Saturday, May 23, 2015

Top Ten Reasons for Digging 3BP (Requiem for Dave)

10. The slow, carefully plotted unfolding saga of Red Coast
9. Shi Qiang
8. The Stable and Chaotic Eras
7. Destruction of a civilization due to solar syzygy
6. The attempt to sabotage Earth’s scientific efforts
5. The concept of an alien world’s advancement happening in cataclysmic fits and starts instead of like the Earth’s advancement by orders of magnitude.
4. Cixin Liu’s claim in his postscript that he has a superhuman ability to concretely visualize abstract macro and micro numbers.
3. Albert Einstein’s appearance.
2. Silent Spring’s appearance.
1. What the Trisolarans do to a proton

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Reviews: The Three Body Problem

“We understand the historical significance of the pendulum.  It’s intended to hypnotize God.  But now we know it’s better for Trisolaran civilization to have God awake, because God is now blessing us.”
(Minor spoilers ahead).  In Chinese author Cixin Liu’s Postscript to his amazing and fascinating The Three Body Problem, he talks about what first drew him to science fiction.  So of course this got me thinking about the same thing.  Why was I so taken and mesmerized by it?  Like many people, it was this: most of the stories I enjoyed shattered the current “reality” and spun tales about fantastic people and events that defied what was commonly accepted on almost every level: science was not “constant” and shown to be in flux, religion and faith were questioned (A Canticle for Leibowitz, The Sparrow), gender roles were examined (The Left Hand of Darkness), sex was actually discussed (Dahlgren, anyone?), anything that was “approved” by the status quo was picked apart and you were forced to ask yourself if the current given wisdom was really so wise.  Of course there were exceptions to this: Doc Smith space operas and others of this ilk were also favorites, but the real adventure was in the unexpected and obtuse ideas that sought to shatter the comfortable beliefs of the time.  And I would be negligent if I didn’t mention Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions books (are they even in print now?), wherein he specifically asked the popular authors of the day to pursue a different approach to the genre.

Another aspect of this book that I absolutely loved was the depiction of the “aliens”.  I was spoiled early in my sic fi reading by Isaac Asimov’s novel The Gods Themselves (Hugo and Nebula winner for 1973).  The depiction of aliens in this book is so odd and non-human and breathtakingly “alien” that seeing “humanoid” space creatures has ever since been very disappointing (though how the 3BP aliens look is not explained; they may in fact look like us!?).  And seeing the alien world described in their terms was, as far as I know, groundbreaking, and something that others should certainly try to emulate, as Cixin does.

So I want to be challenged and I want to be thrilled and amazed.  3BP started out slow for me, but by midway through, I was hooked, and by the end, I was flabbergasted and actually anxious for the next volume.  Cixin lays his initial groundwork well, giving enough information to make the characters’ actions, especially protagonist Ye Wenjie, understandable.  The book proceeds in some back and forth time shifts, but it’s handled adeptly.  The time spent in the video game was fascinating and reminded me of a book I had just finished a couple months ago, Ernest Cliine’s Ready Player One, which as a confirmed non-gamer I was sure I’d dislike, and which totally surprised and delighted me and now I’m recommending it to you.  The “gaming” in 3BP is completely different from RPO and what I understand most gaming to be, but remarkably different and for reasons that are revealed as we proceed.  Discussion of the actual scientific three body problem occurs in the game and outside it, and is very interesting and well handled.  

Oh, and there’s something else I look for in every book I read, genre or not: how “well” is it written?  Do the sentences and paragraphs sing with beauty?  Can I stop reading, MUST I stop reading, to linger on a combination of words that approach poetry?  Well, this is a whole other discussion.  In the first place, is this even fair with regards to genre?  I happen to think it is; we could probably all point to works in the mystery field that fall in this category.  (Question: can anyone recommend to me a sci fi novel that fits this description?)  In the second place, 3BP is a translation from Chinese, so there are some challenges there, though I must say that I believe translator Ken Liu did a magnificent job (as far as I can tell!?) and that his footnotes throughout and postscript at the end were invaluable.  3BP doesn’t “sing”, but it doesn’t have to: its narrative and imaginative strengths propel it to a very high place on my personal top sci fi novels list.  I can’t imagine any other nominee this year being better; the bar already seems too high.  Recommended to any and all sci fi readers, and to others who aren’t afraid to embrace imagination.    

- William Fuller

Don't miss the other review of this book.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Great Hugo Kerfuffle of 2015

All you ever do is blabber ‘n smoke / There’s ah big pain in your window / ‘N all your waters turn t’ rope / It gonna hang you all / Dangle you all / Dang you allIf you don’t hurry there will be no hope / Why don’t you quit actin’ like ah dopeAll you ever do is blabber ‘n smoke- Blabber N Smoke, Jan Van Vliet (AKA Mrs. Captain Beefheart)
“I think the Sad Puppies have broken the Hugo Awards, and I am not sure they can ever be repaired.”  - George R.R. Martin, noted science fiction and fantasy author (see Game of Thrones),

So, recently William “Arcturus Mindgrip” Fuller, Spencer “The Spaceman” Kimball and myself were taking a steam at a bathhouse down the road from Rio Beach. The conversation meandered along a variety of topics and eventually came to a discussion of  the Hugo Award and Westercon coverage that appeared in this blog back in 2013. I had recently become aware of what was becoming a major shitstorm between some disgruntled conservative members of the SF community and just about everybody else. We thought it a perfect time to revisit this contentious and peculiar subculture.


Let it be said at the outset that I am an armchair socialist who very much dislikes Tea Party apparatchiks, Fox News demagogues, religious zealots, Rush Limberger and the Sad and Rabid Puppies who have mounted a campaign to hijack Science Fiction Fandom’s Hugo Awards. Furthermore, I am not going to provide links to any of Correia’s, Torgersen’s or Beale’s (the Sad and Rabid Puppies, see below) web posts because I don’t have to and that’s what Google is for anyway. You’ll just have to trust me that the quotes provided are accurate and not taken too far out of context. You can do that, can’t ya?

I am a voracious reader of science fiction and fantasy (although not a Science Fiction Fan - believe me there is a difference (1)) and have been since childhood. I missed out on Algebra in Junior High School because of various Ace editions of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Otis Adelbert Kline and Robert E. Howard hidden behind my textbook. I care about speculative fiction and its potential to illuminate, educate, stimulate and entertain. I care about the Hugo Awards, if for no other reason than it serves as a guide to the better (though not always the best) the field has to offer. So at the outset I have a large middle finger held squarely in the direction of said Sad and Rabid Puppies.

What are the Hugo Awards?

“If every man, woman, boy and girl, could be induced to read science fiction right along, there would certainly be a great resulting benefit to the community, in that the educational standards of its people would be raised tremendously. Science fiction would make people happier, give them a broader understanding of the world, make them more tolerant.”- Hugo Gernsback, 1930

The annual Hugo Awards, initiated in 1953, are meant to honor outstanding work in science fiction and fantasy. The award is named after science fiction pioneer inventor, author and publisher, Hugo Gernsback, and is shaped like a classic, finned rocket ship, based - as legend would have it - on the chrome hood ornaments of the 1950’s. 

There are some sixteen award categories, primarily for literary work, but also including film, television and various fan activities and publications. Anyone who purchases a supporting or attending membership to the World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon, in the previous year, the current year or the subsequent year can nominate. Final votes for the shortlisted nominees are limited to supporting or attending Worldcon members of the current year. This year’s Worldcon, “Sasquan” (, will be held in Spokane, Washington (of all places) over the Labor Day weekend. Remind me to tell you sometime about a marathon drug-addled roadtrip to the Spokane World’s Fair in 1974. William knows what I’m talking about.

What are the “Sad and/or Rabid Puppies”?

“If one of us outspoken types got nominated, the inevitable backlash, outrage, and plans for their sabotage would be very visible. So I decided to prove this bias and launched a campaign I called Sad Puppies (because boring message fiction is the leading cause of Puppy Related Sadness).”- Larry Correia (Sad Puppy)
“We value excellence in actual science fiction and fantasy, rather than excellence in intersectional equalitarianism, racial and gender inclusion, literary pyrotechnics, or professional rabbitology.”- Theodore Beale (Vox Day, Rabid Puppy)

Basically, a couple of hack sci fi writers with a conservative bent, Larry Correia and Brad R. Torgersen,

decided that the reason they weren’t getting the Hugo nominations and awards they justly deserved was because of a cabal of Hugo-controlling “Social Justice Warriors” (their terminology). These “SJWs” were obviously more interested in championing diversity, gender equality, literary merit and internationalism over the obvious quality [sarcasm] of Correia and Torgersen’s writings. In typical tiresome tea party fashion they characterized themselves and others of their ilk as champions of “restoring balance” and went on to promote a slate of writers and individuals more representative of their kind of “true” science fiction and political, social and religious views. I have mixed feelings about pointing out the fact that both Correia and Torgersen are Mormon but considering that Torgersen cites his faith as an essential part of his writing philosophy, and Correia self-identifies as a Mormon writer, I believe it is a relevant consideration (3).

Not to be outdone in this campaign of self-aggrandizement and white boy brotherhood, the Sad Puppies were soon joined by the so-called “Rabid Puppies” under the aegis of ultra-reactionary Theodore Beale, AKA Vox Day (4),
one of the few, if not the only, members of the Science Fiction Writers of America to be expelled. In his case, he used the SFWA Twitter feed to link to his vile racist, misogynist and anti-gay views. He has mounted a Hugo campaign with a slate similar to but not quite the same as the Sad Puppies. While the Sad Puppies have attempted to distance themselves from this supreme hater and champion of the American Christian version of ISIS, they have not outright condemned him (at least to my knowledge).

The Hugos have been gamed before; for example the Scientologists tried unsuccessfully to place L. Ron Hubbard on the ballot in the late 1980’s, and a certain amount of politicking is to be expected. However, no effort has been as sweeping and determined as that of these Puke Puppies.

To the great misfortune of the Hugo Awards in particular and science fiction fandom in general, the Sad and Rabid Puppies were successful in capturing several of the award categories and placing many of their nominations in others.

Once word got out, “Puppygate” was born and the blogosphere blew up by about a billion words in the space of a few days. The “Culture Wars” had come to Science Fiction with a vengeance. When George R.R. Martin 

weighed in against the infamy of the Puppies, the mainstream media perked its ears (another sign of how science fiction and fantasy has evolved into an essential part of mainstream popular culture). Articles about the flap appeared in publications and websites from Entertainment Weekly to The Boston Globe to the Associated Press and, across the pond in the U.K., to The Guardian and The Telegraph.
Thus began the Great Hugo Kerfuffle of 2015...

- Jack Hastings



(1) “I found that my work met with particularly knowledgeable appreciation and criticism among science-fiction readers (not the same thing as sci-fi fans, some of who read nothing but sci-fi and some of whom read nothing.”
- Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Golden Age”, The New Yorker, June 4 and 11, 2012, (The Science Fiction Issue)
(2) “If you’re looking for a group of authors adept at subtly constructing worlds wherein sexual and ethical depravity are not only common, but laudable, you’re definitely looking in the wrong place. Go watch Breaking Bad or The Sopranos or Six Feet Under. The LDS writing community’s aggregate product is probably not for you.”
- Brad R. Torgersen

(3) “We are not given a spirit of fear. We are the sons and daughters of the Crusades and of the Inquisitions, institutions so terrible that they strike terror in human hearts nearly one thousand years later. ... Religious liberty in America is dead. Well and good. That was a fatal mistake by the other side, because now that they don’t respect our religious liberty, we have no reason or responsibility to respect theirs. Now it’s just a raw power struggle and we have the numbers, we have the indomitable will of the martyrs, and we have the certain knowledge of God on our side.”
- Theodore Beale (Vox Day)

Monday, May 11, 2015

Reviews: Silence

“What he could not understand was the stillness of the courtyard…the whirling wings of the flies.  A man had died.  Yet the outside world went on as if nothing had happened.  Could anything be more crazy.  Was this martyrdom?  Why are you silent?  Here this one-eyed man has died - and for you…Why does this stillness continue?  This noon day stillness.  The sound of the flies, this crazy thing, this cruel business.  And you avert your face as though indifferent.  This - this I cannot bear.”  Silence, Shusaku Endo     

When I received the email from Jack “The Martian” Hastings, I was waist deep in one of the best books I’ve read in a couple of years.  As you’ve probably seen from other recent posts here, his email suggested we read this year’s Hugo nominees and do posts about them before the winner is announced in late August.  I did this once before a couple years ago in preparation for the 2013 Westercon, and found the results quite enjoyable.   (My personal pick for best that year, Robinson’s 2312, didn’t win, but I also enjoyed, to a lesser degree, the one that did, Scalzi’s Redshirts, and the other three, and was actually surprised at how much I did enjoy them, given my lack of sci-fi interest or reading in many years.)  So I agreed, not realizing the vile twist the Hugo Awards, or that is, the fans of the Hugo Awards, have taken.  I believe The Martian (who came by this nickname many years ago for reasons that I no longer recall, though I think it had something to do with his wearing “antennae” when our band performed, well, that and his love for sci-fi), will be addressing this sad twist of events, so at least for now, I won’t.  In any case, the book I was reading and shortly thereafter finished was Silence by Shusako Endo, a Japanese novel first published in 1969.  Though it is not sci-fi, I’m going to talk a little about it, and will jump into the Hugo nominees in subsequent posts.    

Silence is the story of European Catholic missionaries, and one in particular, the Portuguese Sebastian Rodrigues.  He and two other priests set out for Japan in 1638 to find out what actually happened to another missionary who preceded them by many years.  At first, i.e., 60 years earlier, the missionaries were embraced, there were many converts, and the Japanese ruling class treated the fathers as honored guests in their country.  But for various reasons things turned very bad by 1614 and all priests and converts were rounded up and forced to renounce Christianity or die, usually by burning.  Torture, murder and mayhem were the order of the day.  Word has reached Europe that the priest who had been leading the mission, has renounced his religion and is collaborating with his former persecutors.

The Catholic Church (full disclosure I was raised Catholic and very much a “true believer” in my youth) and of course other religions strike me as somewhat Borg-like in their earlier days.  The Pope and his advisers are the hive mind, sending their drones out to assimilate other people into the collective.  How much “autonomy” does each drone posses?  The hive mind hope little to none; it is never a good thing to question the dogma.  But what happens when an individual drone is forced, or wishes, to act in a different, contradictory, “rogue” manner?  In the last few weeks, ever since I began researching this Hugo project, the question seems to be “in the air”, and I was a bit shocked to realize that Silence, at least to my mind, is of a part with this.  As Rodrigues gets caught up in what has happened to his predecessors, he is faced with the grueling matter of his own apostasy: he would NEVER have imagined that he could renounce the hive mind, turn against it, but torture, mind games, and all manner of provocation set him on a path that horribly, severely, tests his faith.       

So there are two points I’d like to make in this, my inaugural 2015 Hugo nominees post: first, that there’s something in the cultural air with regards to the idea of an entity made up of many organisms that are BOTH at the same time “independent” AND the organism itself (much more on this to come), and second, that my first recommendation in this series is the non-sci-fi Silence: a very well written, incredibly provocative story of what happens when your very core, the essence of what you are and what you believe, is ruthlessly questioned and demonized.  I highly recommend it.

- William Fuller

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Reviews: From the Inside Out

Counter-revolutionary. Bourgeois. Capitalist.

These synonyms for, among other things, "intellectual", were the real weapons behind the Cultural Revolution and rise of the Red Guards in mid-sixties China under Chairman Mao.
The Guards, young students inflamed with the fire of the People's Struggle, employed the full range of physical and psychological tortures to bring "reform" to what they viewed as a haughty old guard personified by those like their teachers, particularly those brightest training the higher school levels in humanities and sciences. Mao's thesis was that class struggle against both intellectuals and captains of industry was essential to making China "red from the inside out" - eliminating any trace of elitism within, and transmitting the resulting successes outside China to other countries. And that required "struggling", one by one, all of the intellectuals and other elites by transferring them to rural areas to do hard labor, and subjecting them to constant interrogation and browbeating sessions which frequently ended in death as factionalized and overzealous youth let their resentments boil over.

The Hugo nominee The Three Body Problem, by the popular Chinese author Liu Cixin and translated by Ken Liu, begins with a struggling session suffered by a physicist, Ye Zhetai, which takes his life as his daughter looks on. And his daughter Ye Wenjie is also a target for "rehabilitation", having already produced research on radio telescope technology and thus being branded "intellectual". She is saved, however, by a pressing need at a secret hilltop facility called Red Coast, which may or may not be engaged on microwave weaponry research, but which definitely has both high-powered radio transmitters and receivers. If she is willing to spend the remainder of her life doing what they ask her to do at Red Coast, she won't have to be "struggled".

In the course of spinning out their story the Lius make impressive inroads fleshing out their characters and circumstances, establishing philosophical ground between them early as in the case of this much-bookmarked (on Amazon) observation by Ye Wenjie:

It was impossible to expect a moral awakening from humankind itself, just like it was impossible to expect humans to lift off the earth by pulling up on their own hair. To achieve moral awakening required a force outside the human race.

It would be easy to imagine someone having suffered the depredations of the Cultural Revolution coming to a conclusion like this, particularly given the scale of its tragic results. The seeming inevitability of the factionalization which was really no different than high school cliques - but armed with frightening political power - coupled with the brutal purge of tens of thousands of Red Guards by state police after the Guards careened out of control, the wasting of a generation's leadership by tasking them with denuding the country's forests and digging their latrines, the second round of mass starvation which was an echo of the Great Leap Forward which decimated the generation before... just the bare possibility that these events and trends represented the inevitable way of the world would be enough for many of those who were young in 1966 to adopt a very cynical view.

As to the "force outside the human race" - this is all tied up in spoilers that don't belong here, but on the way to the last page is a weaponized proton, for instance, as one plot device. The description of the creation of the proton gets the book a little bogged down in detail that would serve as credentials to the sci-geek set, but may well look like trying too hard to other readers. There is, however, an envisioning of a massive human computer in the von Neumann era which is a nice piece of fictional creativity, sort of a less whimsical variant on the cannonade of babies Stanislaw Lem used in his Cyberiad. And reminiscent of Ready Player One, there's a central network game - but one which may or not be a game - involving a Neal Stephenson-esque  virtual convocation of great scientists.

In balance, this is a nicely constructed plot, using useful and not too well-worn devices - even a hard-boiled cop! - to wind things up in a fairly satisfying way. And to mitigate the bleakness of the "moral awakening" quote above, the author offers his optimism in an afterword for American readers:

Every era puts invisible shackles on those who have lived through it... [sci-fi can] turn what in our reality is evil and dark into what is righteous...let's turn the kindness we show toward the stars to members of the human race...

And, as readers will see as well in the story, Liu turns the 1966 inside-out to an outside-in proposition.

- Spencer Kimball

Don't miss another review of this book by William Fuller.