21 November 2015

Review: The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu

The Three Body Problem
Cixin Liu (trans by Ken Liu)
Head of Zeus, 2015
HB, 390pp

I bought my copy of this book from Waterstone's in Oxford

The three body problem, in classical physics, refers to the motion under gravity of three masses. Unlike for two bodies, where the relative position and velocity of the bodies can be found from a formula, for any time, with three bodies one can only determine the result numerically - by simulating the states - in general although it can be calculated exactly in some special cases.  Those numerical solutions aren't so bad: they enable us to get to the Moon and to launch probes to the edge of the Solar system. But they can't prove that - for example - the Solar system is stable, that it won't all fly apart at some stage.

This is the conundrum that underlies Cixin Liu's book. Set sometime in the near future - based on the technology - scientists and other leaders of thought are being enticed into an online game, "The Three Body Problem" apparently set on a word with three Suns. Trisolaris is plagued by frequent "Chaotic eras" during which the planet becomes unliveable, and its future seems bleak with no means to predict how long those periods of chaos will last. The game is unusually gripping and seems to attract like minded people to attack the central Problem.

Against this background, a researcher in nanomaterials, Wang Miao, is approached by the police in Beijing to help with an investigation into a mysterious organisation, the Frontiers of Science, which involves him becoming immersed in the game. One thing leads to another and Wang's investigation leads him cross paths with both to Shi Qiang, a hard bitten and chainsmoking Chinese policeman and Ye Wenjie, a retired astrophysicist whose father was murdered by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution.

Much of this story is in fact Ye's, describing what happened to her next after she was sent to work on a highly classified research base deep in the forest. That turns out to have deep repercussions not only for China but for humanity, and I gather that Cixin Liu explores that further in the rest of this trilogy.

This is a remarkable book, a rattling good SF story which never lets up - whether told from the point of view of Wang, of Ye or even of the Trisolarans themselves - but which is also rooted in the reality of events in 60s and 70s China. These are things we have never I think understood well in the West - vast dislocations in a country we know very poorly (and much of what we do know is the open China that has emerged since those events, so at two removes, as it were) - so there is a real sense in which to me, the strangest things in the book aren't the SF themes but the human and cultural ones. That isn't of course the same perspective as that of the original Chinese readership, which illustrates perhaps the value of translation for books like this.

As unfamiliar as the content were aspects of the form. The book is, as I said, told from a number of perspectives and includes for example official documents and reports as well as statement, narrative and speeches. To a degree the story is a framework for presenting these, with some of the characters having a fairly clear purpose to present a particular outlook or perspective . I haven't read much other Chinese fiction but I recognised that approach (though I'm not going to generalise and assert it is the norm!)

This book has collected lots of praise and prizes - deservedly, in my opinion.

A good Christmas present for the SF fan in your life.

16 November 2015

Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith

Career of Evil
Robert Galbraith
Sphere, 2015
HB, 487pp

I bought this book from Wallingford Bookshop

This is the third in Robert Galbraith's (JK Rowling's) series featuring Cormoran Strike, private detective, who from his seedy flat off Charing Cross Road in London solves the cases the police can't or won't.

This is easily the best so far. The earlier books were set in quite distinct worlds - fashion and publishing - giving an instant milieu but also in my view setting a barrier, and setting the reader a double task of not only getting to grips with the mystery but also of inhabiting those settings.

There is none of that here. The mystery comes straight at Cormoran and his partner Robin when they receive a gruesome package - a severed limb - and it seems directed at them personally. Strike can immediately reel off the names of four people (four men) who might sent it - an East End gangster he'd brought down, and three soldiers he had dealings with while in the Military police. Of course the police go for the gangster, leaving Strike to follow up the others while his business collapses due to the bad publicity.

It's a long and convoluted trail, taking Strike and Robin to Melrose, to Barrow, to Market Harborough and to Corby - a progress which Rowling/ Galbraith makes into a mini "condition of Britain" survey describing the various towns and also their attitudes, from the surveyed streets of Barrow outside the nuclear shipyards to sport-mad Melrose. She is pretty frank in what she reveals about people: Strike's suspects are a mixed up crew who were pretty vile to their families. The story reveals a very nasty to some men (even if #notallmen) with women and children bearing the brunt of it.

Of course that enables Strike to appear as something of a hero at times: but the burden of the book is borne as much or more by Robin who - I think - fully steps out of Strike's shadow for the first time, taking the initiative and getting into some risky situations as a result. This as her relationship with fiance Matthew unravels. Matthew is a deeply unpleasant man and most readers would I think be glad to see the back of him (and to see Robin fall into Strike's arms: or vice versa). Strike's sense of honour won't let that happen although surely, surely, it is where this series is leading?

It isn't a book for the fainthearted: there are nasty descriptions of nasty things and the villain - he really is a villain - is truly horrible: we know this, we are in his head regularly through the book and it isn't nice. (Indeed it's a mark of good the writing is that once we understand what he's done, he stands out even against some pretty odious characters we've already met.) Galbraith/ Rowling adeptly sends red herrings swimming in all directions so despite this insider view I didn't guess who he was until she was ready to reveal it. Yet despite the red herrings the book remains focussed, tightly plotted and convincing.  We also learn a great deal more about Cormoran and Robin's earlier lives, and what made them how they are.

I have a feeling this series is now really getting going, and I can't wait for the next. While I'm also looking forward to the Harry Potter play next year i hope it doesn't delay another adventure for Cormoran and Robin.

8 November 2015

Slade House by David Mitchell

Slade House
David Mitchell
Sceptre, 2015
HB, 233pp

I bought this book from Goldsboro Books.

This was the first book by Mitchell I'd read, although I have The Bone Clocks waiting in my TBR and having enjoyed this I'll move it up. The books are linked - I spotted one or two cross references although not having read the earlier one in no way detracted form my experience with this.

Slade House is a series of linked novellas, involving the eponymous address, set between 1979 and 2015. Fittingly for what is really a horror novel, something nasty happens every nine years at the end of October. The book describes a series of such episodes, all set in the same anonymous town (but, OK, I'm sure it is Reading!) as different souls are brought to the crooked Alley and encounter a small metal door.

First, in 1979, we meet a boy and his mother. Mum is a down on her luck musician, looking for work: her son possibly autistic in his directness. Following directions given by a window cleaner, they find the Alley.

Nine years later, a less agreeable character, a police officer, comes looking. He is followed, in 1997, by a party of students from their University's Paranormal Society (Slade Alley's fame is spreading...)

In 2006, a woman comes looking for that group. And in 2015... well, I'll say nothing specific about that (although you can get some clues from a series of tweets from @I_Bombadil sent in September and October this year. They cease on October 31st).

Common to the stories are a brother and a sister who, in various guises, seem to inhabit the house. Their motives are dark, but we only gradually learn, through the book, exactly what they are up. Not, perhaps, gradually enough: there is one scene in one of the later stories where, just in case we missed the point, it's all explained through a third party - do read the stories in order as it would be fatal to encounter this one first!

That quibble aside, the stories are all eerily effective in their own right with the characters and their backgrounds well done: the boy missed his father after his parents split up, the woman who feels herself n the shadow of her high achieving sister,  the near racist, embittered cop. (Maybe a touch of a stereotype there). And of course, Norah and Jonah.

It's a short book - 233 pages - and one which I think most readers will get through in one or two sittings, perfectly suitable for an evening by the fire as October dies.

And it does have a delicious twist...

1 November 2015

Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson

Europe at Midnight
Dave Hutchinson
Solaris, 5 November 2015

PB, 302 pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book.

Europe at Midnight is a companion, rather than a direct sequel, to Hutchinson's Europe in Autumn. The earlier book introduced a near-future Europe fragmenting busily into pocket republics, principalities, duchies and Free States - there are over 600 entries in the Eurovision Song Contest and the whole thing takes five or six days. (The horror!)

It also revealed...

[SPOILERS: if you haven't read Autumn already - and you really should have - go away and read it now]

...a hidden country, the Community, existing alongside and just round the corner from our world. The gateways to this place are lost (you could get there by train from Paddington, but the branch line closed and is now overgrown) and we don't know about it, but its residents - descendants of English émigrés from the 19th century - watch us, and do meddle in our business while living in a strange, pallid, 1950s kind of world, all tasteless food and tweed jackets. 

Just how much they meddle is only slowly revealed here, and I'm not sure that even by the end of the book we have plumbed the full depth. The third book should be very interesting.

As this is not a sequel, we don't meet the same characters as in Autumn (although I may have missed a Courreur or two somewhere). Instead there are two new protagonists - the unnamed narrator, who sometimes goes by the nom de guerre Rupert of Hentzau, and Jim, in England. Both work in Intelligence: Rupert in a strange place (The Campus) which resembles a university that has declared Independence, Jim in the (English) Security Service. They are conscientious men, patient men who, starting at opposite ends, gradually try to unravel the tangled relationship between Europe and the Community. At a cost.

Along the way Hutchinson delivers many delights - from the first glimpse of modern society through the eyes of a man who had never seen it before, to the refined calm of a backwater city on the other side of the Community. The book unfolds slowly and grows on you: much of its charm is in the gentle way it builds things up - for example Jim's methodical enquiry into a stabbing establishing his attention to detail and sense of duty, or his cautious friendship with academic-turned-spy Adele Bevan, "the only person in his life who never used a false identity".

Which isn't to say it lacks drama or action. Almost from the start, characters die just as you're getting to know and like them. Several factions are in play and there's little to choose between them in ruthlessness. Indeed, as the story develops and the stakes get higher Hutchinson almost makes the reader sympathise with a degree of ruthlessness, used in the right course. Almost, but not quite. Because despite everything, both "Rupert" (he says his name at one point but we aren't privy to the secret - would we have recognised it?) and Jim are decent people and they are the heart of this book. And they are not, in the end, ruthless men.

Finally, we do get a glimpse of some old friends from Europe in Autumn, and I hope this means that they will feature in the next book. Certainly thing set up for a dramatic conclusion to the sequence.

A wonderful, fun book, a book to be savoured.