Science fiction

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This year’s Hugo Award for best novel will soon be announced, so I thought I’d summarise my thoughts about the nominated novels. In case you’re not familiar with the Hugo Award, it’s one of two major science fiction and fantasy awards, awarded by the World Science Fiction Society (by popular vote at various conventions). You can read more about it here.

Below, I have written something about each of the five nominees and ordered them in the order I think they deserve to win, with the best novel first. We’ll know which novel actually won on August 20th, but if they deviate from my own opinion, they are of course wrong.

Update after the winner was revealed: I’m happy that N.K. Jemisin won the award. It was the only really good book on the list. Neal Stephenson’s would have been a contender if the last part had been transformed into a short epilogue, but the others don’t come close. The right book won!

N.K. Jemisin – The Fifth Season

N.K. Jemisin’s novel The Fight Season is nominated for a Hugo Award this year. I normally don’t read fantasy, but I thought this looked interesting and decided to have a go. Overall, I was pleasantly surprised and I found this book rather interesting.

The setting is a geologically very active super continent that undergoes cyclic cataclysms where life is about preparing for the next catastrophe. There is a mix of advanced technology from earlier, fallen civilisations and magic related to geological activity and heat.

The story is composed of three threads; three women experiencing a different part of the setting and a different stage of the approaching catastrophe. The narrative is well written, the characters believable and also quite interesting. The story itself is rather bleak and there’s plenty of oppression and tragedy involved, but not to excess.

I like a couple of things with this book. First, I like the concept of cyclical catastrophes that influences everything in the setting. Second, the story is well written using a device I have actually considered using myself at one point (spoiler: the three women are actually the same person at different times).

Do I think the book should win this year’s Hugo? I don’t know, yet, but it beats the only other nomination I’ve read so far, which is Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie. Also worth noting is that three of the five nominees this year are women.

Neal Stephenson – Seveneves

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson explores a scenario I’ve been interested in for a long time. The basic idea is that the entire surface of the Earth will turn into an inferno for several thousand years, wiping out all life. Humanity gets about two years to prepare for survival in orbit.

The first part of the book focuses on humanity’s collective attempt to launch as many people and as much resources as possible into orbit, turning the ISS into the centre of a “cloud ark” meant to be self-sustaining and able to survive without any support from Earth. This is of course problematic, not only from an engineering perspective, but also from a political and social one. This part is great! The second part covers the time after the catastrophe and is good too.

The third part of the book takes place thousands of years later and is really bad; I seriously wish I had stopped after the second part. It feels pretty much like taking a good hard science-fiction novel (the first part) and sticking a mediocre far-future soft science-fiction novel to the end. It doesn’t work at all. I care neither for the characters nor the story. The third part should have been an epilogue, which would have chopped a few hundred pages off the book. That would have been no bad thing considering that the book is 880 pages long.

My suggestion: Read the first two parts. Then, regardless if you liked it or not, do not read the third part. Here’s what happens (spoiler): They find out that there were other projects apart from the cloud ark, including one to burrow deep into the mountains and one to survive deep in the oceans. All three succeeded and the third part is an extremely roundabout and boring way of saying that.

Ann Leckie – Ancillary Mercy

I have now finished Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie. Overall, the books are competently written and worthwhile to read. The first book is significantly better than the following two, but far from awesome. To be honest, this feels much like Lois McMaster Bujold, just slightly worse and not as funny (there are some good parts though; I loved the translators). They might be fairly bad for non-initiated readers, so I only recommend the first book to people who already like reading space opera. For the rest of you, there are better books in this genre.

Jim Butcher – The Aeronaut’s Windlass

I’ve now finished The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher, which means that I have read all the nominees for this year’s Hugo Award for best novel. I’ll write something about my thoughts in general later; I’ll stick with this novel for now.

The Aeronaut’s Windlass is a strange hybrid of fantasy, steam punk and intelligent cats. While the world is not described in detail, it’s clear that the surface of the planet has been abandoned and that most people live in very tall towers, or spires, that were left behind by an earlier civilisation. As the title implies, airships of various kinds are central to both the plot and the setting.

It sort of works, but let’s start with the good things. The characters are interesting and mostly well-written. They are also varied and are reasonably well-connected to the story. I also like airships in general, although I like the magic aspect much less, especially on the personal level (they have gauntlets of some kind that can channel ethereal energy). The setting with an abandoned surface is also cool.

What doesn’t work is the narration. The entire book feels too much like an action TV-series with almost no time to breathe or build characters or setting. One climax has barely passed before the story rushes on to the next. Most chapters finish with cliffhangers that would have been more suitable in a periodical of some kind, but make for a very tiring experience in the long run. To put it bluntly, the pacing in this novel is awful. Furthermore, there’s nothing really ingenious or imaginative about the plot, and the novel probably fits into the category of things I could have written myself given enough time.

So, while I like steam punk, the setting and the characters, this is not a good novel. It would be great as a setting for table-top role-playing or similar though. I haven’t fully decided which book I think deserves this year’s Hugo, but I’m quite sure it’s not Jim Butecher’s The Aeronaut’s Windlass.

Uprooted – Naomi Novik

I usually don’t read much fantasy, but this year I have decided to read all the nominations for the Hugo award for best novel, which includes both science fiction and fantasy. Uprooted by Naomi Novik definitely belongs to the second category.

The setting is small-scale fantasy heavily influenced by Slavic fairy tales. The main character grows up in a small valley where one girl every ten years is picked by the mysterious wizard living in an isolated nearby tower. She is picked because of her latent magical powers, and the rest of the story is about her finding out about these powers, the wizard, his tower and how they fight the dark forest threatening the country.

The book is interesting because of the somewhat unusual influences from Slavic fairy tales mentioned above, plus the setting itself. However, it’s also an example of why I don’t really like reading certain kinds of fantasy. Way too many pages are spent on describing magical battles or adventures that would work well in a film (which I think is planned), but don’t add much to a book. The book is fairly long, but the story would be very easy to summarise because so much time is spent on just describing what happens.

While I think the book was worthwhile, it’s far from the best of the nominees I’ve read so far. I only have one left now, which is The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher. I’ll try to summarise all the nominees once I have read the last one!

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I haven’t updated this site in a while, which is a pity, especially since I actually write things I could post here. To remedy this problem, here’s a round-up of all the novels I read up to this summer, excluding any novels that were nominated for the Hugo award since I’m going to write a separate post about that shortly. Without further ado, here’s what I’ve read recently (in chronological order):

Ann Leckie – Ancillary Sword
Ann Leckie – Ancillary Justice
Ann Leckie – Ancillary Mercy

I have now finished Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie. Overall, the books are competently written and worthwhile to read. The first book is significantly better than the following two, but far from awesome. To be honest, this feels much like Lois McMaster Bujold, just slightly worse and not as funny (there are some good parts though; I loved the translators). They might be fairly bad for non-initiated readers, so I only recommend the first book to people who already like reading space opera. For the rest of you, there are better books in this genre.

Mira Grant – Feed

I’ve now finished Feed by Mira Grant. It’s a well-written and fast-paced book about political intriguing in a zombie-ridden future version of the US, as observed by a team of bloggers covering the presidential race. I don’t really like zombies and I could get better intrigues elsewhere, so this isn’t my cup of tea, but if you do like zombies, this might be a good read. All three books in this series were nominated for Hugo awards, but none (rightfully in my opinion) won. I Am Legend remains the only zombie book I really like (or vampire book, or whatever).

Katherine Addison – The Goblin Emperor

I have now finished The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison. It was a long time a go I read a “normal” fantasy novel (China Miéville doesn’t count as normal) and I sort of know why. Even though the book is fairly well written and carefully thought out, it simply didn’t appeal to me all that much. I do appreciate the fact that this is one novel, though, not a series, which is, sadly, rare nowadays.

The setting was well-depicted but not terribly interesting. The only thing that made the novel worthwhile was the fact that it was well executed. The characters were also rather good (as in realistic and interesting), except for the main character which was a little bit too good (as in not evil). I found the names almost impossible to keep up with, though, and the book just has too much made up language (including formality levels which don’t exist in English, but that were sort of covered by using old English pronouns).

So, overall, well-written, but not my cup of tea.

Kim Stanley Robinson – 2312

Some thoughts after reading 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson:

In general, I admire the author’s ability to mix science and fiction into novels that are surprisingly interesting to read. The Mars trilogy is a good example of this. I also think he’s pretty good at creating interesting characters and stories about them, as for example in The Years of Rice and Salt.

Therefore, I’m a bit disappointed with 2312. It contains a lot of science and a lot of fiction, but they feel disconnected. While interesting on their own, this feels more like a half-hearted novel interspersed with small speculative science essays. Even though the book is almost 600 pages long, it still feels like I didn’t get to know either the characters or the setting. The story feels much like an excuse to introduce the setting and is in itself rather boring.

I should perhaps say a few words about the book. The story takes place in 2312 as the title suggests, in a world where most of our solar system has terraformed or is in the process of being so. The plot focuses on a conspiracy that threatens mankind’s fragile existence outside Earth, and the efforts to reveal and thwart the conspirators. This sounds reasonably interesting, but the novel feels disconnected and therefore not very interesting.

Ian McDonald – River of Gods

I have now finished River of Gods by Ian McDonald. In short, it’s a science-fiction novel set in India one century after its independence from Great Britain. The story combines elements of a futuristic society (AI, nano technology, genetic engineering) with traditional Indian themes. The character gallery is diverse and interesting. The story appears fragmentary at first, but is tied together rather neatly. I liked this book a lot and I’m definitely going to read more by Ian McDonald. He’s very good at both describing society and the people living in it, not seldom making it both fun and interesting. If I were to liken him to other authors, I would choose William Gibson, Neal Stephenson and John Brunner.

Ian McDonald – Desolation Road

I decided to start reading Ian McDonald’s novels from the beginning, which means Desolation Road (1989). This is after being rather impressed by both River of Gods and Luna: New Moon (scroll down for my earlier ramblings). The novel starts with a certain Dr. Alimantando, student of the intricacies of time and space, who gets lost in the red deserts of terraformed Mars and founds a new settlement: Desolation Road.

Strange people get drawn to, arrive in or escape to or otherwise arrive in the settlement. The narrative quickly spirals out of control, including side stories about the world’s best snooker player, a guitarist capable of channelling demonic forces through his electric guitar, a corporate worker slowly advancing through the ranks of his company by replacing everyone under him with robots, a little green man who may or may not be real, and, for some reason, Glenn Miller. It all tied together in the end, somehow, so it’s not really a short story collection, but could have been.

This is magic realism on Mars, probably with a seasoning of some hallucinogenic drug. On the whole, it’s very entertaining, quite chaotic and a bit too long. Desolation Road didn’t feel similar to either River of Gods or Luna: New Moon. It’s not the best book I’ve read, but it was entertaining throughout. Next on the list: Out on Blue Six.

Ian McDonald – Out on Blue Six

More Ian McDonald! Out on Blue Six is the weirdest book I’ve read in a while and reading it felt a little bit like reading Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. It has the same I-have-no-idea-what-the-hell-is-going-on-but-I-sort-of-like-it feeling.

The story is set in a distant future in the Compassionate Society, where computers force everybody to be happy by pairing them up with the right partner, shepherding them into the right career (one that makes you happy, that is) and so on. It’s just that not everybody is happy. Some people want a little bit of anarchy, some people want to break the rules. This is what the story is about, or at least where it starts. Then down the rabbit hole it goes and it’s extremely hard to summarise what happens next, but it contains the King of Nebraska, angels, a teleporting woman with a cybernetic cat, judgement day (literally) and lots of raccoons.

Unfortunately, the book suffers from the same problem as Gravity’s Rainbow does: I don’t really care about what happens, neither with the main characters nor with the plot. Since Pynchon’s language is extremely entertaining to read, I still liked Gravity’s Rainbow, but while this book is entertaining, it fails to be anything more than that. I have a feeling that I won’t remember anything about this book five years from now, whereas many parts of Gravity’s Rainbow are still with me, even though it was seven years ago I read it.

Ian McDonald – Chaga

I’ve now finished Chaga by Ian McDonald (Evolution’s Shore in the US). After having read a couple of his earlier, rather bizarre novels, this one is much more serious and feels comparable to the later novels that I liked a lot.

This novel is the first in a trilogy focusing on Kenya and the impact on the country and its people when alien life starts spreading from a crash site on Kilimanjaro.

In short, the novel is fairly interesting and rather brutal, but not as sophisticated as his later novels. One thing I didn’t like in particular was that the book almost felt like it could have ended after about two thirds, and the remaining third didn’t feel interesting enough.

While I don’t regret that I read the novel, it’s still not as good as either the later novels written in a similar style, also about emerging economies (India, Brazil, the Moon) or the earlier, more freaked out ones. I will probably not read the remaining two books in the trilogy. I am, however, looking forward to the sequel of Luna: New Moon, which is projected for a release later this year.

Charles Stross – Neptune’s Brood

I’m done with Neptune’s Brood by Charles Stross, having previously read Saturn’s Children (which is completely unrelated story-wise, but takes place in the same universe). Neptune’s Brood is actually far better than the previous one, so I recommend anyone interested in Charles Stross to read this one instead.

The story is complex and revolves around an interstellar banking fraud of epic proportions. The main character is drawn into the intrigue, first mostly as a scholar of interstellar banking frauds, but as the plot thickens, she turns out to have a much more involved role than that of a random bystander. The novel contains a few really entertaining characters, is generally well-written and overall a better story than Saturn’s Children.

The setting is post-human space where androids and other life-forms have supplanted mankind, but where things still work much the way they would if humans were still around, except on a bigger scale. While interesting, the setting is not the main attraction here, the characters, the storytelling and the plot are. The novel was shortlisted for the Hugo Award in 2014.

James S.A. Corey – Leviathan’s Wake

I just finished James S.A. Corey’s book Leviathan Wakes, a novel that felt very interesting while immersed in it, but which does appear a bit bleak in retrospect. I think this might be at least partly because the book has some appealing points, such as great characters and dialogue, but lack something that makes it interesting in the long-term.

I don’t feel like summarizing the plot, but we’re talking about fairly realistic and sometimes brutal interplanetary science fiction with lots of space ships and stations. The book is character-focused and with interesting characters in general, this makes it a good read. However, I don’t feel it’s good enough to continue reading the series (this is the first book in a series called The Expanse).

James S.A. Corey – Abaddon’s Gate
James S.A. Corey – Caliban’s War

Against better judgement (see my previous review), I have now read two more books in The Expanse series, which brings me to a total of three. I decided to keep reading after I watched the TV series, which was better than expected.

However, I must say my initial judgement was accurate. While there are entertaining characters and sometimes interesting plot elements and a well-written setting, the overall story lacks something. I’m still not sure what it is, but the overall story just feels unsatisfactory to me. I probably need to think about this, but it seems the plot is too superficial and works mostly like an action movie.

I would give the latter two books perhaps 3/5, so they might still be worth reading if you really liked the first book. If you found the first book fairly good but not excellent, then that’s probably enough. Do watch the TV series though! Looking forward to season two. But I’ve read enough in this series. Any suggestions for what to read next? More Charles Stross is high on my list.

Charles Stross – The Family Trade

After having read two books by Charles Stross (Saturn’s Children and Neptune’s Brood; I highly recommend the latter), he has established himself as a very intelligent author capable of writing intriguing stories populated by interesting characters. I selected The Family Trade as my third book more or less randomly, which might have been a mistake.

The book is parallel-worlds fantasy (modern US with some kind of medieval alternate history were the Vikings has colonised America). While he does some interesting things with the “world walking” itself, as well as some interesting things with the settings, I’m not impressed at all. As is the case in Neptune’s Brood, economics plays a certain role, but ignoring that and some of the violence, this novel feels like something Stross would have written when he was 20 (he was 40 when the book was published). It’s also the first book in a long series and there’s very little chance I will continue with it. Definitely not my cup of tea!

Charles Stross – Accelerando

Accelerando by Charles Stross is one of those books that it’s really hard to wrap your head around to write a review. It’s a chaotic collection of short stories that are sometimes hard to follow but great at least some of the time. They describe the transition from a modern society (or a parallel version of it at least) to a post-human technological singularity through the eyes of three generations (before, during and after the singularity).

After the first few pages, my expectations for the rest of the book sky-rocketed, but I must say that the rest didn’t really impress as much. While some concepts and the language never become boring, the book simply isn’t coherent enough to work well as a whole.

One criteria I think is interesting to evaluate when reviewing books is if, in theory, I could have written the book myself. Accelerando places itself very firmly in the “no way what so ever” category, much more so that most other science fiction I read. It’s not only the way Stross writes (which is probably the main reason for reading the book), but the audacity and scope of the imagination on display here.

If you’ve read this far and think this sounds cool, you should give this book a try. I expect people who won’t like the book stopped reading after the first paragraph, so no reason to tell them to avoid it.

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I have come a very long way since I started learning Chinese little more than five years ago. I can read novels, academic papers, textbooks, newspapers and most other types of writing I come across, without using a dictionary. I can even do so without thinking that language is a major problem. Of course, I don’t read terribly fast (about 200 characters per minute for easier newspaper articles; much slower for heavy academic reading), but I would say that I’m literate in Chinese.

The relationship between input and output when learning languages isn’t obvious, but the theory I tend to adhere to the most is that massive amounts of input gives a solid foundation on which a near-native output ability can be built. This is true for both listening/speaking and reading/writing, but in this article I will only talk about the latter. In other words, reading huge amounts of Chinese will hopefully give me the potential to acquire a near-native level of writing in Chinese.

Looking back at how I learnt English

Back ground: I have spent a total of three weeks in English-speaking countries and have learnt most of what I know in normal compulsory education plus a lot of reading/listening on my own. How did I achieve my current English level?

After having learnt how to communicate most things I wanted to say/write in English (which probably happened in high school), I spent an awful amount of time reading in English. I also listened to loads of audio books. I estimate that I have read or listened to about five hundred books in English. That’s a lot, even compared with educated native speakers. This gave me a very solid passive knowledge of English. but it didn’t make me good at speaking and writing, at least not directly.

Turning this passive knowledge into increased writing ability came only in 2006 when I started studying English at university. I found that I was usually able to intuitively tell whether a sentence was grammatically correct or not; sometimes words I couldn’t even tell what they meant popped up in my mind, seemingly from nowhere, and when I looked them up, they actually turned out to fit into the sentence I was writing.

However, reading isn’t enough to become good at writing. I don’t mean to say that I’m a brilliant writer in English (or any other language), but I do think I have mastered the basics and that I’m slowly inching my way towards actually being able to write well. This is mostly because of the fact that I’ve written at least a thousand pages of text in English during the last five years. When I say a thousand pages, we’re talking about composition, so chatting or any other kind of sporadic typing obviously doesn’t count.

I think that the best way to reach a native writing ability is to read an awful lot and spend a thousand hours or so of deliberate practice converting that passive knowledge into active writing ability. Naturally, these aren’t serial processes; it’s perfectly possible (and advisable) to both at once. However, I do believe input is where most students fail.

Taking my Chinese to the next level

Even though I can express myself fluently and with reasonably accuracy both in speaking and writing, my Chinese is still very limited compared to my English or Swedish. Sometimes, that leaves me very frustrated, but then I think of the amount of time invested in the other two languages and find that the comparison isn’t fair. Swedish is my native language, so I didn’t have much choice that to study it for thousands and thousands of hours before English and French appeared in school. Regarding English, I’m not a native speaker, but as I’ve already explained, I have spent some serious time studying English.

I have probably spent more than ten thousand hours learning Chinese so far, but that’s just a small fraction of the time I’ve spent on the other two languages. With that in mind, who am I to say that Chinese feels impossible to learn at times? Shouldn’t I at least spend as much time learning Chinese as I’ve spent learning English before I say it’s hard? I think I should. Chinese is obviously harder than English to learn for native speakers of Swedish, but that doesn’t mean that the method I used to learn English won’t work for Chinese. Sure, it might not take me to the same proficiency level, but I will definitely close the gap.

Thus, I intend to read a lot. My general plan is to try to reach a hundred books as quickly as possible (novels, textbooks, prose). In this article, I will outline a plan. After that, I will publish a list of what I’ve read so far and then keep that list updated.

A reading plan for 2013

My goal is to read at least 25 books in 2013. It doesn’t really matter what books I read as long as they meet certain criteria (for adults, for native speakers, read from cover to cover). In order to make sure that I have a strong enough motivation, my plan is to mix books I really want to read with books that I feel that I ought to read but might not enjoy that much.

For instance, I just finished reading the first part of 三體, but instead of starting on the second part immediately, I will add something dryer in between and continue with 三體 as a kind of reward once I’m done with the next book. In general, the plan looks as follows:

  1. Read lightweight books (novels) if I’m behind schedule
  2. Read heavier books (textbooks) if I’m ahead of schedule

As I just did with 倪匡, I will review and write about my quest to find good science fiction in Chinese. Next on the review list is 三體, but I’ll most likely wait with reviewing that until I’ve read the two sequels. As for the rest of the books I plan to read, I will write about them only if I feel like it, so don’t expect too much.

Looking back at the road behind me, I know that I’ve come far. Looking at the road that stretches out in front of me, I realise that most of the journey is still ahead. Reading a hundred books in Chinese won’t be enough to reach an educated native level, but it will propel me in the right direction. Hopefully, I will also enjoy the scenery as I walk.

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One of the major problems facing me when learning Chinese is finding truly interesting books to read. Sure, I can find books I enjoy, but I have yet to find a book that I really can’t stop reading. Those that I have found so far have been translations from other languages into Chinese. I don’t say it’s bad to read translations, I’m just saying it would be better to find brilliant books originally written in Chinese.

The reason I haven’t found any brilliant books so far is partly because I’m not at a level where I can appreciate books just because of the language use, but it’s also because the kind of fiction I like is very scarce in Chinese. I like literature with cool, interesting or thought-provoking ideas. I don’t like historical novels or novels that are merely after describing historical or personal events. Thus, science fiction is one of my favourite genres.

A quest to find good Chinese science fiction

It seems to me that the Chinese are mostly looking backwards to history when looking for greatness. This is cool if you like Chinese history or historical settings, but not so cool if you don’t. This is just a theory, but I think it might explain why science fiction is much less popular in China than it is in the West. Still, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t any Chinese science fiction, it just means that it’s less popular and less developed.

This is the first post of many where I will discuss books I read on my journey towards finding good science fiction in Chinese. It will probably take me many years, but I do hope that I will be able to gradually build up a comprehensive overview that might provide help to other learners of Chinese or to people who are simply interested in Chinese science fiction.

Reading 倪匡 (Ni Kuang)

Having looked online and talked with numerous native speakers about this, one name kept popping up all the time: 倪匡 (Ni Kuang). After having found a number of his books in a used bookshop, I started reading. After having read two novels and as well as having read and heard more about the author and his works, I feel that I’m in a position where I can say something about him in general.

First, here are the two books I read: 犀照 and 茫點:

nk-xnnk-md

This isn’t science fiction

As you can see, it says 科幻小說 (science fiction novel) on both covers. I’ve heard that this isn’t the author’s own idea, but a label that the publisher puts on his books (he prefers 幻想, which means fantasy or illusion and is much more appropriate). In any case, it’s misleading, because neither of these novels (and I suppose most of his other works) is science fiction at all according to most definitions of the genre.

Instead, I would call his books mystery novels with supernatural elements. Sure, these elements are sometimes related to technology, but Harry Potter wouldn’t turn into science fiction just because someone said that his wand was created by an ancient race of star-faring aliens. The point is that it isn’t science fiction and if you start reading these books with the hope of finding good science fiction, you will be disappointed.

That in itself isn’t a problem, though, I like many kinds of novels and I’m not very narrow-minded when it comes to literature (just check my earlier book reviews). The fact that the novels themselves are pretty bad, even when read as mystery novels, is a much bigger problem. Now, you might think that’s because my Chinese isn’t good enough to appreciate the story or the language, but my complaints are of a more basic nature.

Plot summary of 犀照 (spoiler warning)

I don’t want to dwell too much on the actual books, but in case anyone is curious, I will include a brief summary of each book. Note that both summaries include spoilers, so skip this part if you ignore my recommendation and plan to read these books anyway.

In 犀照, the protagonist is contacted by an old friend who is well-known explorer of the South Pole. He has found something astonishing beneath the ice. He has sent blocks of ice for inspection and cautions that they might contain something very dangerous. However, the ice is perfectly clear and seems to contain nothing. Nothing but increasing confusion, gradual insanity and general psychological breakdown, that is.

The actual truth is much less interesting than the above description suggests. Trapped in the ice are microscopic organisms who are so small that they can move in solid ice and float around in the air. The madness comes from not knowing whether or not these organisms have the power to infest human minds.

It turns out that what the explorer has found in the south pole is a very unlikely collection of ancient creatures who inhabited earth long ago. How they were fixed into crystal clear ice in an exhibition-like fashion is not apparent and neither is how this is relevant for anything else.

Plot summary of 茫點 (spoiler warning)

In this story, the (same) protagonist is contacted by the brother of the Antarctic explorer in the above story (although the books were actually published in the reverse order). Since the protagonist is in a bad mood, he doesn’t hear him out, but instead leaves his wife to figure out what’s going on. It takes at least half the book before we learn anything significant other than that it’s related to mirrors and telepathy in some way.

It turns out that a new technology has been developed with which minds can be read, based on the telepathic communication between moths (yes, moths). Similar signals can be used both to receive thoughts (brain waves) and project thoughts (mind control of some kind).

This technology is then used by a go (the game) grandmaster to cheat in high-level go games, but he goes crazy when he (mistakenly) thinks that he’s been found out. Many other people are pulled in and declared insane because of things they see (because of the brain waves) but actually aren’t there. I’ve seldom read about so many people being declared insane and locked up in mental wards so quickly.

The ending doesn’t provide any real explanations, doesn’t leave any interesting questions and is just unsatisfactory in general.

Five common problems

I think these two novels have five problems in common, roughly sorted according to how serious I think they are:

  • Predictability – The plots of both these novels have been very easy to predict. This makes reading them boring, because it all feels like waiting for the main character to figure out what I figured out long before. There are two versions of this problem. The first is major plot elements that have predictable outcomes, the second is scenes that are predictable. The first kind is sort of okay because it can be argued that the way to that conclusion is the point rather than the conclusion itself, but when this happens for most of the scenes in the book it becomes seriously annoying.
  • Surprise inflation – Considering the fact that Ni Kuang uses the same main character in most books, it’s hard to understand why that character feels surprised whenever something slightly out of the ordinary happens. He feels surprised, stunned and dazed quite a lot (呆 and 愣 are very common characters in these books). You would think he’d grown used to encountering weird things, but no. In any case, this is a bit tedious to read, especially in light of the above complaint about predictability. An author should rely on surprising the reader to convey this kind of feeling, not writing about how surprised the main character looks or feels, especially when what’s supposed to be surprising is actually obvious to the reader.
  • No food for thought – I like science fiction because it makes me think. It shows me new possibilities and it sheds light on modern society, human existence and other topics I find interesting. Ni Kuang doesn’t really do any of this. There are some interesting things going on, but they aren’t discussed more than at a superficial level (what actual characters are thinking about a particular situation). It should be mentioned, though, that he does bring up madness, reality and normality in both novels and does it reasonably well. However, since the related phenomena are always fantastic or completely unrealistic in nature, they don’t feel very relevant to me.
  • Lack of internal logic – One of the most important concepts when writing science fiction is internal logic. For instance, it’s fine to say that faster-than-light travel is possible (even if it isn’t according to modern physics), describe some principles for how it works and then write books about it. But if you do, you need to follow your own rules, you need to provide your story with internal logic that makes sense and you need to show your reader that even though there are some fictional elements, the rest of the setting/story is rule-bound in some way. Just because you can break some rules doesn’t mean you can break all of them at once. Science fiction isn’t about letting the imagination run amok, it’s about letting it roam freely within certain restraints. In these two novels, however, there is no internal logical structure. In short, it feels like anything can happen for any reason. In my opinion, this is what places these novels firmly outside the science fiction genre.
  • Forced thrill – The author often creates situations which are supposed to be exciting without anchoring them in the plot. For instance, in 茫點, much of the suspense in the first one hundred pages comes from lack of communication between the main character and his wife. She tries to convey something important to him in a limited time using only hand gestures, but he fails to understand. A painful amount of text is spent on him trying to figure out what she actually meant. There is a phrase in Chinese that catches this pretty well: 故弄玄虛, or deliberately making something very mystifying and/or confusing. Mystery novels obviously need mysteries, but they should be real mysteries and not minor inconveniences blown up out of proportion by the author.

The quest goes on

Before I end this article, I’d like to point out that Ni Kuang is an extremely prolific writer and that I might simply have picked the wrong books. However, based on what I’ve heard from other people and read online, I don’t think that’s the case. I probably won’t read any more books written by Ni Kuang. The two I have already read seem very similar and have the same kind of problems.

That said, I don’t regret reading these two books. They did contain some cool ideas and some interesting parts, but they failed to give me something more than a brief moment’s escapism. I want something more from literature. I’m still looking for good science fiction in Chinese. My next project will be 劉慈欣’s 三體, which I’m quite sure is actually science fiction. If it’s good or not remains to be seen.

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Title: Wake
Author: Robert J. Sawyer
Year: 2010

Being a young American girl just starting a new life in a Canadian city might be a complicated undertaking all in itself, but since Caitlin is blind, it becomes even more so. As we slowly get introduced to Caitlin’s life, which is full of interesting details about blindness that are obvious when mentioned but that sighted people seldom think of, two things start to happen. First, Caitlin is contacted by a scientist who claims he can wake Caitlin from her life-long blindness. Second, the reader becomes aware that there is another somewhere, which is also stirring in its sleep.

In my mind, Wake by Robert J. Sawyer (the second book I read by him, after Hominids)  is about three things: Caitlin, blindness and information/computer science. The first bit feels much like cover for the rest of the story and is little more than a framework, but as such, it works pretty well. Caitlin’s life is interesting, but only insofar as it carries the story forwards in other areas. Her blindness makes this very interesting, not least because being almost blind in one eye, I think I’ve thought about complete blindness more than most people.

The technology involved in giving her the sense of sight also have some interesting side effects. Since she needs the internet to download updates to her implant, lots of data is being shuffled around and she becomes aware that she can actually see the internet. Through a long process, aided by a Japanese scientist, the reader and Caitlin set out on a long voyage that covers areas such as cellular automata, artificial intelligence, information theory, linguistics, computational statistics and much more.

This journey is Sawyer’s forte. He is extremely good at describing these various topics and make them come together and form a meaningful plot. Even though I haven’t studied natural sciences since high school, I’m quite serious when I say that this book made me interested enough to spend hours reading articles on information theory and related topics. Having a smart but young main character is a good choice, because it allows the author to introduce these fairly complicated topics to a beginner without making the reader feel too stupid (although this is of course dependent on the education background of the reader).

In short, Wake combines a couple of really interesting themes. He weaves them together into what is the first part of a trilogy, and even though I truly hate series of books, it is likely I will read the remaining two books when they are published (the second is already out). However, I won’t go on reading because of the brilliant plot, because of Sawyer’s ability to make science come alive and become interesting. Just like this kind of science fiction is meant to do.

Why not read on for the plot, then? As I said, it works as a framework, but that’s really not enough for a really good novel. For instance, there is a complete lack of antagonists in the story, which means that apart form experiencing new things and talking about cool science, not much happens. There are various complications with Caitlin’s implant and some minor social events, but they all fade into the background, perhaps rightly so.

To sum things up, this book is partly science fiction at its best, but it also lacks vital parts to become a masterpiece. This book inspires and makes me want to know more, but rather about the topics rather than the story and the characters. Four snails seem to be a good compromise. Wake has been nominated to this year’s Hugo Award, so it remains to see what other people think about it even though my own mind is already settled.

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Title: A Fall of Moondust
Author: Arthur C. Clarke
Year: 1961

Even though this is only the fourth book I review by Arthur C. Clarke, I’ve read far more than that, so much that it feels weird that there are fairly famous books by him I still haven’t read. A Fall of Moondust is one of them. It turned out to be a solid and well-written book, but also with a dullness that sometimes is as much a characteristic of Clarke’s writing as is his keen eye for interesting details and wonderful concepts.

Now and then accidents befall mankind’s  various expeditions into difficult or hostile environments, and heroic rescue operations are launched. It might be a submarine on the bottom of a cold ocean or a collapsed mine with people trapped inside. Or it might be a ship that vanished without a trace on the Sea of Thirst, a dust-filled basin on the Moon looking very much like water, but far, far more dangerous. Cruising on the dust in the Sea of Thirst, Selene, the only ship of its kind, suddenly disappears without a trace.

A Fall of Moondust is a story about three things: the people on the vanished ship, the people who are supposed to find and resque them, and the search and rescue operation itself. Clarke’s execution of the first two parts is adequate, but doesn’t really add true value to the novel. It adds flavour, but not enough to hide the fact that this book is really about an extraordinary engineering feat thought-out and carried out on the moon. Clarke makes the hostile environment and chain of events feel more real than I think any other author could (although others, such as Kim Stanley Robinson and his Mars Trilogy come to mind).

Still, this is a novel focusing on a fairly technical subject, even though Clarke makes a valiant effort to soften it up with characters, social interaction and so on. If he were a mediocre author, this book would have been horribly boring. Fortunately, he is not and thus this book is worthwhile reading. I’m not prepared to give it more than three and a half snail, but I’m still impressed by how such a dry subject can be turned into such a neat little novel.

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Title: Earth Abides
Author: George R. Stewart
Year: 1949

I think that if I had read a summary of Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, I would probably never have got around to reading the actual book. In essence, it’s a classic post-apocalyptic novel with few or no original ideas (this might be partly due to its age, but that merely explains why rather than solve the problem). It’s separated into three major parts, all focused on the same character, Ish, and how he survives and in some regards also thrives after the epidemic-induced catastrophe that has befallen mankind. This allows the author to cover a wider perspective than most similar books, which is both a blessing and a curse.

The problem with Earth Abides is that it too much a description of what happens after the end of civilisation as we know it, and not much of a novel. There are interesting smaller stories and some characters, but as a complete novel it doesn’t really work at all. Stewart’s language is adequate to describe what’s going on, but is far from good enough to be enjoyable on its own.

Still, I don’t think Earth Abides is as bad as it might have sounded up to this point in the review. The final part adds some interesting themes as Ish grows old and starts thinking about and re-evaluating his role in the new society. Here I found something genuinely interesting that added perhaps one snail to the overall rating. However, the book itself is too simple, too unoriginal to deserve more than two and a half snails.

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Title: Battlestar Galactica – Season 2 and 3
Directed by: Various
Written by: Various
Year: 2005-2007

As you might have noticed, I seldom watch movies, not because I dislike it per se, but rather because it takes up too much high-quality time I usually have better uses for. Needless to say, TV series are even rarer than films, which is the reason why I waited around three years before continuing watching Battlestar Galactica, even though I really liked the first season.

I have watched season two and three over a long period of time, so reviewing them together makes a lot more sense than breaking them up. I also think the contents are quite similar in nature which means that most of what I want to say about one of the seasons also applies to the other.

In my first review, I said that there are three main reasons for liking Battlestar Galactica: plot, presentation and characters. Today, I have a somewhat different opinion. The overall plot is adequate, but it’s not a factor that makes the series stand out. The presentation (as in directing, props, effects, etc.) is very good, but doesn’t feel like anything special after watching a couple of seasons (this is probably a bit unfair since I think most other similar series are inferior in this regard).

So, if these points are no longer relevant, how come that I still like the series? Mostly because of the third reason I brought up in the original review: the characters. I don’t simply mean that they are well-made and expertly enacted, but they are well-integrated into the plot and each other, which creates something which feels very real and interesting. I’m especially fond of the second in command, Colonel Tigh, who turns out to be a lot more complex than he seemed at first glance in season 1. Starbuck remains a favourite, but others are catching up.

(Spoiler warning issued for this paragraph!) Regarding the plot, things start getting really interesting at once as Tigh assumes command of the Galactica and as he crumbles underneath the pressure of responsibility. Later, when the Pegasus arrives, the situation is further complicated, but I think this part could have been made a lot more scary than it turned out to be. There are too many obvious answers what’s right and wrong; more grey scales and moral dilemmas would have been easy to create.

(Spoiler warning issued for this paragraph!) With the settlement of New Caprica, a well-deserved break from life in the fleet gives the series a new impetus. I was growing quite bored withe monster-of-the-week episode and this changed things to the better. Still, I would like to have had more coherence between the episodes, because some of them just feel completely useless, advancing neither character, story or any of the major themes.

To sum things up, some of the things I initially liked with the series are still there, but they are no longer as prominent as they once were, perhaps because I’ve grown used to them. Other things remain as strong as before and keeps on developing. I’m not sure how the plot will turn out in the end, but it has still a potential to be great. I give the second and third season four snails, which is promising for the fourth and last episode, but is still a downgrade from the first.

Update: Why are the posters to all the seasons so extremely bad? I don’t know if gender roles were an intentional focus of the creators of the series, but I think Battlestar Galactica features more strong and interesting female characters than a couple of other science fiction series put together. So, why make these horrific posters?

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Title: The World of Null-A
Author: A.E. van Vogt
Year: 1948

Reader, in your hands, you hold one of the most controversial and successful novels in the whole of science-fiction literature.

Thus A.E. van Vogt opens his preface to this revised edition of his allegedly monumental masterpiece, the World of Null A. He introduces us to the successes and some of the feeble and useless attempts to destroy his greatness. He explains some of the core concepts of general semantics (such as that the map is not the territory and other abstractions). Then he says:

I think I presented the facts of general semantics so well and so skillfully in Null A and its sequel that the readers thought that was all I should be doing. But truth is that I, the author, saw a deeper paradox.

This must be the worst imaginable way of introducing a novel. I think I’m quite well-read in the area of science fiction and though it’s true that A.E. van Vogt is quite well-known, I think it’s an outright lie to say that this book is generally seen as “one of the most controversial and successful novels in the whole of science fiction literature”, even taken into account that the book was written sixty years ago. Since it’s the author himself who says this, I find this statement boastful, despicable and made me dislike the book and the author even before I started reading the story itself.

In addition to this, after I’ve read this story about a man who strives to understand who he is (he participates in a game to choose the next leader of the world, but he soon finds out that he isn’t who he think he is), and all along hoping that general semantics would be made clear and/or relevant, I still have no clue either to why the book is deemed to be successful or why any reader thought that he was good at explaining anything. If I don’t understand what’s going on after reading 200 pages, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad (it might just be my being obtuse), but it’s definitely not the pinnacle of explanatory and illuminating writing.

Still, I’ll try to disregard my contempt for the foreword and remove at least one layer of subjectivity. The author isn’t incompetent and it’s clear that he has an original idea and tries to write a novel about it (which is more than can be said Greg Bear‘s The Forge of God, which has nothing in common with the World of Null A except that I read one after the other). The style is quite fast-paced, but without anything that will make me remember either the characters or the story.

Perhaps I’m missing something, perhaps sixty years have showed that this novel isn’t as good as some people once thought it was, but I really don’t understand either the book or why it should be considered great (or even worthwhile the effort). Damon Knight, who subsequently went on to a successful writer’s career, wrote that “Van Vogt is not a giant as often maintained. He’s only a pygmy using a giant typewriter.” I don’t think it will take me any closer to stardom, but I’m prepared to side with Knight on this. The World of Null A gets one and a half snail for competent writing and something which might have been a good idea. As a lesson for other authors, don’t ever write a foreword praising yourself and your accomplishments to the hills, regardless of how highly you think of yourself.

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Title: The Windup Girl
Author: Paulo Bacigalupi
Year: 2005

Take Bangkok, brimming with a multitude of different cultures and the capital of Thailand, a monarchy with complicated political structure, and put it through a genetically engineered apocalypse which has left most of the world in chaos and starvation, but where Thailand is still an island of relative calm in South-East Asia, much thanks to an odd mixture of advanced bio-engineering and old-style, steam punk reminiscent technology. The result is the Windup Girl and the man responsible for the thought-experiment is Paulo Bacigalupi.

Even though I consider the setting described in the previous paragraph to be interesting enough to read almost regardless of anything else, a novel requires a more personal approach and very seldom can it rely entirely on setting. The Windup Girl takes its name from one of the main characters, a genetically engineered human being produced by the secluded state of Japan, created to please and to be subservient. Regarded as an animal, if not a thing, she still harbours feelings intimately human, and thus struggles to free herself from her genetic heritage as well as her training, thus adding a touching tale about the intertwined factors of heritage, training and environment.

This is Paulo Bacigalupi’s debut novel and as such it is extremely good. There are no obvious flaws or major glitches that a more experienced author would have been able to avoid. However, I think it’s clear that Bacigalupi has some polishing to do, because there are minor flaws and imperfections that interrupts the otherwise fascinating tale. For instance, he’s prone to repeat similes and metaphors or just dwell on the same kind of details again. Let me give you an example; the windup’s skin is impeccably beautiful, which unfortunately means that it can’t transport heat very effective, leaving the girl vulnerable to overheating. This is a really neat detail, but it gets tedious to hear about it every time she moves. A more experienced author would realise that the idea is fabulous without employing it to excessively.

The story is neat and well thought-out, although it isn’t magical in an sense of the word. It’s good enough to suffice as a pretext for showing a really cool setting and occasionally even surpasses the ingenuity of the surroundings. A tendency to focus on two many characters make the book a little bit longer than it should have been, but this is not a serious flaw.

In all, this book is awesome, not only in itself, but also because of what I hope it means for the future. I don’t mean to say that I think an apocalypse derived from genetic engineering gone wrong is a good idea, but I do hope that the future will bring more books from Paulo Bacigalupi’s hand and that they will be as rich in ideas as this one, but perhaps presented in a slightly more refined way. This is still a very good book and I give four snails to the Windup Girl.

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