Saturday, 25 February 2017

THE THREE-BODY PROBLEM by Cixin Liu

I haven't read much Chinese fiction, and certain never any Chinese science fiction. It is plenty weird. First, it is written by a former software engineer and it shows. How delightfully loopy is this:
Battles like this one raged across Beijing like a multitude of CPUs working in parallel, their combined output, the Cultural Revolution.
. Or this reflection on a woman the protagonist is in love with:
Wang subconsciously thought of her as the long-obsolete DOS operating system: a blank, black screen, a bare “C:>” prompt, a blinking cursor. Whatever you entered, it echoed back. Not one extra letter and not a single change. But now he knew that behind the “C:>” was a bottomless abyss.

The story covers the first contact of humanity with an alien civilization, who are seeking to leave their planet, Trisolaris, because it has a catastrophic climate driven by the fact that is has three suns. This is the 'three body problem' that the aliens spend many millenia trying to solve. It's a major achievement to make a math problem into an exciting element of your novel's plot, and Liu doesn't manage it. I skipped a lot of this part, not least because it was unfolded in a - wait for it, this is so dorky - video game. Important note, prospective authors: just as dreams are boring in ordinary fiction, so are video games in science fiction.

Back on our planet, a Chinese astrophysicist who has lost her family in the Cultural Revolution manages to send a message out beyond our solar system. She gets a reply, which is incredibly: "Do not answer! Do not answer! Do not answer!" It is sent by a pacifist on Trisolaris who knows that if the Trisolarins can figure out where the messages are coming from they will come to take over the Earth. In an awesome twist, the astrophysicist immediately responds. She is furious with humanity for what has happened to her family and believes that we deserve what is coming to us. Even more awesomely, the Trisolarins immediately do two things: send out a fleet to reach us, and begin to plot how to kill or confuse all our physicists. They are not afraid of our current armaments, but of what our science could do; and most particularly of what the physicists could do, as no major breakthrough happens without them. It's not often you think of physicists as our first line of defence.

Anyway, despite what has turned into a generally positive review, and the fact that this book won the Hugo I thought it was kind of boring. The characters are truly impressively thin, and the plot while fun was deeply questionable. On the other hand, it was not quite like anything else I've ever read, so I'm glad I blitzed through it.

Monday, 20 February 2017

THE HEART OF THE MATTER by Graham Greene

As an African national, I've always found it rather depressing that despite all the impact the British had on our continent we were not even an important part of their Empire. India was the jewel. We were just: there. And even within Africa, there was a heirarchy - South Africa and Nigeria at the top, and somewhere towards the bottom countries like Sierra Leone. This book tells the story of some sad British officials in Sierra Leone, and shows that at least some of the colonizers apparently felt they were having almost as bad a time as the colonized.

Freetown is all men on their way up or on their way down. Inspector Scobie is among the latter, and a rarity among the British in that city, in that he actually like Sierra Leone, and would like to stay there. He is not promoted however, and his wife is miserable at the idea of spending her life there with a minor official. A man so upright he is almost abnormal, Scobie agonises over taking a loan from a local businessman to be able to send his wife to South Africa. He does it in the end, and once she has left, he falls into an affair with a much younger woman. His wife changes her mind and comes home again, and he now is trapped: he feels bad for his wife, and bad for his mistress. Then major plot twist: his wife insists he attends Communion with her. Yes, I also didn't find this to be a major plot twist. But it clearly is to Graham Greene, and to his creation Scobie. He can't face the dishonesty, and so - he tells his wife the truth. Just joking! He tells his mistress the truth. Just joking! He doesn't do either of these rational things. He kills himself.

For all that I mock its ending, I really rather liked this book. It is, as ever with Greene, elegantly written, and evokes a wonderful sense of Sierra Leone in the second world war. Try this lovely description of a new arrival: "Wilson sat on the balcony of the Bedford Hotel with his bald pink knees thrust against the ironwork. It was Sunday and the Cathedral bell clanged for matins. . . . (He) stroked his very young moustache and dreamed, waiting for his gin-and-bitters." Wilson will later fall in love with Scobie's wife, and here he sees Scobie for the first time:
He couldn't tell that this was one of those occasions a men never forgets: a small cicatrice had been made on the memory, a wound that would ache whenever certain things combined - the taste of gin at mid-day, the smell of flowers under a balcony, the clang of corrugated iron, an ugly bird flopping from perch to perch.

THE HEART OF THE MATTER captures a kind of overwrought moral universe that in some ways rather dates it; but for me at least it also rather made me reflect how many of my own problems might be self-created. As a side point, I do want to close by saying that it does includes a scene so common in literature as to be almost archetypal: a young man having a terrible time at a brothel. I wish I had begun at the start of this blog counting how many of these scenes I read. It's incredible how many of them there are, relative to how few there are about the people who are really having a bad time in brothels. But I guess prostitutes don't have that much time for writing.





Saturday, 18 February 2017

LORD OF THE FLIES by William Golding

It's great to re-read a classic and find out it's still a classic. One feels like this one in particular ought to have aged, with its nuclear anxiety and its public school boys, but I found it still as fresh as this morning's coffee.

LORD OF THE FLIES tells the story of a group of school boys whose plane crash lands on an island with no adults. It all then goes fairly wrong, fairly fast. It's high school with the brakes off.

LORD OF THE FLIES was Golding's first novel, and was written when he was working as a school teacher. It certainly shows - he understands the world of children very well, and I like the idea of him sitting at his desk in class, imaginging which of his children would be the first to be picked off, and by who, once the adults were out of the way. It's a compelling, child-eye view of the world which is rare in fiction. Here they are, off to find the monster they think hides in the mountains: "the darkness and desperate enterprise gave the night a kind of dentist's chair unreality." By the end you are truly afraid of the twelve-year-olds, and it is a real shock when an adult finally arrives on the island, and you see one of the most frightening characters suddenly reduced to "a little boy who wore the remains of an extraordinary black cap on his red hair and who carried the remains of a pair of spectacles on his waist."

It's a fantastic idea for a novel, fantastically well executed. Reading the author's biography, I see Golding continued to write for the rest of his life, but never again achieved such success. One always feels for those for whom success comes at the beginning, making all else an anti-climax; but I guess that's still way better than no success at all. Rather one classic to your name than - as with the rest of us - none.

THE PRIVATE MEMOIRS AND CONFESSIONS OF A JUSTIFIED SINNER by James Hogg

The first appeal of this book is that the author was an eighteenth century shepherd who taught himself to read. It’s not so often that the ...