. It is a chilling and utterly convincing picture of extraterrestrial society; one it seems must inevitably be true. Those few pages of the book are among the most poetic and most frightening. Again, worth the price of admission right there. I was completely swept up while reading it, but on reflection, realized that he was basically summarizing Offensive Realism, a particularly aggressive and pessimistic view of the world. (Read John Mearsheimer for gothic and depressingly elegant deconstructions of any hope one might have of world peace.) Further, the “chains of suspicion” that drive the power of the dark forest analogy are none other than John Hertz’s Security Dilemma. The fingerprints of classical Realist thinkers are all over this book.

An understanding of the poly sci underpinnings here is not necessary for enjoyment, in part because Liu’s resolution to the issues he posits is fascinating and original. Seeing the world building in this way puts Liu’s book in its cultural context however, and also gives one a variety of angles from which to contest his conception of extraterrestrial power relations. (For further counterpoint, read Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series. He addresses similar issues, though in a more rollicking format. Scalzi comes from the Western tradition that I would argue has moved past Realism, as the US has moved beyond the strictures of a classical anarchic system.) Do I disagree with Liu? Not entirely. Just as nuclear weapons changed international relations, the ability to drop rocks down the gravity wells of fragile inhabited planets alters the balance of power yet again. He may very well be right, and Star Trek may simply be a naïve pipe dream.

This then is the middle book of Liu’s trilogy. His agenda is every bit as uncompromising and dense as his plotting, but both are meticulous and expansive. It is no breezy read, but rewarding and challenging. I think it’s a better work than Three Body Problem and can’t wait to read the conclusion.


Kim Stanley Robinson

On my list of most awaited 2015 books, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora was right near the top. KSR is one of my favorite authors and the writer of my current best-of-the-decade choice 2312; his newest project has tantalized since its announcement. Anytime Robinson’s name is followed in a sentence by the phrase “generation starship,” I’m instantly on board. Does he deliver? Yes, and we should never doubt him. Does he somehow take a familiar trope and take it in a completely unexpected direction? Of course – to do otherwise is not in his programming. Should we stop asking silly questions and get on with it? Probably, yeah.

Reviewing Aurora presents a bit of a challenge, because it is not long before we have to stop discussing specifics. The proverbial twist comes early in the book and not only scrambles the plot, but makes it virtually impossible for anyone to talk about the book past the first hundred pages without utterly spoiling the story. More crazy things continue to happen, but the defining, and surprising, turn is fundamental to the story, KSR’s underlying themes, and the final impression that the book leaves. And yet, no matter how shocking these events are, Robinson’s trademark sense of inevitability makes it all seem perfectly natural. Just like in 2312 and, especially, the Mars trilogy, Robinson’s storytelling is so completely air tight that events could never have gone in any other direction. Even when I know he’s rigging the game and see the invisible deity’s hands moving all the pieces on the board, I can’t shake the feeling that Robinson is merely reporting the news. An apt comparison might be bunraku, the Japanese puppetry where the puppeteers are out in view and on stage, dressed fully in black, but the audience gradually tunes them out and only sees the puppets, seemingly moving of their own accord. Aurora might as well be history, since nothing could have gone any differently than the book says. Or, at least, such is the feeling that Robinson closes with. It’s remarkable that he continues to pull this off in every book; KSR is like the magician who performs his tricks in full view of the audience, with no fear that anyone will actually notice.

As usual for the author, Aurora is packed to overflowing with ideas. There’s the science at the base: the nuts and bolts of generation ships, the logistics of colonization, and maintaining life in an artificial environment. Then there’s the biology and sociology that go along with things: social structures inside a ship, ecosystems in ships and other planets, and how humans can contend with it all. There are musings about governance and rights (a KSR favorite), the possibilities of AI, and the connections between humans and their native environment. There is a plot, but there is also much space devoted to exploration, both of the world and the ideas that underlie it. Nobody familiar with KSR’s writing will be surprised by any of this; he remains curious and lyrical, rigorous and passionate. In fact, Aurora might be a good starting point for new Robinson readers. It is shorter and more concise than some other works, much more compact in both ideas and setting than the grander, operatic works.

The heart of the book is Robinson’s contention that we and the Earth are inseparable. This shows up in his other works, but is not the central theme quite like in Aurora. The corollary is that, as our (only?) home, we need to spend more time taking care of the planet and less time scheming to escape to some other paradise. I have heard similarly inclined SF authors bemoan SF’s focus on planetary colonization and the excitement of spreading out into the stars, arguing that this mindset diminishes the attention we pay to Earth. After all, if all we need to do is level up our science enough to put people on another planet, we don’t have to take responsibility for the mess here. I agree with this part way, though I still want to see us with Moon and Mars bases. I doubt that KSR is as strident as some of his characters, but the message in the book is still quite clear.

There is one related argument that I disagree with. Robinson’s characters complain about the unfairness of their situation, saying that being born on the generation ship deprives them of any choice in their destinies. It follows that we should stay on Earth because our descendants have no say in the decision to ship them off. I suppose this is true as far as it goes, but nobody chose to be born into starvation in Somalia either. Birth is the first great injustice of life – I don’t see why the colonists get to whine about it any more than I moan about being born in a desolate Rocky Mountain outpost.

There are plenty of other goodies to explore along with the Aurora colonists, whether AI development, macrobiology, or exo-planet theorizing. The book doesn’t share the depth or widescreen drama of Robinson’s heftier works, but is much more accessible and easier to digest. I expect Aurora to be on many best of the year lists at the least, and probably the major lists as well. It’s a must read for anyone trying to stay current with the biggest happenings in SF and one of the most relevant and thought provoking books since, well, Robinson’s last book.

Building Harlequin’s Moon

Building Harlequin’s Moon
Larry Niven and Brenda Cooper

I would not normally have read this book. Much as I love Larry Niven, I am skeptical of his later books, especially those co-written with authors I have never heard of. Knowing nothing of Building Harlequin’s Moon, I heard Brenda Cooper on a recent Skiffy and Fanty podcast saying very interesting and intelligent things. Part way through she mentioned collaborating with Larry Niven, and, since I have been seeking out female authors anyway, decided that I should look into this further. Cooper’s comments on a number of issues were enough to overcome any suspicions.

I don’t have any proof of this, but I suspect that Cooper did most of the grunt work and Niven was the idea man. I’m pretty sure that Niven wrote the prologue, wherein the planetary engineer Gabriel builds and hibernates his way through 60,000 years of comet and moon smashing to create a semi-livable habitat orbiting a super-massive gas giant called Harlequin. Big time Hard SF ideas here, and very fun. The rest of the book is more of a character-based societal study, as Gabriel and his fellow starship crew members try to figure out how to handle the indentured colony they put on Harlequin’s moon Selene, while the Moonborn stumble towards some sort of independence under the reluctance of a biologist named Rachel. The initial combination of teen protagonists and political narrative struck me as Cooper’s contribution, since it didn’t feel like most Niven I have read. The big picture and the science did, but not the people.

Oddly, the very first lesson I learned from Harlequin is that I should probably never read a YA novel again. No doubt there are many good ones out there and I am doing myself a disservice, but teens irritate me. (I’m sure this has nothing to do with my tween daughter, my forced re-introduction to pop music and/or teen culture through her, or the face melting crap she watches on TV. Nothing at all.) The initial chapters of Harlequin pack in enough angst, awkward romance, and adolescent scheming that I almost gave up there. Fortunately for all involved, I didn’t, but I think this colored my view of the rest of the novel, which does move into more grownup territory after the first big twist. Again, nothing wrong with YA stuff, just not something I can tolerate at this point in my life.

The rest of the book left me with mixed feelings. On one hand, Selene is a fascinating place that I would gladly read more about. Niven is no stranger to mind blowing feats of engineering and Selene will stand proudly next to anything in Known Space or the Co-Dominion. On the other hand, the whole political situation felt simplistic to me, with the Earthborn attitudes towards the Moonborn only partially grounded in fictional reality. Cooper (I assume) gives just enough of a backstory to make things plausible, but enough to be entirely convincing. While I am well aware that people acting like dirtbags requires little or no motivation, there are a few missing stations on the railroad from fleeing Earth to enslaving ones progeny. But on the gripping hand, when everything reached a lengthy and satisfying climax, I felt attached to the protagonists and empathized with them far more than I expected to. I don’t think this was purely emotional manipulation.

I have purposely avoided reading other reviews at time of writing, since I want to puzzle this one out on my own. I’m curious what people have to say about Harelquin though. It’s an uneasy mix of Niven’s brand of Hard SF, YA emotions, and the colonialism and equality topics bubbling so freely through the genre right now. Chapters swing from Ringworld-esque engineering escapades to scenes of struggle that one might find in Stephanie Saulter’s searing Gemsigns. The characters argue about planetary biology or AI consciousness, then wing off into … whatever kids these days are reading. Longing somethingerother, angst mumble mumble, feelings. Pep the stone hearted, recovering political scientist didn’t always know how to handle this. (Spoiler alert: the big ideas were the best part.) I’m almost certain that I can find reviews that say exactly the opposite: “Loved the characters and romance, didn’t get the science-y bits,” or “Such an inspiring tale of freedom, but could do without the weepy stuff.” I suppose the Sad Puppies would get sick of all the prominent women and the equality hand wringing, but salute Niven’s good old fashioned setting. This even as they grumble about the lack of competent white men saving the day.

Actually, I think the biggest hints that Cooper did a lot of the character work are the frequent scenes of Gabriel mansplaining things and getting tied in knots by the women.

To the book’s credit, it took enough twisty, scenic paths on its way to the inevitable conclusion that I was never sure where things would end up. Cooper and Niven wrap up the story in pretty much the only way they could have, but they still kept me off balance. As with almost everything else, the positives outweigh the negatives in the end, even if I needed some extra convincing. While admitting that my criteria can be obscure, I’m not going to give Harlequin my highest praise. It was a little too naïve for my taste, though the characters and authors managed to dodge the worst pitfalls – this could have been much worse. As I said earlier though, I was locked in for the last hundred pages and feel a surprising connection to Rachel, Gabriel, and a few others. That will push things over the last hurdle to “recommended” status.

Bonus points to everyone out there who catches the obscure Niven reference in this review.

Rating: Southampton. Flawed but charming, this mid-table club wins over neutrals with infectious enthusiasm, even if they won’t ever bring home the championship. And you thought I’d given up on footie nods.

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, 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.

The Causal Angel

The Causal Angel
Hannu Rajaniemi

Science Fiction has shifted ground in the past few years. Not long ago, a certain group of writers was in the ascendant, preaching a gospel of Singularity. Egan, Stross, Vinge, and others explored the combinations of strong AI and the digitization of the mind, pointing to futures where our meaty bodies are at best an affectation, at worst a hindrance. Their ideas were so persuasive that the Singularity became a kind of stand in for FTL during the somber, Mundane SF era – a topic that had to be addressed in all serious SF either by its mechanism or absence. Before long though, a backlash began to build, with other writers taking up the cross for physical bodies, positing the unbreakable connection between our physical, emotional, and intellectual selves. Of late, I think that the humanist side is beating back the post-humanists. Even Stross himself has backpedaled a bit from his heady Accelerando positions. I wonder if this affects the reception to each new Hannu Rajaniemi book, as he pushes further into a post-humanist future in spite of the efforts of humanists.

The Quantum Thief was the talk of 2011, winning fans and adulation for its mind-bending science, carefully crafted mystery, and the sophisticated and elegant protagonist, Jean le Flambeur. One year later, The Fractal Prince was released, but to more muted acclaim. Not everyone enjoyed a book that was admittedly more obtuse and seemed to lack some of the flair of the first. Now, with The Causal Angel available and Rajaniemi’s trilogy at an end, I haven’t seen much buzz. Even assuming that a certain amount of people never made it through The Quantum Thief, and that a certain percentage of the finishers didn’t enjoy The Fractal Prince enough to continue, I would still think that The Causal Angel is enough to stir up the community. Rajaniemi is one of the boldest new writers and his trilogy is a major statement of intent; I think it deserves to be talked over a bit more by serious genre readers.

Several reasons why people might not go for this stuff occur to me. The books are indeed difficult, and not just for the science. It’s easy to get lost in the q-dots and branes, but also pretty hard to figure out what is going on in the plot. The Causal Angel is easier on the head than the first two, but there is a definite learning curve that can turn off less determined consumers. I’ve also seen comments that Rajaniemi’s books are ornate and convoluted, but ultimately small and dispassionate. This can be true for the first book in the series, less so for the second, and not at all for the newest. The Causal Angel is still stuffed with filigree and decorative language, but there are planets blowing up, space battles, demi-gods in conflict, and deep matters of the heart. The author is (finally?) taking his stories to the big time. Finally, I suspect that Rajaniemi forces many readers out of their comfort zones. This is not your father’s science fiction, but more on that later. In short, the entire Jean le Flambeur trilogy is a bit like a cycle of Scarlatti or Telemann sonatas. Baroque to be sure, complex and emotionally restrained, and requiring a certain effort to enjoy, but worth the investment.

Now that we have dispensed with the criticisms, I want to dig in to why Rajamiemi could become one of the most important Hard SF writers. In a past episode of the Coode Street Podcast (my usual touchstone for the academic side of SF), the hosts debated the greatest challenges to SF right now. The consensus was not the pace of technological change, publishing industry upheaval, the way we seem to live in the future already, or any of the other usual vectors of attack. They concluded that the challenge today is instead quantum physics. Books about rockets or engineering projects are easy compared to authentic looks at all the crazy quantum stuff going on; how many readers understand it anyway? (I certainly don’t.) Writing about real science now is brain meltingly complex and does not necessarily make for good stories. Much easier to rehash epic space battles or transpose the 1990s into the coming centuries.

Enter Hannu Rajaniemi. He hits quantum theory head on, then goes one further by pairing it with the inevitable future of dialed up augmented reality. He deals with uploaded personalities, a Solar System-wide information network, parallel worlds of the physical and virtual, and practical applications of all of the quantum theory stuff that I have no grasp of whatsoever. Physical spaceships move through orbits and Lagrange points, past servers and routers that power the digital worlds overlaying everything, while characters flit in and out of various bodies and frames of reference. Power in the Solar System is split more or less evenly between the Sobornost, which is run by multiple immortal clones of its Founders and is engaged in manually processing randomness out of the universe, and the Zoku, loose affiliations that have taken as a name the Japanese word for “tribe” and treat everything as a game to level up in. The conflict between the two rages between physical and virtual dimensions and at different levels of time compression, over ideological questions of such hot topics as causality.

Yes, this is meaty stuff and certainly not escapist fare. But Rajaniemi has planted his flag on the twin peaks of quantum theory and post-humanism and seems more than willing to give battle there. The latter is still up for debate to be sure, and Rajaniemi’s position is in decline, if my reading of the current state of the genre is correct. The former, however, is a topic that must be dealt with. All that wacky quantum stuff isn’t going anywhere; it can’t be avoided if Hard SF is to be honest with itself. This too, though, sees Rajaniemi in a minority position. The current trend in SF seems to be a return to the earthier SF of the 70s and 80s, as typified by the blockbuster Expanse series or Scalzi’s Old Man’s War books. I read The Causal Angel as a broadside from the author, a gauntlet thrown down as an invitation to glorious single combat in the name of quantum physics. This must become the future of Hard SF, if Hard SF is going to maintain its devotion to The Way Things Really Work.

In many ways, I can trace a line directly from Neuromancer to The Causal Angel. Both offer hallucinogenic views of a confusing technological future. Both borrow the faux-futurism of Japan. Both bid to overthrow the orthodoxy of the genre with cutting edge technology. I have no idea if Jean le Flambeur will leave the same firestorm in his wake that Case did (I suspect not), but I have popcorn on hand in case things get amusing.

As a final nugget, I must express my joy that Rajaniemi’s Bad Guy is drawn from the pages of one of my favorite books on game theory: Robert Axelrod’s The Evolution of Cooperation. The All Defector is an actual participant in Axelrod’s competition who, appropriately enough, never actually wins the game. I may be more excited about this than is healthy, but it’s a brilliant touch. (Everyone should enjoy game theory and everyone should read Axelrod.)

My own enthusiasm for Jean le Flambeur should be apparent by now. I will be following the conversation surrounding his story, looking for greater meaning and some indication of whether it is a turning point in the genre, just a monumental but ultimately overlooked statement, or the beginning of an iconoclastic career. Or who knows – maybe Rajaniemi’s next book will be about a farm boy who slowly learns his true destiny and saves a vaguely European kingdom from the darkest of lords, and my grandiose pronouncements here will prove completely overblown.

War Dogs

War Dogs
Greg Bear

There had better be a sequel for this.

Greg Bear returns from shared universe forays with a military/Hard SF hybrid set on Mars that borrows gleefully from a whole grab bag of classic SF tropes. I had fun with it, but my final verdict will depend largely on where he takes it in the second book, for reasons that will become clear later on. Part of me wants to call this a return to form for the veteran Hard SF writer, but it’s really hard to say what exactly “form” is for Bear. I enjoyed his previous book, Hull Zero Three, though it felt a bit like something he tossed off in a weekend. Lately he is working with Neal Stephenson’s Mongoliad project and has written in the Halo and Foundation franchises. My idea of typical Greg Bear is hopelessly out of date, since I haven’t read his near future stuff and basically only know vintage stuff like Blood Music and Forge of God. Still, this feels like him going back to his 1980s playbook.

My first thought on starting the book was, “I guess it’s time to get in touch with the Inner Heinlein.” It’s all there: the space marines, the power suits, the drop from orbit in the first pages. I’m starting to think that the interstellar infantry thing is like jazz albums with strings – everyone wants to try it once, no matter how often (and how badly) it’s been done in the past. Full disclosure: I generally don’t like jazz albums with strings. It turns out that Greg Bear apparently knows a thing or two about this, as a recent interview shows. He grew up around military types and has certainly dabbled in soldier-type stories before, so this isn’t a complete change of form.

The nods to traditional SF start early with the semi-benevolent aliens who appear suddenly and start doling out both technology and strong policy recommendations. Then, and I’m spoiling nothing here that isn’t on the dust jacket, things quickly move into familiar “superior aliens enlist our help as cannon fodder” territory when they start shipping Earthlings to fight a mysterious enemy on Mars. Bear knows what he’s doing here, not really subverting tropes, but having fun with them. Despite being a military-oriented book, there isn’t much fighting for awhile. We get marines (“Skyrines”) roaming around Mars and nearly suffocating a few times before Bear unveils the real reason for writing the book. A Muskie (original Mars colonist group named for Elon Musk) rescues a gaggle of airless characters and marches them off to a big, secret rock. This is where the fun begins.

We get the bait and switch here, as War Dogs turns into a Big Mysterious Object story. This is good news if you’re me, possibly disappointing for those who came for the explosions. I haven’t said a lot about the plot at this point because at least two thirds of the book is, not necessarily plotless, but utterly opaque. This is a first-person narrative from a grunt who only knows what he needs to know, and who is even more lost once inside the rock structure. Bear plays things close for the entire book though, thus my demand for a quality sequel. (It’s apparently in the works.) He only hints at deeper meanings – what is this giant thing and what is it for? Who are the Antagonists? (The bad aliens.) Why are they fighting? I need to know the answers to these questions.

I expect that the overall reception to War Dogs is mixed. Bear makes demands of the reader without offering much of a payoff. In the absence of a follow up, I can’t give an accurate assessment; things could go south in a hurry, or this could end up being a big deal. My guess is the latter. I enjoyed War Dogs and want to read further, but I won’t be surprised when others are irate.

Carbide Tipped Pens

Carbide Tipped Pens
Ed. by Ben Bova and Eric Choi

While I haven’t had time to post much about them lately, I have been on a run of dense, cutting edge science fiction. Rewarding stuff, but hard work. When the ARC for Carbine Tipped Pens arrived in my inbox from Tor, it was like a refreshing glass of water. There’s nothing quite like coming home to a collection of Hard SF short stories.

The slightly odd title for this collection is apparently taken from a writer’s group that one of the editors once belonged to, a group with the stated intention of starting a Hard SF renaissance. It sounds like most of those writers have now moved on to other projects, but attempts to revitalize Hard SF by addressing its traditional flaws remain. Choi tells this story in his introduction, then explains that the stories gathered in this book maintain a core of the rigorous science that is the hallmark of the subgenre, while keeping character at the forefront. People are, of course, Hard SF’s Achilles’ heel, with cardboard cutouts and questionable gender/racial stereotypes standing in for lifelike characters. Bova and Choi hope to avoid that, but still center the collection in astrophysics, quantum theory, robotics, medical tech, and other favorites.

Beyond the commitment to Hard SF, there is no thematic unity in the anthology. Some stories work better than others, as is to be expected, and my favorites are unlikely to be everyone’s. I recognized a few of the authors, but at least half were new to me. Many are longtime Analog authors. I was most excited to see Aliette de Bodard and Liu Cixin (translated by Ken Liu) included, as these are not typically who one would find in a Hard SF anthology. Names like Bova, Benford, and McDevitt also warmed my heart, these are all authors I would expect to see. Oddly enough, the genre archetypes tended towards more character and less science than some of the others.

In terms of favorite stories, I think the Liu Cixin was the highlight. It didn’t provide the typical, span of galaxies sense of wonder, but there is a certain type of wonder that comes from a feudal Chinese army acting as a humongous calculator. (I’m really excited for Liu’s Three Body Problem, which I should have my hands on by late November.) de Bodard’s story was as entertaining as ever, combining her Asia-dominated future history with authentication puzzles. Dirk Strasser’s mind-bending “The Mandelbrot Bet” is the kind of time travel I can get behind. Choi’s contribution starts as a tale of failed love destined to irritate me, but ends in sardonic redemption. There were only a couple of stories that I didn’t go for, which is a pretty good batting average for this sort of thing.

One thing that really stood out is the tone of the stories overall. Amongst the various complaints and doom sayings about SF is the feeling that SF has lost its ability to inspire, that the scientists of tomorrow aren’t getting their start from the sense of wonder that many of today allegedly did. I don’t know how true this is, but there is a clear difference with the optimism of yesterday’s SF. The idea that science would lead us all to an inevitably better future has faded, leaving cynicism and fear of what lies ahead. Carbide Tipped Pens isn’t depressing or grim, but there is an unease throughout, a lack of faith in humanity. This is part of a larger trend within SF, as stories seem to be darker than the Jetsons and Star Trek of days past.

Some of this I think must lie at the feet of quantum theory. “Welcome,” as one character says, “to Club Heisenberg.” Science has moved far from the once clean realm of Einsteinian physics, itself a severe challenge to Newtonian ideals, and into a universe where uncertainty rules. Some are probably at home here (Hannu Rajaniemi perhaps?), but the realities of quantum physics and their implications are daunting. More than this though, I think that knowledge today breeds cynicism much more than in the past. The more one has a scientific mindset and understands what’s going on in the world, the more worrying one does. This is most true of environmental concerns, though it extends into medical issues, economics, and other topics as well. Even the most optimistic near futures I have read involve submerged cities and farmland turned to desert; not many gleaming cities or square jawed engineers leading us into the glorious future.

I digress. Musings on the whole of SF and humanity’s tenuous future aside, this is a solid anthology aimed squarely at readers like me. The earlier stories are somewhat more human than science, with a few not out of place in non-genre settings. (Bova’s contribution, for example, would be equally at home on Baseball Prospectus as in Analog.) Parts of the middle get much heavier and might not be the best gateway stories, but overall the mix is strong. Does it revolutionize Hard SF? Maybe not, but it adds to the conversation.


Greg Benford and Larry Niven

Shipstar’s predecessor, Bowl of Heaven, made a big splash upon its release. The thought of an All-Star collaboration between two of Hard SF’s biggest names, and their stated intention to update the venerable Big Mysterious Object trope had certain demographics salivating. BMO’s are admittedly hoary, but they go with Hard SF like sushi and wasabi-infused soy sauce. Now, with the author who really put BMO’s on the map with Ringworld and a highly respected, multi-award winning writer working together on a Big Smart Object, what could possibly go wrong?

Unfortunately, enthusiasm has cooled a bit after the first book. Like a reunion album from some famous 1970s band, many people checked it out, decided that things felt too dated, got nostalgic for the originals, and set Bowl aside. I’m sure there are plenty of readers out there who loved it, but most of the people I talked to were lukewarm. Indeed, the review here was far more positive than most I read. I will be the first to admit Bowl’s flaws, problems that plague most Hard SF no matter the era. The characters were rather flat and the plot was decent, with both relying heavily on the Bowl to carry things off into the sunset. The authors are clearly from another time, lacking the cutting edge verve makes certain recent books so fascinating. Niven in particular has been accused of coasting on past glories, charges that Bowl did little to discourage.

Now, with expectations dampened and people buzzing more about other 2014 releases, Shipstar sails into port. All I can say to those who vowed not to go on is: forget your promises and get this book. Bowl could be a bit of a stage-setting slog, with the trapped humans to explain, the Bowl to introduce, the Folk to show, the conflicts to set up, the information to dump, etc. etc. etc. With Shipstar, the table is set and all that is left to do is bring out the roast beast, light the dessert on fire, and pull the tablecloth out from under the crystal at the end. (This is actually a fairly accurate description of what happens. Trust me.) We still get a few inexplicable moments of leaders musing on leadership and awkward human interactions, but they are overshadowed by the rest. (Greg, what happened? You used to HATE middle management types, now you’re writing effective motivational techniques into your fiction.)

This is still archetypal Hard SF. The humans are moderately engaging, but they mostly serve as an excuse for Science and Aliens. And what aliens they are! One would expect this from Niven, but non-humans steal the show. The Folk are fascinating, and have a pretty mind-boggling history that would be a total spoiler to reveal, so I won’t say anything. The Sil are doughty, the Finger Snakes are hilarious, and the authors pull a few more tricks out that will floor a certain type of reader. They’ve really dug deep into exobiology for this one, with stuff that will surprise even the most grizzled SF veterans. In contrast, Bowl focuses mainly on the Folk, with only hints of what is to come.

The Science bit keeps pace. We all know that the meat of the series will cover the Bowl, its functional basics, its destination and history, and probably a twist or two that will pull the rug out. This it does, in ways I can’t go into here. The Bowl is mind-blowing, but we all knew that before. It has to be, or nobody would write these books. The challenge is to blow minds in original and unexpected ways, and the authors pull this off with aplomb. Again, this is to be expected. Niven knows he has to outdo the Ringworld here, so he goes all in. Benford isn’t about to go down in history as a guy who can’t deliver the science fictional equivalent of meat and potatoes, so he is at his peak. Together, they check all the boxes for BMO’s, but never predictably or conventionally.

Finally, I should say a word or two about Ye Olde Sense of Wonder. The authors know what is required of this sort of book. They know we’re here to be wowed, and they come through. Not just with the Bowl though, they pull that trick we see in all the best SF, one that defines SF as a genre apart from other fiction. Benford and Niven wrote a book that keeps unfolding new secrets that continually expand the horizons of the story and its universe. This is something I see more in SF than anywhere else, the way that one revelation doesn’t just propel the plot, but opens new existential and physical possibilities. A fact is unveiled that changes not just our perception of a character or situation, but the way the universe is put together. Shipstar has these moments every 50 pages or so. New information comes to light, and suddenly everything means something different. It is 400 pages of, “Wow, that thing there is really cool. Wait, if A does this, that means that B is possible, which in turn makes C suddenly important, and hang on, what do you mean there are dinosaurs?”

If it’s not clear yet, I will summarize in fewer words. Everything in this book except the humans gets wilder and crazier on a straight line projection; I enjoyed every minute. Yes, it’s a throwback. With the exception of a nod here and there to climate change and environmentalism, this is 1970s, Big Idea science fiction, where massive engineering works cruise the galaxy and plucky humans figure things out. It is the epitome of meat and potatoes SF, but made with grass fed, gourmet meat and locally grown, organic Yukon gold spuds. It may not redefine the genre, but it is probably the peak of a particular, fundamental subsection of SF. Recommended for everyone that likes gargantuan, mysterious artifacts. (Yes, even for those who didn’t like Bowl of Heaven.)

Queen City Jazz

Queen City Jazz
Kathleen Ann Goonan

Queen City Jazz is a difficult, uncompromising book. Goonan refuses to make things easy for the reader, above and beyond the usual Hard SF hurdles. Keeping up with Goonan requires a healthy knowledge of nanotech, bees, and jazz, with lesser amounts of Cincinnati, American literature, baseball, and Shakers. Even if the reader is up on all of these, details of the plot are deliberately obscured, characters mislead the protagonist, the history of the nano ravaged world is vague, and the final point of the story isn’t clear until the very end. Whether or not the reward justifies the work is a hard call to make. I thought it worthwhile, but I may be in the minority.

Like many first novels, this one has an “everything but the kitchen sink” feel to it. Goonan has created a complicated and detailed world, then stuffed it with a wild array of characters and technology. She could have stopped at nanotech, or even at the nanotech derived plague that both transformed the cities and depopulated the country, but kept going. Verity, the protagonist, starts off in a Neo-Shaker community that came together in response to the plagues, but is off before long into the transformed, unrecognizable cities. Her ultimate destination, Cincinnati, is full of towering, graceful skyscrapers, each with a gigantic flower on top and serviced by an army of cow-sized, nanotech bees. Survivors of the nanotech craziness live in shanty towns in the shadow of the city, while the residents of the city itself might be human, or might not.

Are we all keeping up so far? The vertigo is just beginning. Verity discovers her destiny, pre-nano flashbacks start to explain the semi-mad, vaguely incestuous beginnings of the nano-plagues, and everyone plays jazz or baseball. Goonan maintains a voice that manages cold science and dreamy intoxication, often at the same time. I have read a lot of science fiction and know a lot of plot paths, but this one kept me off-balance almost the entire time. I confess to having no idea, through probably 450 pages, of where things were going, what would happen, or how Verity was going to become whatever it is she was supposed to become. Though certainly a credit to the author’s creativity, not everyone will appreciate being bewildered for so long. I think we can all agree, though, that seeing Ernest Hemingway rejected for a spot on the recreated Cincinnati Reds due to arrogant jerkiness is worth the price of admission.

Long time readers might (correctly) guess that the jazz bit of Queen City Jazz is my favorite part. Goonan clearly knows her stuff. The conversations between musicians ring true, the descriptions of their playing reflect the way I feel when I play, and the strange reincarnations of past masters are appropriate. Goonan must know that Sphere, the alto sax player who guides Verity through the city, shares a name with Thelonious Monk, though they have little in common. (Monk’s middle name was Sphere, but Monk was, in (I think) Dexter Gordon’s tastefully understated words, “Not exactly the cat next door.”) My only real nitpick is that jazz seems to stop about 1965 in the book. Keeping things with the classics does give the book a more timeless feel, but also has a “you kids get off my lawn” vibe with the implication that good music died with John Coltrane. To be fair, I think that this was an editorial decision in line with the first observation, more than a flag planted by the second.

Trying to put this all together, Queen City Jazz has solid world building, a singular premise and vision, and excellent prose on one hand. On the other, it is dense and unforgiving, likely leaving many readers with no idea what is going on for long stretches. If people tell me that they just didn’t get it, or bounced hard within the first hundred pages or so, I will understand. Still, there are more books in the series, so somebody thought this was worth the trouble. I have a built in tolerance for the worst excesses of Hard SF (not present here anyway), heavy reading, and all around cryptic stuff, so I muscled through alright. In fact, when they payoff finally came, I was glad that I persevered. I can give that level of recommendation, but will not be surprised if others disagree. I will report back later, once I have delved further into Goonan’s world, with a verdict on the broader implications of the book.

Rating: A tense, 0-0 draw in the preliminary round. Not for everyone, but a certain aesthetic pleasure can be derived from the tactical battles unfolding.

Blue Remembered Earth

Blue Remembered Earth
Alastair Reynolds

There is a track on Kenny Garrett’s 2002 release Happy People that is a mix of three placid Asian folk songs. For almost seven minutes, Garrett plays with an uncharacteristic calm, before finally letting loose a sudden blast of harmonically adventurous butt kicking. “That right there,” said a friend and band mate, “was when he just couldn’t restrain himself any more.” I thought of that about halfway through Blue Remembered Earth. Considering the gothic insanity of the Inhibitor books or the steampunk noir of Terminal World, Blue Remembered Earth is strikingly normal. The characters are regular people, any post-human modifications are understated, nobody is hooked up to a calliope/life support system, no pigs have been uplifted. I was not disappointed by any means, but I was definitely taken aback by the recognizable near future, accustomed as I am to Ultras or Chasm City denizens. Then, suddenly, some of the characters find themselves in an anarchic Martian arena, where machines are set loose in a hyper-Darwinian struggle in hopes that some sort of useful technology will evolve itself midst the mechanized terror. “This is more like it,” thought I, but there is much to cover both before and after this flash of Reynoldsian horror.

I’m diving into this book both with an eye on wrapping up my Books of 2012 list and as a part of the 2013 Science Fiction Experience. Being very serious about my own pomposity, I want to look at Reynolds’ book in terms of what it says about the SF Experience right now; in particular how it fits into some noticeable Hard SF trends and how it answers some recent laments of SF losing its way, becoming irrelevant and/or boring, and failing in its alleged duty to address modern day problems and inspire answers to them. In terms of an actual “book review,” it should come as no surprise to frequent readers that I’m a big fan of Blue Remembered Earth; nobody will be more shocked than I if I ever give Alastair Reynolds a negative review. (Not just because he once retweeted a post, then answered my question of which Steely Dan album he wants to be. There are literary reasons as well.) (And for the record, it was Royal Scam.)

Blue centers itself on the Akinya family, an Africa-based business empire. Grandmother Eunice, whose intrepid genius built said empire, has just died. At the funeral that opens the book, control of the family passes to Hector and Lucas. “The cousins” enlist the introverted elephant researcher Geoffrey to clear up some lingering questions on the Moon. He in turn pulls his bohemian sister Sunday in, after these small questions open up into much larger issues. The balance of the story follows the two as they unravel a mystery left behind by Eunice, while also tracing the family relationships inside the complicated Akinya clan. Along the way, Reynolds takes us on a tour of the Solar System, all while poking around questions of law and surveillance, AI, the environment, how we might spread out away from Earth, and proper uses of machines and biology.

I think it is no coincidence that three of the highest profile Hard SF books of 2012 (this, Existence, and 2312) all confront the same questions of how we will survive the coming years of (inevitable?) turmoil and spread into the Solar System. Each takes different paths to different answers, but all seem to be direct responses to recent conversation inside the field. Between the Mundane SF movement, Neal Stephenson’s call for more optimistic, proactive SF, Paul Kincaid’s lament on SF exhaustion, and other smaller scale conversations, The People seem to want books that pull back from Galactic War and address our fears right now, but not in a gloomy, dystopian way.

Reynolds starts with the now common proposition that our generation will fail completely to address climate change, basing his Earth on the possible consequences. Much like Kim Stanley Robinson, he posits massive change and upheaval, tempered with scientific ingenuity and our inate abilities to make do. We have made our way into space, as far as the Moon and Mars. The Earth has settled into a kind of omnipresent world government that uses constant surveillance to prevent crime and violence. Parts of the Moon and Mars, by contrast, remain free of prying eyes, letting Reynolds create his first dichotomy. Another is provided by the Panspermian movement, which advocates humanity’s duty to spread biological life throughout the universe; they are in ideological conflict with the establish government policies that favor a more mechanized, uploaded approach. Here too Reynolds toys with burning questions in contemporary SF. From the fundamentals of the world building through the details of characterization and plot, Reynolds confidently engages with critiques and issues in the genre.

I’ve taken a general survey of reactions to Blue, most of which can be immediately categorized into those familiar with Reynolds and those giving him a first try. Those of us that have read through most of his novels know that we’re in for a dense, idea-rich book that moves at a stately pace. Readers coming in from lighter stuff may well bounce off of it all. Blue is certainly a challenging book, one that demands thought and patience from the reader. All the more so as Reynolds brings up plenty of questions, but doesn’t necessarily propose answers. Do we think that the benevolent, but somewhat stagnant, Surveilled World is better than a more dangerous alternative? Should we be looking to send our meaty selves to the Oort cloud, or uploaded personalities? What are our duties to ourselves and our families? The plot requires no answers, so we are allowed to decide for ourselves.

By now it is probably clear that I think Blue Remembered Earth is one of the vital books from 2012. It gives as good a summary of SF today as anything I’ve read. Not an easy read, but well worth the effort.

Rating: The author may not like this, but I have to compare him to the German National Team. Methodical, precise, and relentless, somehow these books always end up winners.