The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

Read: 10 September, 2016

After Wang Miao is recruited by the Beijing police to infiltrate a secret cabal of scientists, he finds himself on the brink of madness.

The Three-Body Problem is a fascinating book. It’s a lot more “hard” scifi than I’m used to, and a lot less narrative. The characters spend a fair bit of their time simply sitting around a room explaining scientific concepts to each other.

Yet, somehow, the plot manages to seep through and it’s fantastic. It’s a personal story of grief and revenge, it’s a secret society conspiracy story, it’s an alien invasion story, all pulled off in a compelling way.

The writing style is quite unusual. Ken Liu, the translator, has done an amazing job of preserving “an echo of another language’s rhythms and cadences” (his words, from the translator’s postscript).

The main character, Wang, is a little flat. He has details added – a wife, a child, a photography hobby – but these only come up when necessary to the plot. Most of the time, he’s reactive, following along as other characters take him on a journey. But those other characters are so expressive and memorable that Wang’s comparative blandness doesn’t detract. Rather, he serves as a fantastic reader insert as we get to meet all these different interesting people and try to solve the great mystery.

I did feel like the third act was on the weaker side. The climax itself was great, but the reveal at the end where all the remaining plot lines are tied together felt forced and rather info-dumpy. This style had been used before, primarily in the sections where Ye Wenjie’s history is revealed. The difference there, though, is that Ye is a very interesting character. Whereas in the final portion, we’re with the aliens – characters we haven’t gotten to know and are explicitly meant to feel alienated (see what I did there?) from. Each character therefore serves only as a role needed to expose the plot, and it doesn’t work anymore. I have to admit, the final 40 or so pages took me about two days to get through. That said, it’s only 40 pages out of an otherwise fantastic 400.

There are apparently two sequels available. But for those of you suffering from Serial Burnout, don’t worry. The Three-Body Problem has a very satisfying end. It’s open, but it’s not a cliff-hanger.

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The Friendly Guide to the Universe by Nancy Hathaway

Read: 28 May, 2013

I was recommended this book as an astronomy primer for kids, and I found it absolutely fantastic! The writing style is conversational and accessible, and the information is presented in a way that builds on what’s come before, forming a sort of narrative (even if it can seem a little haphazard to an organization-prone mind like mine).

I loved that it didn’t stick just to the science itself. Most of my kids’ books about astronomy will have little side boxes about Galileo and Capernicus, obviously, but The Friendly Guide really gives a lot of ink over to astronomers and physicists through history, and to the stories of their discoveries. There were also, I was pleased to see, several women included.

The book also includes a lot of general “culture,” such as snippets of poetry and prose about the universe, and even some discussion of paintings that feature “heavenly bodies” in some way. I also enjoyed all the discussions of mythology, and why the names for the planets in our solar system were chosen.

As much as I loved the book, however, it did have some flaws. Right in the middle of Galileo’s chapter, there’s a section about trying to figure out when Jesus was born by looking at what astronomical event could have inspired the Star of Bethlehem story. And then, later, there’s a discussion of UFOs in which Hathaway asks “what about about those few instances for which there is no logical explanation?” and concludes by positing that maybe some people are delusional or maybe the government is covering up – who knows?

The Star of Bethlehem chapter could easily have been excluded entirely and no one reading would have noticed. As for the UFO chapter, the experienced phenomena were given far more credence that they were worth. In both cases, the information presented wasn’t false, but it was open to being misleading. It doesn’t diminish the quality of the book for me, since these are topics that I would want to discuss with my son and the chapters do work as jumping off points for further study, but I am glad that I read through the book myself first so that I could be prepared to address the sections.

The book is fine for any age, but I think it would work really well to introduce a 8-12 year old to astronomy.

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Contact by Carl Sagan

Read: 22 November, 2012

Ellie Arroway is the director of the controversial Argus Project, which scans the skies for any evidence of intelligent extraterrestrial beings. After years of failure, finally, she receives a series of prime numbers that could not have been generated naturally.

The movie version with Jodie Foster was one of my favourite movies in my early teens, so Contact has been on my reading list for a while. Unfortunately, it didn’t live up to my hopes.

The writing style was very detached, telling the reader about the characters – sometimes even very private details – without ever allowing us to ever really get to know them. There were also fact-checking issues that I found rather jarring, such as when visiting France, Ellie sees a sign for the Banque Nationale de Paris (BNP) and she reads it “as the Russian word for beer, with the middle letter inverted left to right.” Thing is, that would be pronounced “Veer” in Russian, not “beer.” And, in any case, the Russian word for beer is “pivo.”

I also felt that Sagan’s agenda was too forward. I get that there are very few female scientists in literature, and those that do make it are generally socially awkward or “mannish.” So I really do appreciate that Sagan gives us a highly competent female scientist while still being very feminine. And, of course, Saga is very blunt about the extra hurdles in Ellie’s career path that her male colleagues don’t need to deal with. But the constant reminders of her gender, of her application of makeup, of her dress, of her choice in jewellery, of her lovers (and sexual rating of nearly every male she meets) served the opposite purpose, actually making me feel self-conscious about my gender.

The discussions of religion were interesting, but the “now we’re both searchers!” ending felt too contrived. The “moon landing denier” stand-in – Michael Kitz – was frustrating and, I felt, unnecessary. The difference between most moon landing deniers and Kitz is that Kitz actually has a lot of political power. For him to concoct such a crazy and baseless pseudo-explanation for “what really happened” simply does not make sense. After spending two trillion dollars, why would the governments of the world just suddenly change their minds and all work together to erase the experiment?

I’m glad that I’ve finally read Contact and can, at last, cross it off my list, but it was a struggle to keep going. After seeing the amazing movie that they made from it, it was a disappointing read.

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