The most brutal fantasy – a review EMPIRE ASCENDANT by Kameron Hurley

empire-ascendant-by-kameron-hurleyI thought I was prepared.

I had read MIRROR EMPIRE. I’d read GOD’S WAR. I knew Kameron Hurley was as unrelentingly brutal as any other author in fantasy out there.

I knew Kameron Hurley made the average Grimdark fantasy look like a meet cute.

I was not ready.

EMPIRE ASCENDANT is definitely the most brutal book I’ve read since BEST SERVED COLD by Joe Abercrombie; and I’d need to re-read Abercrombie’s tale of revenge before I’d commit to even it being as heavy a book as this. If any book deserves to be converted into a black metal saga it is this one.

Set in a world which broke thanks to a forgotten apocalypse thousands of years previous, EMPIRE ASCENDANT is the second book in the Worldbreaker Saga. It picks up shortly after the hard-won victories of the protagonists from the first book and shows them to be entirely futile.

Every victory achieved by blood, tears and sacrifice in MIRROR EMPIRE is Pyrrhic. And that’s the high point of this story.

I have to say that Hurley is masterful at writing broken people who are fundamentally human, throwing them through a wood chipper, gathering up the broken bits into a heap and then making you care about the heap. This is especially the case with Zezili. The general of Dorinah, full of rage and destruction, abuses everybody she purports to love and spends the first book complicit in the vicious misdeeds of her empress. Her weak attempt to rebel and do the right thing leads to her being viciously mauled and she starts the second book barely clinging to life, being put back together in the wake of this. Things don’t get any better for Zezili, but along the way something strange happens.

You watch this powerful, destructive, dangerous person get the shit kicked out of her over and over again. Time and again the universe sends her the message to stay down, stop fighting, just rest for the love of all that’s holy. But no. She gets back up. Over and over again, against all the odds, Zezili gets back up, spits out a mouthful of blood and broken teeth and woozily says, “was that your best shot?”

And by the end of the book, you’re pulling for her. This awful, abusive, abrasive, stubborn killer just goes through so much and even though she’s not much more than a mass of wounds held together by stubbornness and contrarian spite you can’t help but sympathize with her.

Hurley doesn’t do simple characters.

The likable pacifist leader of the Dhai is a coward and a fool. The brilliant tactician is arrogant and can’t get anybody to listen to her. The genocidal tyrant is motivated mostly by a deep well of love for a family who will die if she doesn’t carve out a home for them somewhere else, a home that can’t exist unless she slaughters their doubles. Every character in this book is a study in the cognitive dissonance of a person who will do horrible things with the best of intentions, and heroic things with the worst of intentions.

And then that climax.

The next time somebody suggests that the Red Wedding is as rough as things get in fantasy I’ll just smile wistfully and shake my head.

I loved EMPIRE ASCENDANT, but it is one of those books that’s hard to recommend. Because this is not a book that welcomes the reader for a few happy hours of gentle escape. This is a book that wars with the reader. If you want a fantasy novel that will struggle with you, a fantasy novel that will kick you in the gut and stab you in the heart, read EMPIRE ASCENDANT.

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Mortality

Three and a half years ago I got my first tattoo. A few months before that time my father had fallen very ill, and while his condition eventually stabilized, at that time I was thinking a lot about things I’d wanted to do, things I’d put off doing and the danger that a life could end, incomplete.

I’d also been progressively putting on weight since I’d left university, and since my father’s illness was a complication of diabetes I was growing worried that I didn’t want to start down the same path. I stopped drinking pop. Bought a bicycle. Failed to lose weight.  I got more tattoos, traveled to Cuba and back to China, had a daughter, published a book. Reassessed my health needs, started using calorie counter apps and measuring exercise. Lost sixty two pounds.

For three years I frantically ticked off things I’d always intended to do and made sure I got them done. In part because, at the age of 33 I’d felt the first breath of mortality in the frailty of a man who’d been a constant in my life.

It’s been a rough winter. At the start of it, a casual friend, who was a very close friend of some of my close friends died suddenly and unexpectedly. I’d dealt with sudden death before, a few of the friends in my youth committed suicide, but this wasn’t somebody deliberately ending their life. This was illness claiming a peer. Then Lemmy Kilmister died, David Bowie died,  Alan Rickman: artists I’d followed to one extent or another for my whole life. It was a kick in the teeth.

Today I heard about David G. Hartwell. I didn’t know him that well. We’d met. I was one of probably a multitude of emerging authors who he provided some personal advice to at World Fantasy Convention. I’d seen him around on panels and in room parties a few times. He seemed like a good guy. I have friends who knew him much better. And for them I feel the deepest sympathy.

We are, none of us, immortal. And that’s terrifying. But I learned something through this bitter season of grief and pain. It was something hovering around my consciousness for the last three years.

We have the capacity to carry things on for those who pass before us. When Bowie died Choir! Choir! Choir! brought together hundreds of people at three events to sing re-arranged versions of his classics. As tribute to an artist, who constantly re-shaped his image and his art over a decades spanning career, other artists helped a group of people create new art.

A form of immortality can exist, though it’s a tenuous one. A lot of people suggest it lives on in the memories of people who knew them. But even that fades in time. Rather it lies in the deeds a person inspires.

So what I want to do, what I hope we can take away from this season of grief, is that we can build something beautiful even on a foundation of pain. We can create art. We can sponsor a cause. We can try to build something, accomplish something with our own lives. Life is brief and fleeting, and loss hurts whether it’s a close friend, a friend of a friend or a revered celebrity. So let’s build something lasting on foundation of that loss as a bulwark against the erosion of time.

Happy new year 2016

Ok, I’m pretty deep in my cups, it being 1:30 a.m. January 1, so I’m going to start with that as a disclaimer for grammatical oopses and general thread-losses.

So let me start by saying Happy New Year everybody! I hope 2016 is the year when we learn from the wrath of 2014/2015 and use our newly built tech-aided telepathy to increase joy, compassion and understanding within the world.

With that in mind I’m going to be talking a bit about Star Wars and fandom. I will try to avoid spoilers (even though I’ve previously set the end of my personal spoilers embargo at Jan. 1, 2016,) but if you haven’t seen the film yet and you want to avoid any information going in you might want to stop reading now.

Launching the ships

In a Star Wars discussion group I joined after watching the film there’s been some sharing of fan fic images. These sketches have displayed various iterations of Rey/Finn/Poe ships that take for granted the chemistry between Finn and both of the other two lead protagonists new to Episode 7. My personal favourite has Rey introducing her boyfriend Finn, and his boyfriend Poe.

It’s pretty obvious, at least in certain circles of progressive fandom, the extent to which Oscar Isaac plays his friendship to Finn as a romance, if a subtle one. Isaac has actually confirmed this in an interview.

Between the press-junket soundbite from Isaac and the wonderful tendency of fandom to ship everybody with everybody else, it’s little surprise that we’re seeing so much fan-art focusing on the possibility of a relatively open love triangle between the three.

Furthermore, perfectly mature adults who, in the same group have spent quite a bit of time sharing and discussing critical analysis of the new film, have been enthusiastic both about the images and about the idea that we live in a world where a story like that might some day achieve canonicity.

Think about that for a second. We now live in a world where the idea of love being divorced sufficiently from gender that a person might love two people of different genders in effectively the same way isn’t automatically met with derision. To me this tends to support Theodore Parker’s oft-quoted axiom that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

It’s been a rough year for justice.

It sometimes seems that our southern neighbours are tearing themselves apart, between increasing discontent over police brutality and the gong-show of the long wind-up to the 2016 presidential election. Across the Atlantic, Europe is embroiled in yet another eruption of wide-spread, and sometimes frightening, xenophobia. Vast swaths of the Middle East are in a state of war with no clear solution to the conflict in sight. China’s economy, the engine that kept the gears of the world turning since 2008 has stumbled, and stuttered as a new normal suggests the years of double-digit GDP growth and an expanding middle class are over. Suddenly the seemingly harmless corruption of the past two decades seems more sinister, and regional tensions all the more volatile. And meanwhile, in Canada, we smugly congratulate ourselves for electing a government that clears the low bar of being adequate and not-entirely-heartless and then proceed to do little to make anything better.

But none of these are new problems.

Racism and xenophobia, war, political strife and political lethargy disguised as thin progress are all very old problems. Some of the oldest.

But we live in a world where the race of a couple of protagonists is so unremarkable that the most conservative construction of relationships in their film is the one that includes just an interracial heterosexual pairing.

We live in a world where I can’t find a Rae doll for my daughter in two different toy stores not because she was excluded from distribution but because she’s already sold out (though the release of her figures was still delayed far too long).

The fandom and merchandising surrounding a Christmastime movie release aren’t much in the face of the very real grief and pain caused by the injustice we still haven’t fixed, but I sincerely hope they reflect a sea-change in general public opinion. I want to believe that the Overton window has moved sufficiently that the realm of public perception is now one in which opinions that were previously on the far fringes of liberal “deviance” are now accepted as just another way to be, another way to love and to live.

I’d like to believe that, in 2016, we’ll see action movies with POC leads, with hero journeys belonging to women, with queer protagonists in all of the possible infinite diversity that love can reflect.

I do believe the world is ready for this. This doesn’t mean it will be easy to shepherd these changes into the world. The process of shaping public perception is a constant struggle between compassion and liberty on one hand, fear and isolation on the other.

But the year is over.

We’ve spent another year truly learning what it’s like to have instant access to the hearts and minds of humanity in all its diversity, good and ill. We’ve had another year to assimilate the joy and the burden of knowing the inner life of the growing majority of the population who now participate in the great transformation of online life.

And so its without bitter irony or grief that I wish you all a happy new year. We have a lot of work to do. But we can do it. We have a tall mountain to climb, but if we look down we can see the height from which we started. The arc of the moral universe is long and the path it takes is winding. There are false starts and there will always be push-back from people who fear change, who benefit from the old systems and who don’t want to lose those benefits and people who are just misanthropic and unhappy. But ultimately the arc bends, slowly and inexorably, toward justice.

Let’s make our resolution for 2016 be to do our part to help that arc curve a little bit faster. The struggle might be hard, but if we approach transformation from a place of justice and compassion, at personal, national and global levels, we can make 2016 a year to be happy about.

Sort of a review of Star Wars Aftermath

It’s hard for me to review this one. This is for two reasons:

  1. I’ve been an active participant in online debate surrounding the campaign against Chuck Wendig and am thus biased.
  2. My usual choices in Science Fiction lean more toward big-idea books rather than action-adventures; when I want the latter I usually go to various subgenres of fantasy. As such, I’m less well equipped to do a fair review of a book which is an action-adventure science fiction. That being said, if you replace the blasters and light sabres with arrows and swords, this book cleaves closer to Fantasy tropes quite a bit, so this is a much smaller concern.

Having considered these two points a few disclaimers.

The part that isn’t really a review

I think the concerted campaign to give one-star reviews to Chuck Wendig was shitty. Like a-grade shitty. I don’t care whether the motivation was because there were three gay characters in the book or whether it was because Admiral Thrawn was NOT in the book. When you’re handing out a shit sandwich, it doesn’t matter what type of shit it’s made with. It’s still shit.

Because my opinion of licensed fiction is very low, as in, I think most licensed fiction is the literary equivalent of the rice pablum that we fed our daughter as her first food: lacking in any flavour, texture or quality that might offend anybody in the slightest, I was disinclined to buy Wendig’s new book despite being a fan of his.

I assumed, oh, that’s nice, that author I like did a Star Wars book. That’ll give him some financial breathing room to keep writing awesome Mookie Pearl and Miriam Black novels. Maybe I’ll read it someday.

<shrug>

<move on>

If it weren’t for the way these gamergaters of Star Wars (more on that momentarily) who call themselves the Bring Back Legends movement I probably would not have bought it.

But I did. And I really liked it. More than any other licensed book I’ve ever read. And what’s more, I’m strongly motivated to tell other people how good it was. I gave it a five-star review on Kobo, Amazon.ca and Amazon.com. I told friends and family to read this book.

So thanks BBL. Good job advertising Wendig’s book for him.

BBL is just like Gamergate, and the Sad Puppies

It doesn’t matter whether they have the same political motives. That’s largely irrelevant. You can be an asshole of an entitled fan whether your sense of entitlement has to do with women in video games, whether Larry Correia deserves a Hugo or whether Disney should continue publishing the Star Wars Extended Universe. The second you start thinking your emotional capital investment as a fan makes your preferred status quo important enough to steamroller over other fans you’re in Gamergate territory.

Some examples:

Sea Lioning in comments: Arguing at length that people who don’t want to discuss your issue are in the wrong because you are, “being polite.” You aren’t. You’re jumping up in other people’s conversations to shout your opinion. It doesn’t matter if you start by shouting please and end with shouting thank you.

“Social Media Campaigns:” The so-called raids that BBL engage in aren’t some sort of SM enabled letter writing campaign. They’re spam. They pop into facebook pages for Del Rey and Disney when new products are announced to shut down any conversation other than, “give us what we demand.”

Targeting high-profile detractors: Whether it’s sending threats to Anita Sarkeesian, writing hateful “parodies” accusing John Scalzi of various misdeeds or one-starring Chuck Wendig’s book what differs is the severity. What is the same is the fact that you’ve got a group going, “I recognize that person, they disagree with my position. I will bring them low.”

And of course in all these examples we have a group acting like they’re owed something. The gamergaters are owed video games wherein they can be as ghastly as they want. The Sad Puppies are owed Hugos denied them by us evil SJWs. The BBL team are owed more Zahn books, and Admiral Thrawn in the movies or on the cartoons.

It’s ultimately about entitlement. The bad behaviour, whether it manifests as threats against the security of the person, spurious police calls, or campaigns to harm sales of a product, is the way in which these groups forward the claim that they’re entitled to certain things, to permissiveness toward behaviours, to whatever.

The number of times I’ve heard from BBL, “we tried writing letters to Disney but they just sent a form letter back saying no. This is the only way we can be heard,” it boggles the mind.

Because, of course, they were heard. And Disney told them no.

They just refused to accept that. Just like Gamergate refused to accept that game critics might be critical of gaming culture. Just like the Sad Puppies refused to accept that their favourite authors wrote books that most fans didn’t want to give Hugo awards to.

They’re the same.

The part that is a review

I’m going to do this a bit differently, addressing prose, characters (use thereof and characterization) and plot (use thereof and interconnectivity with the greater brand) separately. You’ll note I’m going to not dwell on theme as much as I usually would. That’s because the message of this book is very simple: war is hell and messes up everybody’s shit. Wendig deals with that well. But it doesn’t need as much picking apart to get at than The Dark Forest did.

Prose style

Wendig works in present tense throughout the book. He writes in short chapters and his chapters frequently end in a cliffhangery way. I am certainly not going to throw stones. While I write in past tense (I’m just not good enough to sustain present tense beyond short story length) I also use short chapters with frequent cliffhangers. Why? Because for action adventure it works.

Among the detractors who actually read the book, this is probably where Wendig loses people the most. Because in a lot of licensed work authorial voice is as invisible as possible. I understand why: distinctive flair interferes with brand adherence. Generally that’s a bad thing for a franchise.

But Disney has learned this isn’t always the case (see Guardians of the Galaxy) and evidently they gave Wendig the freedom to write, well, a Wendig book. This is very good. And it turns this book from a typical pew pew starships tie-in novel into an interesting work of art.

Character

Wendig populates this book with a bunch of characters who aren’t major players in the movies. There are a few standard bearers here. Fans of Wedge Antilles will… well some will love this book and others may have reason to flip tables. But he’s got a major role. Han Solo and Chewbacca have a cameo. Leia shows up as a hologram and Mon Mothma pops up in a few chapters. But there’s no Jedi at all.

And that’s just fine.

The story works by living in some of Star Wars’ best spaces – the dirty back alleys and underworld dives. It’s populated by veterans of the war who were broken by it. Interestingly three of the protagonists (four if you include Wedge) were at the Battle of Endor, each separately, and the things that happened there affect each of their arcs in unique ways: war may break everybody but everybody breaks differently.

From a franchise perspective, playing with unknowns also affords Wendig to tell a story with a big theme, without bumping into the limits undoubtedly imposed on him by Disney.

Plot

Structurally the book follows a rescue / heist model that Wendig is comfortable with. It’s also a structure that works very well for Star Wars, existing as it does on the periphery between science fiction and fantasy.

It’s a pulpy story, full of sudden reversals and unexpected changes of fortune. And it’s a book in which people can die. Wendig lets us see the blood and viscera that Lucas’ PG requirements left off-screen for much of the original trilogy.

I guess what I’m saying is that this is a Star Wars story in the best possible way: concentrating on a small collection of neer-do-wells and rogues as they stumble into something bigger than them and pull through by a combination of luck and talent.

Wrapping up

Since we’re approaching TL;DR here’s everything in a nutshell:

  1. I’m a fan of Wendig who hasn’t ever read Zahn, make of that what you will
  2. The people who are trying to burn down Wendig’s book are jerks who smell like gamergating sad puppies
  3. It’s obviously a star wars book
  4. It’s a really good star wars story
  5. It doesn’t matter that Luke Skywalker isn’t in it
  6. Buy it.
  7. No seriously buy it.
  8. Right now.
  9. Stop what you’re doing and buy this book.
  10. Then read it.

I’m reading Star Wars: Aftermath

This is the first Star Wars book I’ve read. I don’t give a pair of dingo’s kidneys for Admiral Thrawn. I’ve only dug a small way into Part 2 so I can’t properly review it, but here’s what I can say with certainty:

  1. It is very Wendig. If you like him you will like this book.
  2. The jagoffs giving it one star for any reason other than they don’t like Wendig’s highly distinctive prose style are full of shit.

This is all.

Trolls Never Sleep

a-close-friend-1499922I’ve had it up to here with the culture wars.

This was going to be a post about what happened to Chuck Wendig. Jim C. Hines has a decent write-up on that up, and while I disagree with him ever so slightly on one point it’s a good general writeup.

Wendig himself also has some stuff to say on the topic.

And this would have been enough for a full blog post right here. The issue with Wendig’s books, and the response both of the culture warriors who I’ve taken to calling antisocial injustice warriors (after all, if they oppose what SJWs stand for…) and of the EU fans who will lash out at any change to the Star Wars canon dovetails so perfectly with Gamergate and the Sad Puppies on so many levels that it’d certainly be in keeping with some of my usual topics.

But then New Zealand went and banned a YA novel on the grounds that it upset vocal Christians. When I say they banned it I’m being literal. Give the book to a friend and you’re facing a $3,000 NZD fine. Sell it in a store and your store gets a $10,000 NZD fine.

So here’s a link to Amazon.com for anybody who wants to buy it. Because with state censorship that’s basically the only response I can make.

I just can’t with all this today. I want to talk more about how parts of fandom have become toxic with what Wendig poetically calls, “weaponized nostalgia.” This vile habit of longing for an imagined better time, and attacking creatives in the present for not adhering to the standard of this fantasy land has actually soured me on the very idea of nostalgia at all. If Michael Bay’s TMNT ruined your childhood, YOU HAD AN AWFUL FUCKING CHILDHOOD ALREADY.

But it’s not just the weaponized nostalgia. It’s the regressive taint-stains who can’t tolerate the idea that the world has moved on without them: that the average person under the age of 25 is so comfortable with the idea of the Kinsey Scale that only a quarter of respondents age 14 to 24 in a recent British survey self-identified as exclusively heterosexual; that books for teens should address the anxieties, conflicts and dangers faced by modern teenagers, rather than trying to sugar-coat the world; that marginalized people have gotten enough of a platform to point out institutional biases and try to do something about them.

But these trolls, these nihilistic dinosaurs so wedded to a past that never was, are just so relentless. I go away for a weekend and they’re attacking Scalzi, I get back they’re already on to the next raid, attacking Wendig. And then another group go after this Ted Dawe author. And that’s even ignoring perennial targets like K. Tempest Bradford, who puts up with more bullshit from these trolls in a week than most people should have to in a lifetime.

And I’m like: don’t these assholes have lives to live?

So I’m tired.

I’m tired of shouting into the void that life is changing and you can either learn to live with it or get out of the way.

I’m tired of bigots being given platforms because they’re good old boys who remember when men were men and rayguns were chrome.

I’m tired of backward religious fanatics trying to cram their holy books down the world’s throat.

I’m sick of all this shit.

Hi, I’m Simon. And here’s what I pledge: if you say don’t read women or people of colour I’m going to. I will because there are some amazing people in those groups writing amazing books.

If you one-star Wendig for putting gay characters in Star Wars, or even if you do it just because you’re angry his books aren’t about Admiral Thrawn, I’m going to buy his book, read it and then give it the fucking rating it deserves on Amazon (which, considering how much I liked every other Wendig book will probably be 4-5 stars).

If you ban a book because it hurts conservative feels I’m going to bloody well put a link directly to its sales page on my blog.

These fucking trolls may never sleep. But at the very least we can make sure all they’re doing is ramming their thick skulls into the wall of historical inevitability.

Review: The Dark Forest by Liu Cixin

23168817Translated by Joel Martinsen

Liu Cixin is one of my favourite authors today for quite a few reasons, and so I was particularly excited when he was awarded the Hugo for best novel for The Three Body Problem.

I’d pre-ordered the Dark Forest from my local genre book store but then, due to a store closure for a few weeks in August ended up not being able to start it until Sunday the 30th.

As a result this review is somewhat later than I would have hoped. But it was a book worth waiting for.

I’ll follow the same pattern I did for my review of the Three Body Problem, providing a spoiler free review at the top with a section dealing with any spoilery material that I feel warrants discussion below a sizable gap.

Thesis Fiction

Liu Cixin writes thesis fiction. By this I means, he starts his stories by quite clearly and overtly stating some concept or idea which the novel will elaborate on and attempt to provide evidence for. What follows will then be very thematically controlled in order to support that proposition as specifically as possible. Everything in the book is subordinate to that purpose.

In The Three Body Problem this thesis shouted back to one of the earliest novels, a work which was also thesis fiction, by suggesting an inevitable cycle of chaos and order within civilization, and, like The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, showing us a civilization in the dying days of one of those times of order and prosperity, just before a collapse into a period of chaos.

The Dark Forest begins with a prologue before the events of The Three Body Problem in which a somewhat dissolute scholar Luo Ji meets with Ye Wenjie, a key antagonist of the first book, and is given a puzzle. This puzzle, a brief parable of an ant and a spider, and the contents of a conversation in the first chapter create the overall thematic structure of the book: an exploration of the boundaries between communication and miscommunication, specifically positing that as the distance between agents grows, whether that distance is one of culture, time or space, the possibility of meaningful communication diminishes, and where communication fails, mistrust flourishes.

The Wallfacers

Exploring this problem with communication, Cixin returns to the first book’s most bizarre technological conceit: the sophon. These sub-atomic AIs watch everything, reporting on the progress and plans of every human of note to their Trisolarian masters. They can access any computer, break any encryption. There is only one place safe from the Sophon’s baleful gaze: the mind. And so four people are officially tasked with creating devious and mazelike strategies to overcome the Trisolarian threat. A fifth takes it upon himself to do so.

The four chosen: an American diplomat, a Venezuelan president (proposed as the successor to Hugo Chavez), a British neurologist, and Luo Ji – still dissolute and a bit of a failure as a scholar.

The fifth is a Chinese political officer in the newly created space force.

It is worth noting at this point that one of the small problems I had with The Dark Forest was the lack of a Ye Wenjie character in this story. This occurs on two levels: first in that the women in this book are all not much more than sketches, the book is dominated by men in a way the previous was not. Second, the book lacks a cohesive singular antagonist. The Wallfacers (excepting Luo Ji) each have a Wallbreaker, an ETO member assigned to reveal their ultimate plans, but none of these characters have any real depth, and most only ever appear in three scenes of the book.

The Wallfacers are tasked with an almost impossible problem: they are kept at a distance from society, denied the ability to meaningfully communicate, while simultaneously being given the power to do basically whatever they want.

The relationship between these men and the world occupies the first half of the book.

The second half deals mostly with Luo Ji and the Chinese political cadre. Each has become thorougly isolated in almost every meaningful way, and yet each believes he might know the answer to saving humanity. The book then does a dance, allowing us to see their actions, and to hear what they say they believe while never allowing us access to their secret hearts.

We’re then asked to trust that these two deeply flawed men might save the species.

The Dark Forest is a bit messier than The Three Body Problem. This comes from two issues: the first is that the story takes place over a much longer timeline than the first. There are massive global changes happening throughout and keeping up with the world building alone can sometimes prove a struggle, especially as Liu constantly tosses more and more scientific weirdness at us.

The second issue is that while Martinsen is a talented translator, and his book, if anything, captures the cadence and structural feel of Chinese writing more than Ken Liu’s polished lines, he’s just ultimately not quite as strong as Liu.

Had Martinsen been translating from the beginning and did every book this probably wouldn’t have come up. He’s still a good translator. But Liu is such an exceptional translator that anybody, even someone as talented as Martinsen, seems weaker by comparison.

Despite this messiness, it still manages to be a strong work of thesis fiction. Cixin wears some of his influences on his sleeve (Asimov, the original king of thesis SF is very much an influence, and the way Liu handles broad sweeping societal change is strongly reminiscent of the original Foundation trilogy, while references to Luo Guanzhong, who was so central to the themes of the first book, remain evident).

I also suspect Liu has read Gao Xingjiang as a large section of Luo Ji’s early story seems very reminiscent in style and tone to Soul Mountain (translated by Mabel Lee).

The story ends very abruptly. To the point where I almost felt a need to flip back a few chapters and see whether I missed something somewhere. However the nature of the ending is appropriate and satisfying. Liu manages to walk the fine line between inevitability and surprise.

It’s hard for a second book in a trilogy to live up to the first. To a certain extent it has to tread some water, move the story from point A to point B with as little disruption as possible. Liu throws this model out the window; and never seems to be hovering in place or filling time.

Ultimately this book isn’t as strong as The Three Body Problem, but it remains a perfectly good sequel to an amazing novel, and I am still excited to see how it all ends.

Spoiler Review

Much like The Three Body Problem, this is another book which is hard to review without spoilers. But for a different reason. In the first book it was because the technology was so integral to the story. In this one it’s because of the Wallfacers schemes.

Each Wallfacer, separated from Humanity, faces an existential crisis and each is broken in his own way by it. The American diplomat, focusing on the fleets of the human forces, decides that the human belief in the sanctity of life will be the ultimate undoing of all. He plans a remote-controlled fleet of nuclear kamikaze pilots and prepares to turn them against the human fleet itself as a form of psychological warfare. When his lack of trust in humanity is revealed he commits suicide.

The Venezuelan president hides his own plans behind a carefully cultivated mask of crudeness. Meanwhile he plots to build a nuclear arsenal capable of throwing Mercury into the sun, an action which would slowly but inexorably destroy the whole solar system, with the intended aim of blackmailing the Trisolarians into a surrender.

He’s so globally reviled for this, due to the lack of trust anybody has at the idea of one person having the power to destroy the entire solar system, that he’s stoned to death by his own people, who he previously led through a successful war against the United States.

The neuropsychologist originally claims he wants to enhance human intelligence, but secretly he’s working on mind control. He succeeds in creating a system, and then uses it to create a hidden clique in the military who believe human defeat is inevitable, escape the only option.

But nobody on Earth will countenance an escape that doesn’t have room for anybody. At various times escape plans are treated as crimes against humanity. Other times mobs shoot down any ship they believe is being prepared to escape. And the Battle in Darkness proves they’re probably right.

The Battle in Darkness

The political officer has been secretly preparing to send a seed of Humanity into the cosmos since the beginning of the crisis. He realizes early on that nobody will ever agree to this and so he prepares the circumstances in secret, assassinating and manipulating in order to get a situation where he is momentarily in control of a spacecraft capable of interstellar flight.

A single Trisolarian probe destroys nearly all of the Human fleet in battle, and he uses the opportunity to convince the remnants to flee.

But they realize that resources are low, not all of the ships will survive the trip.

Human ships promptly turn on each other, until only two remain, travelling in opposite directions. Their occupants severed forever from humanity.

And then there is Luo Ji.

He uses his power to acquire an isolated mansion, to find a wife who is like a character he once wrote in a book. He tries to live a care-free life and does… nothing.

Except he might be playing the longest game of all. Because he’s slowly solving the puzzle Ye Wenjie put before him – the puzzle of “Cosmic Sociology.”

The Axioms of Cosmic Sociology

  1. The principle requirement of any civilization is survival.
  2. Life always expands while the amount of matter in the universe is finite.

Chains of Suspicion

Coming out of these two axioms are the chains of suspicion. A civilization can never be aware if another civilization is benign or malicious without revealing their location.

If they do so and the civilization is benign all is well but if they do so and it’s malicious, they have signed their doom.

A civilization that does not know of the location of another may come to in time. Even if a civilization is far ahead in technology, they may not remain so since technological progress is not a slow steady process but rather an explosion of exponential growth. To leave another civilization uncontacted is to court death.

But any contact is also to court death.

And so the universe is a dark forest, each civilization a lone hunter pushing back branches, always prepared to ambush any other hunter who reveals his position.

Luo Ji realizes this, and with this knowledge curses another star, some 50 light years away, transmitting a map of its precise location to the universe. After an interregnum of 150 years the star is destroyed. But nobody notices for a long time because:

Communication is attenuated by time

The Trisolarians might have near instantaneous communication across interstellar distance, but for the humans any attempt at communication is affected by the passage of time. While this is true in the relativistic sense, it’s also true for the protagonists who are put into hibernation, awakening 200 years into the future.

They arrive in a false utopia of underground cities, flying cars, compassionate humanist government and confidence in an assured victory over the Trisolarians. All their concerns and plans from the past are ignored or brushed off. Oh, well that was so long ago, their descendants say, and all the best laid plans are ignored.

So of course, when it all comes crashing down due to the havoc caused by the Trisolarian probe and the Battle in Darkness which follows, the characters must scramble to try and drag together support for their plans or at least somebody to listen.

And then Luo Ji finally figures out how to win.

In extremis communication is the only thing that can work

He presents an image of a person in despair, throwing himself into a fantasy. The probe has prevented using the sun as an antenna for interstellar communication and nine more are coming to crush humanity. Luo Ji digs into work creating dust clouds throughout the solar system to locate the probes, an early warning system.

He uses the dead-man switch designs of another dead wallfacer and carefully positions the clouds so that when they’re deployed they will, through the flickering of the sun they cause, communicate a simple message: here we are.

The Trisolarians can’t return home, but if Luo Ji dies the solar system will fall just as quickly as the star he previously cursed. He demands to speak to them, finally turning the ever-present sophons to human advantage (it only took two whole books for someone to think of that) and he forces a complete capitulation from the Trisolarians. The invasion is averted, the sophon block on technology lifted. The Trisolarians share their technologies with the humans and redirect their ships so that they will need human help to reach the solar system and some hope of survival.

All through talking.

Without a shot fired.

The war is won.

Humanity and Trisolaris are both aware that they are children in the Dark Forest of the solar system. Luo Ji, like his predecessor who was stoned to death, held the survival of both species in his hand, and said, if one dies, so do we all. He stripped away the barriers of deception that surrounded the Wallfacer project, and revealed in a single moment his only sincere wish: survival for all.

And so he overcomes the Trisolarians.

Of course, there are some loose ends.

The Trisolarian fleet passed through several dust clouds travelling between Alpha Centauri and Sol. Their passage may have been remarked. The sun was used as an antenna to transmit into the galaxy not once but twice. Somebody else may be paying attention for signs of another hunter stalking the bushes.

And of course, though the humans and the Trisolarians are now locked together in bonds of mutually assured destruction stronger than the chains of suspicion that govern cosmic sociology, there’s no guarantee that this will be a stable alliance. In fact, previous exeperience (previous volumes in the series) predict it cannot be.

The Dark Forest is not a perfect book. It suffers from a lack of women. It suffers from a lack of a compelling villain, since the main conflict in this is simply between protagonists and their ability to meaningfully communicate. It struggles with a good translator who remains just not quite as good as the one who came before him.

But it is a very good book. It takes the question: can trust exist without communication, and picks it apart, examines it from a dozen angles and answers, ultimately, no.

Then it says, and here’s all kinds of reasons we fail to communicate. And this makes the universe a terrifying place where we are vulnerable children.

And it works.

Ken Liu returns to translate Death’s End, which comes out in January 2016. I’m excited to see how this whole thing comes to a close and I’m curious to see what Liu Cixin’s ultimate thesis will be. I wonder if he’ll combine the proposals of the first two into a synthesis or whether the third book will be some other grand pronouncement.

Recommendation: Read this book if you like:

  • Political SF
  • Chinese modernist fiction
  • Books that will try to blow your mind
  • Cosmic horror

Diversity Panels I’d Like To See

Cool suggestions for alternatives to generic diversity panels from Annalee Flower Horne. There’s some REALLY good ideas here (basically all of them).

The Bias

Generic “diversity panels” are boring.

I get it: you schedule “Women in Gaming” and “Disability in Genre Fiction” with the best of intentions. You know these are hot topics of discussion in the fandom community right now, and you want your con to add to the conversation.

But these generic panels don’t so much add to the conversation as recap it. It’s impossible to go into a subject as broad as “Race In Science Fiction” in any depth in a one-hour slot, and without knowing how well the audience has educated themselves on the topic, the panelists generally just end up summarizing the background reading.

What makes this worse for panelists is that, as members of underrepresented groups, we’re in high demand for this kind of “diversity homework.” We get scheduled for these panels instead of panels on subjects related to our actual expertise or current projects. While folks with…

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No, actually I just really liked that book.

There’s a situation unfolding right now that has me pretty steamed. But I’m not convinced that I can really add much to the conversation that hasn’t already been said by people who are both more affected and more involved.

In light of that a quick suggested reading list:

A storify to bring you up to speed on the key argument

A link to the comments which precipitated the situation

An extract on File 770 quoting the comment

Alyssa Wong’s blog (she hasn’t written about this situation there as of posting, but it’s still worth adding to your reading list).

A backgrounder on fail_fandmanon

I’m happy to add to this list if anybody knows of other places its being discussed. Priority will be given to Chinese voices.

Again, I’m pretty outraged about the comments, but the worst of them (certainly the actually slurry part) were pointed firmly at Chinese people, so for the most part I’d rather just shut up and let the affected people speak for themselves.

There is one thing I do want to mention: I voted for the Three Body Problem. I’ve publicly said that it not only deserved the Hugo but also deserves some serious consideration in the big literary fiction prizes. And I don’t say this hyperbolically. When I reviewed the book long before it was on the Hugo ballot, I mentioned how it incorporated themes regarding chaos and stability in multiple levels and ways, creating a wonderful thesis about the shape of history with a deft touch that belied a depth of introspection and of reading.

I’m jumping the gun a bit since I haven’t finished, but I see similar signs in The Dark Forest despite this book having a rather different central thesis. What’s more, one of the first parallels that stood out to me is with Gao Xingjian’s Soul Mountain, which won the Nobel Prize. Gao’s assessment of how we construct ideas of the identities of the people in our lives is a brilliant part of what makes that book special, and the same key questions are explored with Liu’s book as part of a multi-leveled question regarding the boundaries of communication.

When you combine Liu’s deftness with thesis construction and exploration with the evident depth of his reading you already have something worthy of serious academic recognition. Adding in the exceptional translation artistry of Ken Liu in the first volume just is icing on the cake.

So, no, I didn’t vote for the Three Body Problem to support communism. And anyone who would default to that suggestion is an asshole. That being said, the suggestion that one must either A) repudiate all communism or B) love the cultural revolution, is such an obvious example of both Black or White fallacies and Loaded Question fallacies that this construction alone is kind of insulting.

I am an anarcho-communist. Being communist is a big part of that. So is a large anarchist streak. This is an admittedly utopian view, which is why I generally default to positions not THAT far off of social democracy for practical discussion, BUT, it is one that is antithetical to the authoritarian excesses of the stalinist and maoist states.

Look at it this way: if I said you must either repudiate Capitalism entirely or love Augusto Pinochet, you’d say I wasn’t being fair. But that’s what this construction is proposing!

Furthermore there’s a lot of arrogance in the assumption somebody knows what Liu’s thoughts are about the Chinese state entirely from his writing on the Cultural Revolution in one book. Spoiler alert: plenty of people in China are both patriotic and think that MUCH of what happened between the ’50s and the ’70s was wrong. And some don’t. And others aren’t patriotic. Because China is a huge, massively diverse place. And for the most part people are able to form opinions about stuff there subject to no more propagandist control than the average American. And history is inherently complex, which lends nuanced and complex perspectives on nationhood strength, not just in China but pretty much anywhere people actually spend the time and effort to think about the question in more complex terms than, “how many tea bags can I staple to a tri-corn hat?”

Ok, so that went on longer than I intended. Basically, short form: if somebody says, “that’s a slur, don’t call my people that,” then apologize and find different ways of describing those people in the future. It’s a fucking slur. And if you’re only doing this to try to score a weak rhetorical point by proposing that readers of an exceptional novel that is very worthy of awards on literary merit alone, notwithstanding politics, only awarded the book because of what you view as their misreading of that book’s author’s politics, perhaps you should get your head out of your own ass.

Fandom is not a family

happy-family-1316701-639x797Ok, I know this one will probably get me some flack but it needs saying, because it’s an idea which has impacted the frames of reference for our current conversations: Famdom is not a family. What this means is that it’s a cop-out to say, “I put up with homophobe uncle John and besides he doesn’t know any better,” as a justification for why we should just accept that our sub-culture will always include bigots.

But what is Fandom if not a family?

Fandom is a loose-knit collection of communities

Seriously, even calling Fandom one community, let alone one family, is a misnomer. There is a professional organization called SFWA, another called the HWA, there are various convention boards and membership lists, and each of these things could be called a community. And some people cross between these groups, some people might be in dozens of these groups, but that doesn’t mean the groups are all one polyglot community.

And this is important, because people can choose who they want in their communities. Part of the core of all this year’s kerfuffle was when, a while back, a certain individual was invited to leave one community (SFWA) after a public meltdown.

Fandom is a sub-culture

With specialized language (mention a SMOF to one of your non-fannish colleagues and see the look of complete unrecognition), dress (not just cosplay either, the ribbons, the pins, they’re dress markers), and interests (obviously) fandom is almost the textbook definition of a sub-culture. And, looked at in this sense we don’t have much choice about who adopts those cultural markers. Anybody can like genre fiction if they want. Anybody can learn the Turkey City Lexicon and the acronyms that get tossed around at cons. Anybody can learn what the in-jokes are and what those damn ribbons mean.

But here’s another example of a sub-culture: punk rock. Now both Jello Biafra and Michale Graves are very much part of the punk rock sub-culture but they probably have almost entirely different takes on politics, philosophy and well… everything. There’s probably nobody who would suggest that the former lead singers of the Dead Kennedys and the Misfits are not real punks; and yet Biafra is a left-anarchist, while Graves is a staunch conservative.

And yet, I doubt anybody would try to talk those two into touring together either.

Fandom is a workplace

Not for everybody, but for lots of people: writers and actors, makers and booksellers. For these people Fandom is where they work. It’s simultaneously built of their suppliers, colleagues and customers, sometimes all in one body.

Now here’s where we can make some progress between the wide-open, anybody can sign on nature of a sub-culture and the much more exclusive nature of specific communities. Because we have a pretty strong understanding of what is acceptable and not acceptable reasons to invite somebody to leave a workplace. And it’s not because you don’t like their politics. But when it crosses a line from, “I disagree with this person,” to, “this person is harassing their co-workers,” then we’ve got a pretty good reason to exclude them.

And this is a pretty good litmus for how to decide what people we want in the Fandom tent. We want the people who don’t:

  • Touch inappropriately, stalk and sexually harass people
  • Threaten people with violence or incite other people to violence
  • Advocating for the extermination of a sub-set of people or for discrimination against people on the basis of inherent traits
  • etc.

And I’m going to say right now that there’s plenty of conservatives who don’t do any of these things. And there are leftists and centerists who do some or all of these things. And how we treat them should not be dependent on their position on a political spectrum but on their actions.

And besides, why do you tolerate bigotry from your relatives?

My relatives are pretty cool so I don’t have much experience with this, though I have to remind certain relatives on occasion that Conservative does not equal stupid or evil; and the thing is I do that even though I disagree entirely with everything Conservativism stands for, because I understand that it’s possible for decent people to disagree wildly.

But if a relative told a racist joke at Thanksgiving dinner, I’d say, “that’s racist. Why would you say that?” Progress depends on us, personally, having the courage of conviction to confront outmoded and harmful discourse.

If you say, “Oh, that’s just Aunt Jane, she’s from another time / some specific place / this or that faith; she doesn’t know any better, bless her heart,” you’re letting that particular thread continue unchallenged. And bigotry should be confronted by all decent people wherever it’s found.

Fandom is my workplace. I come there to network, to sell and to buy. I come there to learn and to teach. Many of my friends are members of the communities that compose fandom, and I’m happy to use the elements of material culture that signify membership in the sub-culture. But it’s not my family. So while I’m happy for the big tent to include communists, anarchists, socialists, liberals, centerists, conservatives and libertarians, I won’t tolerate harassers and unrepentant bigots. A big tent is great, but we can choose what is acceptable behaviour in our group. And if somebody violates that behaviour we can invite them to leave.