Monday, November 7, 2016

Science Fiction Double Feature (#scifi #review #williamgibson)

Scifi Landscape

By Lisabet Sarai

Scifi was one of my first loves. Eleanor Cameron’s Mushroom Planet books form one of my earliest literary memories I grew up reading Bradbury, Heinlein and Asimov. My husband introduced me to Fritz Leiber and Philip K. Dick. I still recall my sense of amazement when I finished The Man in the High Castle. A decade or so later, I met a whole new set of authors when a friend who taught literature at a local university organized a science fiction reading group. Once a month, we’d meet at someone’s house for wine, delicious potluck, and a discussion of some novel by Joanna Russ, Sherri Tepper, Greg Bear, Pat Cadigan or Ursula Le Guin.

I was born soon after Sputnik and was in grade school when Alan Shepard circled the earth in his tin can. Back then, I was a science whiz and aspired to a career as an astronaut. Nevertheless, I tend to prefer “soft” science fiction, books that focus on alternative societies or on how changes in technology affect social structures and human interactions. One of my all time favorite scifi titles is an obscure book by Kate Wilhelm entitled Welcome, Chaos. This mostly realistic novel posits includes a single science fiction element: someone has invented a technology that allows human immortality. The book brilliantly explores the radical social impacts of this discovery.

These days, most of my non-erotic reading is serendipitous, depending on what we find available on one of our occasional binge trips to the used book store. I was thrilled a few months ago when my DH came home with Zero History by William Gibson. In case you’re unfamiliar with his work, he more or less invented both the term and the concept of cyberspace in his 1980’s novel Neuromancer. I hadn’t read any Gibson in years, but I remembered really enjoying Virtual Light and Idoru. Gibson’s description of the decommissioned Golden Gate Bridge turned into a rambling, multi-level city/slum which houses the cast-offs of society still sticks in my memory (at a time when many things are slipping out).

I didn’t realize at the time that Zero History is the third book in a trilogy. Of course, with a skilled author, that shouldn’t matter. Every book should stand on its own.

At the moment, I’m more than two thirds of the way through the book, and I have to admit I am underwhelmed.

Gibson’s a master of prose, alternating between enigmatic brevity and obsessive but fascinating detail. Maybe that’s why I keep reading, because to be honest, neither the premises of this novel nor the action have turned out to be particularly compelling. I guess at some level the book is a classic quest story. The object of the quest is so trivial, however, that it engenders yawns, at least in me.

Reluctantly working for the secretive, manipulative, chaos-loving fixer Hubertus Bigend, ex-rocker Hollis Henry and her mysterious sidekick Milgrim travel the globe, seeking the source of a shadowy but much coveted brand of clothing called Gabriel Hounds. Various competitors and bad guys attempt to thwart this quest, while occasional opportunistic allies assist.

I can’t make myself care.

It may be that I haven’t given up on this tale because I want to find out more about Milgrim, the former drug addict (supposedly) who has no memory of his past. (The novel’s title refers to his lack of recall.) Without question, he’s the most intriguing character in the book: mild-mannered and studiously polite, aware of his mental lacunae and doing his best to adapt, fiercely intelligent and unexpectedly resourceful. I really do hope that the author reveals the truth about him. Otherwise, I’ll be seriously annoyed.

The book falls short in its visions of society as well. This may be partly due to the fact that it was written in 2010, not long after the time the iPhone was first released. Gibson imagines a society dominated by mobile communication and social media (he repeatedly mentions Twitter), at the mercy of rumor and dominated by explicitly constructed and manipulated branding. However, the world he portrays falls far short of today’s reality, where trends rise and fall in mere hours and truth has pretty much ceased to exist. This is of course a risk in writing scifi set in a near future, but it further reduces the impact of the book, at least for me.

Oh well.

Before starting Zero History, the most recent scifi I’d read was The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu. I actually ordered a copy of this novel new, from Amazon, after encountering a review in the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s journal Science. The Three Body Problem won the Hugo award and was nominated for the Nebula. I was intensely curious to read a Chinese science fiction novel, partially set during the Cultural Revolution. Although the review suggested that the book was heavy on physics theory, it also implied some interesting societal insights.

My reactions were mixed. The book covers more than fifty years, beginning in the sixties when disgraced young physicist Ye Wenjie is assigned to a menial position at a remote radio telescope installation, in punishment for her father’s supposed counter-revolutionary tendencies. (In one of the book’s most chilling scenes, he is murdered by a fanatical crowd of Red Youth.) Ye discovers what appears to be a transmission from another star system and risks her life and position to send a reply. Her actions make the advanced extraterrestrial civilization of Trisolaris aware of Earth’s existence, and set the stage for our planet’s doom.

Trisolaris is a (relatively close) planet existing within the gravitational influence of three stars. The forces exerted by these three masses cannot be predicted (this is the “three-body problem” of the title), thus the civilization swings between Stable Eras when it prospers and develops, and Chaotic Eras when the suns are too close, burning everything to a crisp, or too far away, dropping temperatures so low that no life can survive.

Once Trisolarian society learns about Earth, it begins the long process of abandoning its own nearly-uninhabitable planet and invading ours. As part of this effort, the Tri-Solarians implement a plan to recruit the support of carefully selected individuals on Earth, to prepare public consciousness for their arrival. One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is the schism that develops within the secret Earth-Trisolaran Organization (ETO) between the Redemptionists, who believe the technologically advanced Trisolarans will save humans from themselves, and the Adventists, who expect and desire that human civilization will be wiped out of existence.

The Three Body Problem is full of vivid descriptions and intriguing ideas. Despite its scientific rigor, it explores some fascinating and disturbing notions about humanity and social organization. Toward the end of the book, the author shows us a Trisolaran’s wistful view of Terran society. Trisolaris is an unrelentingly authoritarian society, where the good of the many totally outweighs considerations of the individual. In order to survive their brutal environment, Trisolarans are trained to suppress all emotion and to obey authorities without question. By comparison, the people of Earth seem beautifully free.

(I couldn’t help wondering whether this was a veiled commentary on the nature of Chinese society, even today.)

The main weakness in this novel lies in its characterization. Liu can describe a nano-technological attack on a super-tanker with breathless clarity, but his human beings feel stiff and unrealistic. They declaim rather than engage in realistic conversation. They spend pages on information dumps in order to acquaint readers with facts the author wants us to know. They act in ways that seem unmotivated and implausible. I felt as though the characters were chess pieces that the author was moving around in order to advance his plot, not real people. Or perhaps a more apt comparison would be to computer-generated characters in an immersive game, who follow some simplified logical model that doesn’t quite match actual human behavior.

Despite this flaw, The Three Body Problem offers an intriguing read. It’s quite different from most Western scifi that I’ve read. The author appears to have deep concerns about the ecological catastrophes wrought by humans. When I finished the book (a few months ago), I decided I had no interest in reading the next volume in Liu’s trilogy. Reviewing it now, I’m not so sure.

You might wonder, given my love of scifi, why I haven’t written more of it. Aside from some short stories, I’ve penned exactly one science fiction novel, my dystopian MM erotic romance Quarantine. It was such a difficult task I’m reluctant to try again, even though I left the door open for a sequel. As an avid reader of scifi, I’m terribly aware of the pitfalls awaiting the author of speculative fiction. Perhaps no sub-genre makes such demands on the imagination. Time and again as I was writing, I felt I was coming up short, making choices that were obvious rather than surprising. 


This may reflect my own prejudices when reading scifi. As you can guess from this post, I can be a harsh critic. When I find a science fiction book that really works for me, though, it’s like having a new lover.


  1. Though I never liked sic-fi very much, these sound intriguing. Perhaps sci-fi has changed since I tried it. May be time for another shot.

    1. If you think of scifi as just space opera, that doesn't do the genre justice.

      Best science fiction I've read in years is THE WINDUP GIRL by Paolo Bacigalupi. Set in future Bangkok, absolutely right on from a cultural as well as scientific perspective.

  2. I was in junior high when Sputnik was launched. A friend who as nerdy as I was (although we didn't have that term then) and somewhat richer got a telescope for her birthday, and we spent several weekend evenings outdoors at her house out in the country, as mine was, watching for Sputnik and stargazing. It turned out that the telescope wasn't any use for a moving object like Sputnik, but we could still watch it go across the sky, and we used the telescope for slower-moving astral bodies like Jupiter and Saturn and. of course, the moon.

    I read all the YA science fiction in our small town library, especially the Heinlein juveniles. Starship Trooper and Tunnel in the Sky were my favorites. Then a couple of years later I met a college-age guy who gave me boxes of science fiction books when he'd finished with them. I decided I was going to write science fiction.

    Many years later I did, for a while, but more fantasy than sf. And I got back to reading it, for a while, including some of the cyberpunk writers like Gibson, but they never really grabbed me. Now I'm getting farther and farther behind.

    1. I'd love to read some of your science fiction, Sacchi. Was it published under your real name?

      I'm much more particular about scifi than about erotica, actually. And it's difficult to find really excellent science fiction.

  3. I should mention that I have finished Zero History. Never did find out about Milgrim's past (guess that must have all been explained in the previous novels of the trilogy). I am annoyed.

  4. Love that you mentioned Kate Wilhelm! Her book Storyteller is one of my favorites ever on writing. I'll have to track down Welcome, Chaos.

    I've always had mixed feelings on Gibson. It's so much style and I've never been sure of how much substance was in his stuff.

    My friend translated The Three Body Problem, and I read his draft. It was challenging and fascinating and really good. I haven't kept up with the trilogy, but I want to. I think I'd have to read the whole book again. It was thick with concepts, and I think I'd need to have a fresh mind. I don't remember having the issue with characters that you describe, though. I remember crying several times while reading. Not sure what was going on with that (this was several years ago...) Anyway, thanks for the reminder about this book. I definitely want to revisit it!

    1. You're friends with Ken Liu? Wow!

      There's another Kate Wilhelm book I really want to re-read, but I can't remember the title. The earth passes through a cloud of interstellar dust. The dust has the effect of causing all the water on earth to become viscous. The book works on all the multitudinous consequences of this single event. Brilliant!

    2. Yes, Ken is a dear friend and an excellent person. :) We met through blogging, actually, something like 8 years ago now. I'm lucky enough to live relatively close to him. He's actually the friend I'm talking about in the bio I posted on this site. :)

  5. I think sci-fi has matured a lot since the Golden Age of sci-fi magazines full of macho stories about white American or British earthmen conquering the universe, or being threatened by evil immigrants -- uh, extraterrestrials. Lisabet, I will need to look up some of the titles you've mentioned, especially the sci-fi by women I haven't read yet. (I've gone through Ursula LeGuin, Joanna Russ and Elizabeth Lynn phases.)

    1. I never read much of the Golden Age pulp science fiction. On the other hand, earlier this year I read A Princess of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs. A bit silly, but surprisingly well written.

      If you like thoughtful feminist sci fi, I do recommend Sherri Tepper.


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